In 1932, three Polish Jews, Moses Altman, his niece, Dina Mass, and her husband, Moses Mass, arrived in Barbados looking for refuge from the harsh economic conditions and anti-Semitism in Europe. Moses Altman’s wife and children (Henry, Simon, Edna (Pillersdorf), Doris (Kaplan) and Mary (Speisman) arrived not long after and were followed by the families of men such as Jacob Bernstein, Baruch Korn, Solomon Schor, Yehudah Brzozek, Aaron Karp, Bernard Konigsberg, Jacob Zierler, Louis Speisman, Paltiel Pasternak, and Harry Burak.
These émigré families were Ashkenazi Jews, ones whose ancestors had, post 70AD, settled in central and eastern Europe (Germany, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia). In contrast, those that settled in Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean countries, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia are known as Sephardi Jews.
The two groups have different customs, cuisines, and speak many different languages but share a common ancestry and religion. The difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews is similar to the difference between Protestant and Catholic denominations, both branches of the same faith but with different traditions and liturgies.
Sephardi Jews had a 300-year history in Barbados. They came to the island primarily from Brazil, shortly after its settlement in 1627; were very involved in helping the first planters establish the sugar industry; and in 1654 were responsible for building the Nidhe Israel (the Scattered of Israel) Synagogue in Bridgetown. The last member of their community died in 1934, just two years after the arrival of the first Ashkenazim.
Most of the Ashkenazi men who arrived in 1932 spoke little or no English and had to find a way of making a living. Peddling (selling small, every day, household necessities, door to door) provided a way of doing this and was the occupation that gave most of them their start in business.
By 1940, there was a full-fledged community of forty Ashkenazi Jewish families on the island. Moses Altman created a place to worship in his home (“Macabee”) on Harts Gap and the community regularly gathered there for Friday evening and High Holiday services. Later, a Sunday school was started for the children, and money was raised in support of the fledgling State of Israel. Members of the community were determined that Judaism would be perpetuated in whatever ways possible.
The Kreindler family in Barbados
My father, Joseph Kreindler, arrived in Barbados in 1934. He had been born in Austria in 1910, the youngest of his parents’ eight children. When World War I broke out in 1914, my grandfather was drafted into the Austrian army and my grandmother took the family to safety in Vienna where they remained until the War ended in 1918.
In 1930 my father left Europe intending to join his two older brothers in New York. However, when he got to the port of Hamburg, Germany, he discovered the US was no longer accepting immigrants from Europe, so he boarded a ship bound for Curaçao in the Dutch West Indies.
In Curaçao, he eked out a living as a peddler but later heard there were better opportunities on neighbouring Aruba and eventually got a job there in the commissary of the Lago Oil Refinery. There, he met a Bajan by the name of Wilkie who told him about Barbados and what a wonderful place it was. He promptly quit his job, returned to Curaçao, and booked a passage to Barbados. On board the ship he realized he had not thought to ask Wilkie why he was in Aruba if life in Barbados was so wonderful! What if Wilkie had sold him a bill of goods? What if all his talk about the island’s beautiful beaches, attractive women, and good-natured people was just talk?
On arrival in Bridgetown, Joe inquired about inexpensive accommodation, took a bus to the Ocean View Hotel in Hastings, and paid $4 for room and board for a week. His eagerness to see the island was tempered by the knowledge that he had very little money and needed to earn some soon. He had learned to peddle in Curaçao and knew he could do it again if he could find appropriate merchandise. In Bridgetown, he purchased some straight pins, sewing needles, spools of thread and combs in one establishment, and some ribbon, lace, and dish towels in another. He packed everything into the battered brown suitcase that had accompanied him from Europe and started walking in the direction of Fontabelle, knocking on doors along the way.
Most homeowners were surprised to see him, never having previously encountered a peddler and his highly accented English made him something of an oddity. Even so, most of them greeted him cordially and were interested in seeing what he had to sell. Before long he made his first sale and breathed a sigh of relief! Within months he had saved enough to buy a second-hand bicycle with a carrier rack that allowed him to extend his range to Black Rock and beyond.
By 1936 Joe’s English had improved and he was making a living peddling. His customers generally treated him respectfully and seldom defaulted on their obligations to pay for goods purchased.
Meanwhile 2,000 miles away in Guatemala, Central America, Joseph Gerstenhaber and his wife, Bertha, recent immigrants from Joe’s hometown in Austria, were also struggling to get established. After failing at several business ventures, Joseph was running out of options when a friend suggested he open a bakery and offered to introduce him to a baker who was willing to teach him the business. Lacking a viable alternative, he decided to give it a try. Baking turned out to be very hard work and the hours were brutal, but the couple had three children to support and no one to turn to for help.
In 1935 fortune smiled on them. Joseph won $2,000 in a lottery, and he and Bertha breathed a sigh of relief. The following year, however, they were dismayed to discover that the son of the country’s Catholic Minister of War was showing an interest in their 15-year-old daughter, Sara. Being observant Jews, they would not entertain the idea of her marrying a non-Jew and realized the only way not to offend the young man and his family was to leave Guatemala.
Sara was upset by her parents’ decision. She didn’t want to leave her many girlfriends and although she hardly knew the young man, she found his attention exciting. At the same time, she could not argue with her parents’ conviction that the gifts the boy’s mother had started sending her would probably soon lead to a marriage proposal.
Fortunately, Bertha and Joseph knew a couple of Jewish families who had left Europe and settled in Barbados. They purchased tickets on the next ship headed there and arrived in Bridgetown in May 1936. Within days, one of their friends had introduced Sara to Joe Kreindler and they were soon seeing each other regularly.
