Caribbean Genealogy Library class aims to help Virgin Islanders learn more about Jewish ancestors


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ST. THOMAS - It may be surprising, but many prominent St. Thomas families - Robles, Lindo, Benjamin, Hoheb, Monsanto, Maduro, Isaac, Sasso, Gabriel - have Jewish ancestors who came to the islands while escaping persecution.

To help people interested in researching their family trees and finding out more about where they came from, the Caribbean Genealogy Library is hosting the free workshop, "Tracing your Jewish Roots," 2 p.m. Sunday.

The workshop will focus on the Sephardic Jewish families of St. Thomas and their Caribbean migration.

Volunteer librarian Rob Upson will showcase the resources available at the library to help anyone interested in genealogy learn a little more about their past. The workshop will take about an hour, he said.

Upson said the library recently has acquired several rare books, rounding out the collection to be one of the most complete outside of private collections.

"We have all the primary sources. We have them all," he said.

Books, microfilms, local family trees and other resources are available at the nonprofit library.

Isaac Emmanuel's "Precious Stones of the Jews in Curacao" and the two volume "History of the Jews of the Netherlands Antilles" provide significant insight into the Jewish families who immigrated to the Danish West Indies, Upson said.

"We will also explore the Jewish cemetery records in the Maria Smith database and the Elisabeth Sharp Jewish family tree research. Additional books, periodicals and online resources will be highlighted," Upson said.

The Jewish migration began under the Spanish Inquisition in the 1500s, where many fled to the Netherlands for protection. From there, some migrated to the Dutch islands in the Caribbean, primarily Curacao, and throughout the Caribbean region.

"Some of the people in the Virgin Islands probably could take the path back to Curacao, back to the Netherlands, and back to Spain," Upson said.

When the British seized St. Eustatius in 1781, 30 Jewish merchants were taken to St. Kitts and some to Antigua, forced to leave their wives and children behind. Most returned to St. Eustatius after the French liberated the island nine months later, but many of those Jewish families later emigrated to St. Thomas.

The first temple on St. Thomas was built in the 1790s, and the Jewish population thrived for many generations.

However, by the start of the 20th century, many Jewish families began to leave the territory.

"The final piece is prior to transfer, the economy started going down in St. Thomas and Jewish families started moving out," Upson said.

By 1917, the St. Thomas Synagogue membership had decreased to less than 75.

"But the names are still here," Upson said.

Caribbean Genealogy Library's mission is to identify, preserve and provide access to Caribbean genealogy, history and cultural heritage information resources for the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean.

The library's resources include access to Ancestry.com, funeral booklets, census records dating back to 1841, church and probate records, immigration records, a complete St. Thomas-St. John cemetery database and unique and rare books.

For more information, contact the library at 714-2136, or email caribgenlibrary@gmail.com.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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