Historic Jewish cemetery fading away in the Caribbean

willemstad, curaçao  |  Headstones are pockmarked, their inscriptions faded. Stone slabs that have covered tombs for centuries are crumbling. White marble has turned gray, likely from the acrid smoke that spews from a nearby oil refinery.

One of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the Western Hemisphere, Beth Haim on the island of Curaçao is slowly fading in the Caribbean sun.

Beth Haim was established in the 17th century and is considered an important landmark on this sparsely populated island of some 150,000 people north of Venezuela.

With its lavish monuments and multilingual epitaphs, Curaçao’s cemetery helps tell the little-known history of Jews in the Caribbean who fled Spain and Portugal to escape the Inquisition. Many of the exiles first found refuge in the Netherlands, with their descendants later settling in this former Dutch colony, now a highly diverse society and a semiautonomous part of the Netherlands.

The 17th-century Beth Haim cemetery is adjacent to the Isla oil refinery near historic Willemstad, Curaçao. photo/ap-karen attiah

But the landmark is in danger. The steady erosion, likely intensified by the proximity of the antiquated refinery, is now considered unstoppable, said Rene Maduro, president of the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, which owns and maintains the cemetery.

“Believe me, I wish there was something we could do to protect the cemetery,” said Maduro, whose family came to Curaçao in the 1600s and who has as many as 100 ancestors buried in Beth Haim. “It is beyond the point of repair.”

The Curaçao cemetery is among several at-risk burial sites that “preserve the cultural, ethnic, biographical and religious history” of Jews in the Caribbean, said Rachel Frankel, a New York architect who has studied and documented historic Jewish sites throughout the Americas, including burial grounds in Jamaica and Suriname.

The Curaçao congregation is considering preserving the cemetery electronically by setting up a website with records and photos, Maduro said. The plan for a digital memorial is still in development, but a lower-tech effort has put replicas of 10 of the most ornate headstones on display at the Jewish Historical Museum in the capital of Willemstad.

Besides being sacred sites, Frankel said, the cemeteries help document the Caribbean migration of Sephardic Jews whose forefathers fled or were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula during the Inquisition, and Ashkenazi Jews who later left central and eastern Europe to seek their fortunes in the New World. Along with Curaçao and Jamaica, large populations of Jews were once found on the smaller Dutch island of St. Eustatius, as well as St. Thomas and Barbados.

On some islands, colonial Jews numbered in the hundreds, and other locations in the thousands, said Frankel. By the mid-20th century, most of the congregations had declined, but the cemeteries remained.

The Jewish community in Curaçao dates to the 1650s, with the arrival of Sephardic Jews from Amsterdam who previously had fled Spain and Portugal. At its peak, in the late 1700s, the Jewish community on the island numbered about 2,000.

They established the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, billed as the oldest continually operating synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, as well as Beth Haim cemetery. The synagogue today has about 350 members, of which only about 200 actually live on Curaçao. An Orthodox synagogue in another part of Willemstad

has a membership of about 60 families.

The cemetery occupies 10 acres on the outskirts of Willemstad. The oldest confirmed inscription is from 1668. Congregants have determined that more than 5,000 are buried there, but only a third of the inscriptions are legible in a mix of languages that includes Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and Hebrew.

Ivan Becher, president of the Shaarek Tsedek synagogue in Willemstad, said his grandfather was among the last to be buried in Beth Haim nearly 60 years ago.

Congregants have consulted with experts from the Netherlands and the United States on possible solutions to halt erosion, but the options were too expensive and considered long shots at best.

Frankel, the New York architect, said preservation also has proved difficult for other historic cemeteries in the Caribbean that no longer receive burials and have dwindling populations of Jewish heirs to care for them.

“In places where pollutants are not a problem, there are other challenges,” she said. “Vegetation grows fast and furious in the subtropical climate. And as Caribbean cities become more densely populated, cemeteries sometimes become garbage dumps.”

But appreciation of the cemeteries as historic sites has grown over the past two decades, Frankel said, with local governments, academics and congregants working together to document and preserve them while also making them accessible to the public. The Curaçao cemetery occasionally is visited by tourists from cruise ships stopping at historic downtown Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 Maduro hopes future visitors will be able to view the cemetery virtually, on the hoped-for website.

“Not that we can preserve it, but we are trying to make it easier for people to know what’s there and who is buried there,” he said.

AP reporter Anita Snow contributed to this report.