We Didn’t Know We Were Jewish!

Oldest Jewish Cemetery in Western Hemisphere – Curacao, Netherland Antilles.

Recently I have been researching a family with very strong Central and South American roots, and a Latin last name. Researching Spanish families is a little difficult, because the person carries both their mother and father’s last name in the surname. For example, if the father is Juan Martinez and the mother is Maria de Silva, the child Gabriel, would carry the father’s – then mother’s surname – Gabriel Martinez de Silva. Also the mother keeps her “maiden” name, which is a combination of her father and mother. If Maria’s father is Julio de Silva and her mother is Angelina Sousa, Maria’s full name is Maria de Silva Sousa, who married Juan Martinez.

The problem arises with lack of consistency in records and where records are Anglicized. Sometimes the Spanish rules are followed, and sometimes the Anglo rules, but most times it is a combination, which keeps you guessing which surname is correct.

But back to the Jewish Cemetery…

The paternal grandfather of this family was born in Colombia and died in Panama. The grandmother was from an Italian father, but born in Costa Rica and died in Costa Rica. The paternal great grandfather was born in Colombia and died in Curacao, Netherlands Antilles. As I am compiling passenger ship records and the like, I find a burial record for the great grandfather in the Beit Haim Berg Altena Cemetery, Curacao, a Jewish Cemetery! It is called Cemetery #2, or the overflow of Shaarei Tsedek Cemetery.

Of course I think there has to be a mistake, because although I was not sure of the family’s faith, being deeply rooted in Spanish culture, I had assumed their religion must be Catholic. As I research deeper, I find previous generations also buried in this Jewish Cemetery in Curacao. This prompts me to “dig into” this cemetery, and I learn that it is from 1659! Yes, this is the time of Pirates and after Conquistadors! How did a Jewish colony get to the New World then, and why were they in Curacao, off the coast of Venezuela?

Once again I turn to the records on the family I am researching and come across several documents stating that their Nationality is Dutch and their Race is Hebrew. They speak Spanish, Dutch, and English. History resources fill in the details of the Sephardic Jews, who sought refuge from Spain and Portugal at the time of the Spanish Inquisitions, and fled to Amsterdam. When oppression began to increase in Amsterdam, they fled to the Dutch West Indies, and settled in Curacao, Netherlands Antilles.

When I report these findings to my client, I assume he knew of this strong Jewish heritage and had not mentioned it. The client is a Protestant Christian and had heard “rumors” that back in Amsterdam, hundreds of years ago, they may have had remote Jewish connections, but he was surprised that it was as near as his great grandfather, who died in 1906.

This family was certainly an interesting one, and taught me never again to assume religion based on culture. I also learned about a part of history I was completely unaware of and was again reminded to keep an open mind while researching.