At 26, Joe was anxious to find a wife and start a family. On the other hand, marriage was probably the last thing 15-year-old Sara had anticipated when she arrived on the island. Her parents had also not come there expecting to marry her off but at the same time they were realists and did not discourage it, especially given the alternative in Guatemala. Although they were concerned about the 11-year age difference they had heard only positive things about Joe and this helped set their minds at ease.
After a four-month courtship, Joe and Sara were married in September 1936. They lived in a rented a house on River Road in Bridgetown and Joe hired a tutor to teach Sara English.
Although Joe continued peddling, he was anxious to open his own store, but needed capital and did not qualify for a conventional bank loan. He approached Harcourt Carter, a Bajan whom he had met while peddling and who had built a successful optical business in Bridgetown. After hearing Joe’s dilemma, Carter pointed to the safe in the corner of his office and told him, “Joe, take as much money as you need!” With Carter’s support, Joe opened the “Jubilee Store” on High Street about 1936, very close to Carter’s optical business.
Joe and Sara had four children, Peggy, b.1937, Simon (me) b. 1940, Maurice b. 1947, and Jerry b. 1954.
During the years of World War II business was very challenging for all retailers in Bridgetown but after it ended, things gradually improved and Joe opened a larger store, “The Modern Dress Shoppe”, on Broad Street. Sara joined him there and together they built a very successful enterprise that catered not just to locals but also to the growing tourist industry.
After my siblings and I finished school and left the island, our parents moved to Canada to be with us. My mother Sara died in Toronto in 1994 and my father Joe died there two years later.
The book : Peddlers All: Stories of the First Ashkenazi Jewish Settlers in Barbados was assembled as a tribute to the forty founding members of the Barbados Jewish Community 1931 to 1951.
A plaque with their names can be found at the Sha’are Zedek Synagogue, Rockley New Road, Christ Church, Barbados.
About the author – Simon Kreindler
Simon Kreindler was born and grew up in Barbados.
He is the author of: Peddlers All: Stories of the First Ashkenazi Jewish Settlers in Barbados.
After graduating from The Lodge School in 1957, Simon studied marine biology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada then entered medical school there in 1961. After completing post-graduate training in adult and child psychiatry at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas in the United States in 1971, Simon, his wife, Ruby, and their children returned to Canada.
They settled in Toronto where Simon was in private practice for 48 years before retiring in 2019.
Simon and Ruby have three children and eight grandchildren, all of them living in Toronto.
In 2013, a long-standing interest in family history led to Simon writing a memoir for his children and grandchildren incorporating his years of genealogy research. Writing the story of his parent’s journey from pre World War II Europe to Barbados inspired him to record the equally fascinating stories of their Ashkenazi Jewish contemporaries on the island as well as the stories of their children who had the good fortune to grow up there, which led to: Peddlers All: Stories of the First Ashkenazi Jewish Settlers in Barbados published in 2017.
Simon now fills his time reading, writing, spending time with his children and grandchildren, and whenever he can escaping Canada for the warmth and beauty of Barbados.
Peddlers All: Stories of the First Ashkenazi Jewish Settlers in Barbados was privately published in 2017. A revised version can now be purchased direct from Amazon.
The book is 466 pages and is extensively illustrated with photographs of many of the forty founding Jewish families who settled in Barbados in the 1930s to 1950s.
Peddlers All – documents the stories of these determined men and women as well as the stories of their children who had the good fortune to grow up in a “free country” and is an important chapter in Barbados’ history and the history of the Jewish diaspora.
The book begins with a review of Barbados’ Sephardic Jewish past (1650 – 1934) and the Ashkenazi community’s efforts to reclaim the iconic Nidhe Israel Synagogue and the cemetery which the Sephardim left behind.
Stories of the early Ashkenazi settlers and their children, most of them like myself who were born on island, form the centrepiece of the recorded stories. Stories of Jewish families who subsequently came to Barbados to start businesses or to retire are also included.
The book concludes with a brief discussion of the community’s current challenge of maintaining a Jewish community in the face of emigration and increasing assimilation.
The stories of the forty Founding Members is written mostly by their children.
Many of the stories are compelling.
Some are sad and others light-hearted but almost all are inspiring.
Most are coloured by the Holocaust and its impact on those who left family behind in Europe.
Many of the fortunate ones who made it to Barbados had to grapple with survivor guilt. It is testament to their resilience that they carried on and built new lives for their children and themselves.
To the generation of my contemporaries who grew up on the island, I extend a hearty Yasher Koach (Thank You).
The stories are a tribute to your parents and grandparents .Taken from: Simon Kreindler – Peddlers All: Stories of the First Ashkenazi Jewish Settlers in Barbados – Chapter 4: Stories of the Early Ashkenazi Families.
Peddlers All: Stories of the first Ashkenazi Jewish Settlers in Barbados is a truly rich and fascinating collection of personal and family tales of dedication, hard work, spirituality and loyalties. It tells deeply touching stories of hard work, love and dedication by settlers working to establish a secure future for their children. Many in the book have made their mark – the Altmans, Bernsteins, Kreindlers, Orans, Pillersdorfs, Steinboks and so many more have made great contributions to the development of Barbados, in business, realty, preservation, industry.Sir Henry Fraser – The Barbados Advocate, Things that Matter – 7th October 2018
Peddlers All: Stories of the First Ashkenazi Jewish Settlers in Barbados can be purchased directly from Amazon.
Podcaster Ralph Benmergui of The Canadian Jewish News interviews Simon Kreindler: “Born in Barbados, Simon Kreindler spent years chronicling the island’s Jewish history” – 14th June 2022.