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Hotel Bolivia: A Latin-American life for Jews

September 26, 2011

In the late 1930s, when Hitler's Nazis began their waves of large-scale persecution in Central Europe, many thousands of persons sought to escape the turmoil and threats by fleeing to Latin America. The majority of them were Jews.

They went to Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico, to new lives and hopes.

But soon the doors were closed in those countries, and by November of 1938, after the Kristallnacht, Bolivia was one of the very few remaining places in the entire world that would accept Jewish refugees.

Two of those refugees were Eugene and Rose Spitzer, who managed to escape from Vienna, Austria, sailing to Bolivia in 1939 aboard the ship Virgilio.

Rose was pregnant at the time, and thus Leo Spitzer was born in Bolivia's capital, La Paz, later that year.

Approximately 20,000 Jews, mostly from Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia, went to Bolivia between 1938 and the end of the first year of World War II, Spitzer said, and another wave of Holocaust survivors and relatives of the first group followed after the war's conclusion.

Of course the refugees found that Bolivia was much different than home, whether home had been in Eastern or Western Europe. How did these refugees fit in to the Bolivian culture? What did the Bolivians think of them? What happened to the refugees after the war ended?

Spitzer, the Vernon Professor of History Emeritus at Dartmouth College, who will speak at "Memory & Countermemory: Memorialization of an Open Future," a research symposium Nov. 6-8 at ASU, delves into these questions in his book "Hotel Bolivia: The Culture of Memory in a Refuge From Nazism," published in 1998.

"Hotel Bolivia" also explores "the relationship between memory and cultural survival during an era of persecution and genocide," Spitzer wrote in the preface to the book.

The refugees had arrived in Bolivia with virtually nothing, and, while keeping up with news of the war from radio and newspapers, set about to find their place in the South American country.

"But ultimately, it was Austro-German Jewish bourgeois society, the cultural end product of nineteenth-century Jewish emancipation in Central Europe, that gave the new arrivals a model for emulation and a common locus for identification in their place of refuge," Spitzer wrote.

"Indeed, at the very time when that dynamic social and cultural amalgam was being ruthlessly and systematically destroyed by the Nazis, the Jewish refugees in Bolivia tried to recall and revive a version of it in a land thousands of miles from their home; in a country that offered them a haven, but in which many of them felt themselves as mere sojourners."

At the symposium, Spitzer, who currently is a visiting professor at the Oral History Research Center at Columbia University, and Marianne Hirsch, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, will present a paper titled "Connective Memories: Dreams, Mediascapes, Journeys of Return" which focuses on Czernowitz, a city, now in Ukraine, which once had a very large Jewish population and vibrant Jewish culture that was largely displaced during World War II.

"We are examining 'connective memory,'" Spitzer said. "We are arguing that what has been erased and forgotten about Jews in contemporary Chernivtsi (the present-day Ukrainian name for Czernowitz) takes new form first in the memories brought back 'to place' in so-called 'return journeys' made by Jewish survivors (or their descendants) and, even more fully, in the lively afterlife that Jewish Czernowitz displays on the Internet and World Wide Web."

The paper also "contrasts incipient and reluctant local efforts to memorialize this complicated and painful history with the memorial acts of Czernowitz survivors and their descendants scattered throughout the world," Spitzer added.

"We argue that memory has become 'connective' – generated by digital archives and practices and by the communities these foster on digital social networks. These communities elicit desires for renewed 'return' engagements to place that, in turn, continue to energize additional digital listserv and website interactivity."

Spitzer himself had a "homecoming" of sorts in 1978, when he took his mother, Rose, back to Austria to make her first visit since she escaped in 1939.

The first stop in Austria for Spitzer, his mother, his wife and his son, was Rechnitz, where the Spitzer family had lived for more than 100 years, until they fled from the Nazis.

In his hotel room the first night, Spitzer writes, he "spent a restless night, repeatedly awake, trying to imagine what happened in this town almost exactly forty years ago - thinking about the townspeople, and my grandparents, and the bitterness they must have felt to be turned upon and cast out by neighbors among whom they had grown up and lived their entire life."

In the morning, the Spitzers drove to the site of his grandparents' house. He wrote, "We stop there briefly, but only traces of a foundation and decaying wall are visible from the street, and I am suddenly reluctant to get out of the car, walk into the ruin, and make physical contact with these remains."

Spitzer recalled the stories he has heard about the weeks and months before his grandparents left their home for Bolivia, when Jewish men were forced to sweep the streets, his grandfather Leopold included.

"And as I look at the debris of the house and at the Herrengasse (the neighborhood), I wonder if this is the place where they made him do it. And my impulse to flee this spot - to get away from its haunting shadows -becomes indomitable."

Spitzer, of course, having been born in Bolivia, had no memory of Austria and felt no connection to Rechnitz as "home." He had no desire to reclaim the family property and move to Austria, he said.

After writing "Hotel Bolivia" and "Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory," he said he "came to appreciate even more the fact that Bolivia was one of the only countries that accepted large numbers of Jewish refugees after Hitler came to power.

"I would not be alive today if my parents had not managed to flee Austria (late in 1939 -- shortly before the outbreak of World War II) and to find refuge in Bolivia.

And as wrenching as it was for the Jews to leave home, Spitzer said, "I do think that if you were an Austrian Jew, persecuted by Nazis in Nazi Austria of 1938-9, you would definitely choose Bolivia!!!"