Photo Credit: Deborah Katz
Jewish refugees training to become farm workers, early 1940s, near La Paz, Bolivia.

Last week marked 80 years since World War II began. In the years immediately preceding and following the war’s outbreak, many European Jews looked to escape to Palestine and the United States. Some, however, explored more unusual destinations, including Bolivia, where approximately 20,000 Jewish refugees found safety in 1938-1941.

Among these refugees were the Austrian parents of Leo Spitzer, an emeritus professor of history who taught at Dartmouth College for 40 years.

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“After Austria became part of Nazi Germany in 1938, my mother’s youngest sister, Ella, fled Vienna and illegally crossed the border into Switzerland,” he told The Jewish Press. “Some months later, her parents – my maternal grandparents – also fled to Switzerland. They were caught by Swiss authorities and were on the verge of being sent back to Nazi-controlled Austria – which, for so many, meant certain death.

“Ella found this out and desperately tried to help them. And, by great chance, at this very despairing moment, Ella received a letter from a man with whom she had been involved romantically in Vienna and had managed to immigrate to Bolivia. He acquired a number of Bolivian entry visas and offered Ella use of these visas for her parents and other close relatives – but only on the condition that she, too, come to Bolivia and marry him….

“She chose to act like a dutiful daughter. … In effect, Ella sold herself in order to secure immigration visas to help my family get to Bolivia. Unfortunately, however, she was extremely unhappy in her marriage…which eventually led her to commit suicide.”

In the late 1930s, Bolivia’s president, German Busch, desperately sought ways to revitalize his country’s economy. Mauricio (Moritz) Hochschild – a Jewish business tycoon and a friend of the president – convinced Busch that Jewish refugees could be of help in this effort.

Busch was assassinated on August 23, 1939, but approximately 9,000 Jewish refugees arrived in Bolivia in 1939, and the following year, an additional 12,000 did.

“My parents sailed from Genoa, Italy, to South America together with my parental grandparents aboard an Italian ship named Virgilio. During the voyage, my grandfather Leopold died. The captain of the ship wanted to bury my grandfather at sea but according to Jewish law that cannot be done. So one of the passengers on the ship managed to convince the captain to land at the port of Caracas, Venezuela, and allow him to be buried there.”

Leo Spitzer and other children on an outing in Bolivia.

Jewish refugees en route to Bolivia docked in Arica, Chile, and from there were taken by a train known as the “Express Judio” (Jewish Express) to La Paz, the capital city of Bolivia and the highest capital city the world – approximately 14,000 feet above sea level.

The majority of immigrants lived in La Paz and Cochabamba, while others lived in Oruro, Sucre, Potosi, Santa Cruz, and Tarija.

“Upon arrival, the refugees attempted to adjust and to carve a life for themselves. Some refugees worked in mining towns, others in agriculture. Many refugees tried to establish businesses such as restaurants or small retail stores. My father found a job quite quickly as a plumber and electrician. My maternal grandmother began to cook for people. My maternal grandfather became a house painter.”

The majority of Jewish refugees were businessmen while 25 percent were engaged in professions. Many were employed in Hochschild’s mining business. Hochschild was one Bolivia three tin barons and is credited with helping save 9,000 Jewish lives. He is sometimes referred to as the “Bolivian Schinder.”

He founded two organizations to help the refugees: SOPRO (the Society for the Protection of Israeli Immigrants) and SOCOBO (Colonization Society of Bolivia). Through them (and with the assistance of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), he provided monetary assistance to refugees to help them get on their feet as well as clothing, dental work, and advice on immigration and legalization matters.

“The school that I attended was created by the Jewish community and called El Colegio Boliviano Israelita – The Israelite School. It was supported with funds from the Joint [Distribution Committee]. We studied secular subjects, including Bolivian history, and Jewish history and Hebrew.

“The school had a few hundred Jewish children attending the school during the war years that went from 1st grade until 6th grade. And the teachers were mainly refugee teachers together with a few Bolivian teachers who mainly taught us Bolivian history and Spanish literature.”

At a certain point, Bolivia’s government become discontent with Jewish refugees who had entered the country on agricultural visas but were working in commerce and industry instead.

“In the early 1940s, Germans and local supporters set off quite a lot of anti-Semitic propaganda against the immigrants. They said the immigrants were bringing in diseases and that they were money-grubbing thieves. Newspapers also made use of long-existing anti-Jewish Christian accusations about Jews as Christ killers.”

To prevent the propaganda from becoming worse, SOCOBO developed agricultural colonies in remote areas to resettle the Jews away from the cities. Hochschild hoped that the success of these colonies would lead to more Jews being permitted into Bolivia and influence neighboring countries like Peru and Chile to take in Jewish refugees. These colonies, however, did not ultimately flourish.

“My family lived in Bolivia from 1939-1950. Even though we lived a comfortable life, Bolivia was a hard country to live in for most of the refugees.… Bolivia was the least Europeanized out of the Latin American countries. It was difficult for my parents to adjust….

“Bolivia gave them economic freedom, but it never took them in socially or politically. They always felt like outsiders…. I left [to the United States] with my grandmother in early 1950 and my parents came eight months later.”

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