This year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Hashoah, will fall on April 8. Yom Hashoah is a call for all of us to remember the 6,000,000 Jews and other victims who were exterminated in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. It is a day to light candles and to recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the departed.
While Texas’ Jewish population is not as large as other cultural groups in Texas, the impact of Jewish heritage on the culture, arts, and enterprise of our state has been substantial. People of Jewish ancestry arrived with the first European explorers in the 1500s. They were conversos, Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism to avoid persecution from the Spanish government. After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, the newly formed government recognized Catholicism as the national religion and Judaism remained hidden. By 1830, just a small number of Jews who settled in Tejas practiced their faith openly.
During the Texas Revolution, Jews joined Anglo settlers and Tejanos in the fight for independence from Mexico. Some fought with James Fannin at Goliad and others fought at the Battle of San Jacinto. The constitution of the new Republic of Texas guaranteed religious freedom which attracted more Jewish settlers. Those of Jewish descent were also instrumental to the new republic by bringing settlers of other faiths to Texas. Henri Castro, a French diplomat of Portuguese-Jewish descent, was appointed consul general of Texas by President Sam Houston. Castro recruited families from Alsace, in northeastern France, to emigrate to Texas. Settling in the Medina River Valley in 1844, they established the city of Castroville.
After Texas became a state in 1846, the Jewish population continued to grow, with most moving into the state’s towns and cities to take advantage of commercial opportunities. Jewish-owned businesses excelled in the merchandising of clothing and jewelry with style and elegance. They played a significant role in transforming a rugged, frontier Texas to a more cosmopolitan state. Landmark stores were established by Jewish entrepreneurs such as Neiman-Marcus and Sanger in Dallas, Sakowitz in Houston, and Joskes in San Antonio. Texas cities and towns not only benefited from the availability of goods offered by Jewish merchants, but also in the business owners’ generous patronage of the fine arts and contributions to civic life. This legacy is seen in the myriad of opera houses and theatres that were built throughout the state and in the support of museums and the performing arts.
However, antisemitism has always been present. Judge Roy Bean’s first act as Justice of the Peace was to “shoot [...] up the saloon shack” of a Jewish competitor. During the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan became influential in Texas, and Klan publications regularly used anti-Semitic stereotypes to attack Jews as parasites only interested in extracting wealth from the community. But oftentimes, these attacks served to strengthen and unify the Jewish community. At the end of World War II in 1945, Jewish-Texans assisted the survivors of Nazi concentration camps in relocating to the United States and some played a part in the Zionist movement to re-establish Israel as a Jewish state.
Today, Jews remain a small proportion of the population of Texas, yet Jewish-Texans continue to play a prominent role in the heritage of the Lone Star State. In 2009, Joe Strauss of San Antonio was elected to serve as the first Jewish Speaker of the House. Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell Computer, is active in charity and civic affairs, including helping to fund the Dell Children’s Hospital in Austin. The Frontier Times Museum’s Texas Heroes Hall of Honor Inductee, Kinky Friedman, is known for his satirical band, the Texas Jewboys, and songs such as “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” and “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” a tribute to the victims of the Holocaust.
More powerful means to honor the memory of the Holocaust victims have been undertaken throughout Texas. Their memory is preserved today by memorials, institutes of study, and museums in cities such as Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.
The modulations of persecution and freedom signifies the breadth of Jewish history which are honored through rituals and remembrances. Holocaust Remembrance Day falls within the month of Nisan, the first month of the Hebrew calendar - the first month of Spring, the month when new crops begin to grow, a time to celebrate life and renewal.