Hans Stecher, who was the last of Trinidad's Jewish World War Two escapees, has died at home at the age of 90.Arriving with his mother and father in 1938 at age 15, Stecher escaped Austria a year before the outbreak of war and the horror of the Holocaust, which killed six million of Europe's Jews.
Soon after Britain declared war on Hitler's Germany in 1939–after Hitler had annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia and then invaded Poland–the German and Austrian Jews who had arrived in Trinidad (including the Stecher family) were rounded up by military police and interned in British prisoner-of-war camps down the islands. Later they were moved to an internment camp, specially built at what is now Federation Park.
Germans and Austrians were considered the enemy by the British and with suspicions abounding of international Nazi spy networks, British-ruled T&T took no chances.They locked up anybody who held those passports, regardless of the fact that they were Jewish refugees.Back home, some of Stecher's extended family became victims of the Holocaust.
In 1945 he founded the Stechers jewelry store of which there are now ten branches nationwide. He also was noted for being the longest-standing member of the Rotary Club of T&T, having joined in 1957.A death notice in the T&T Guardian said he was president of T&T's Jewish Society.His funeral takes place today from 9.30 am at Lions Civic Centre, Port-of-Spain. He will be buried at the Bet Olam Jewish section of Mucurapo cemetery at 2.30 pm, alongside his parents, wife and aunt.
Stecher's wish was to have his rites delivered by a reformed rabbi, since he was not an orthodox Jew, but T&T does not have any synagogues or rabbis.At short notice, finding a reform rabbi from abroad was difficult. Instead, Adam Zilber, an Israeli who officiated at the burial of Hans' wife, Sheila, will preside and perform the ceremony according to reform Jewish rites.Members of T&T's small Jewish community, numbering no more than 50, paid respects to Stecher.
Barbara Malins-Smith, the Guyanese-born Israel honorary consul, told the T&T Guardian:"I first met Hans Stecher in 1966 when, as a young girl, I was the house guest for Carnival of him and his beloved wife, Sheila. They were visited that year by his cousin Charles Stecher, a survivor of the Holocaust whom Hans reconnected with in the early 50s."
"Hans has served his adopted country with distinction, in tourism as chair of the Tourist Board, as Chamber of Commerce president and as longest-serving Rotarian.
"It was through his efforts that extended shop opening hours became a reality in T&T. He was also honorary consul for Austria."She described him as a "walking encyclopaedia," knowledgeable on everything from architecture to languages and geology."He was the most gracious man I ever knew and we have lost a treasure. It is the end of an era," she added.
Life-long friend Jean-Paul Simonet described Stecher as "a man who was passionate about life and travel, had a wealth of knowledge and loved to share. He was wise, kind, a great leader and a loyal friend. A true renaissance man."Nicholas Jagdeo, a young member of Trinidad's Jewish community, described Stecher on Facebook as a "patriarch of the Jewish community who inculcated within me a love for Trinidadian Jewry and showed me the importance of fighting to keep our tiny community together."
Speaking to the T&T Guardian, Jagdeo added: "Hans was 60 years my senior but he was my friend.
"When I returned to Trinidad from Israel in 2009 I began to regard him as a second grandpa.
"Hans shared with me many stories of his long and varied life but the one which stands out to me the most, even more than the adventures he had escaping Nazi persecution, is the story of how he met his wife Sheila."
He explained: "Sheila walked into his Stechers store on Frederick Street and asked him if they had a particular amber necklace. Hans didn't have it but he searched high and low and sourced it.
"A week later, when she returned, he presented it to her and with a confident smile asked her on a date. Hans loved Sheila so much, it was in everything he was.
"We talked about the arts, business, literature, sciences, travelling, religion and Judaism but there was nothing he was more passionate about than Sheila, who passed away in August of 2010 in Mykonos, Greece, while they were on vacation."
Marianna Collimore, who passed away at the end of 2010, was the second last Jewish escapee from Nazi Europe.
It was Stecher's wish that his collection of Jewish memorabilia should be donated to the University of the West Indies.