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The Ashkenazi Jews of Curaçao

 

Arrival to Curacao

Ashkenazi Jews began immigrating to Curacao from Eastern Europe during the late 1920s. Like their brethren in the United States, they took up as peddlers before becoming shop owners just as prominent as their Sephardic neighbors. They kept their Jewish identity and formed a close-knit community.

Most of the Ashkenazi Jews of Curacao originate from the former Bessarabia, a border area between Romania and Russia, especially from Novoselitsa and Czernowitz in Bukovina, the main market towns for the surrounding rural areas. A few came from Poland.

From the 1880s onward large numbers of Jews fled Russia, Romania, and other Eastern European countries because of anti-Semitic government policies.

Between 1880 and 1993 about four million Eastern European Jews moved westward, primarily to the United States. The Ashkenazi Jews of Curacao were a later part of this migration. Because the United States had restricted the immigration quotas in 1921, 1925 and 1927, the Ashkenazi Jews aimed for various countries in Latin America.

Very few of the Ashkenazi Jews who ended up in Curacao had ever heard of Curacao. Most of them were on their way to other destinations in Latin America. The ships on which they traveled made Curacao a port of call mostly to tank oil, and they stayed on if they learned that the country of their destination was in political turmoil. Moreover, they understood that there was plenty of opportunity in Curacao. Some left after a while, but those who remained sent for relatives. To be a “Landsman” (from the same area) was of great importance. A newcomer was helped by the group; he was either hired as an employee or he received credit.

During the first years, the group consisted mainly of young men. There were no potential brides on the island. When one of the men had saved enough money to go back and visit relatives, he would sometimes be given the address of another member of the group in order to deliver presents and good wishes to this “Landsman’s” relatives. A few marriages resulted from this. But most of the wives came from Ashkenazi communities in Latin America, such as Argentina, Colombia, and Venezuela.

The Ashkenazi Jews who came to Curacao arrived with few economic resources, some were artisans but many had some background in retailing and most – coming from Eastern European border areas – were used to dealing with ethnic groups different than themselves. At first, the Ashkenazi Jews subsisted by buying goods from Sephardic wholesalers and then peddling them throughout the rural areas of Curacao. In the early years, they would carry the goods on their backs, or pay a local boy to carry part of the load and travel on foot for days. Later some transported goods by using carts – first, without a mule, then with a mule. They called themselves knockers (in Dutch kloppers) after the Yiddish word for the knock on the door when they tried to sell their wares or collect money. Finally, they stopped peddling altogether, selling first out of small stores on the back streets and then in lager stores on major streets.

With low taxes and little competition during the first two to three decades of Ashkenazi settlement, they were able to prosper – even during the economic depression of the 1930s and although the Ashkenazi Jews came from humble beginnings and started with very little, their businesses often became very profitable. They stopped relying on their Sephardic wholesaler companions and began to import goods directly. As sellers of goods and employers, Ashkenazi Jews became increasingly visible to the general Curacaoan population.