Monday, January 31, 2011
Hotel Bolivia: The Culture of Memory in a Refuge from Nazism by Leo Spitzer, 1998
Leo Spitzer, a historian, was born in Bolivia in 1939 shortly after his parents escaped from Vienna, Austria. This book is a combination of memoir and history, a fascinating and very informative portrait of a Jewish community that numbered more than 10,000 predominantly German and Austrian refugees right before and during World War II.
Spitzer’s first chapter, called “Desperate Departure,” is a concise, interesting and valuable historical survey of Austria and World War II which provides a rich context for the situation of Austria’s Jewish citizens. He demonstrates how difficult it was to get out: countries had quotas, there was much bureaucratic paperwork, and ports started closing. The author’s family ended up fleeing to Bolivia when his mother’s younger sister’s former boyfriend, who had managed to get to Bolivia, offered to get a visa for her and for her parents if she promised to marry him when she got there. Once she arrived in Bolivia, she applied for visas to bring more family members over.
Living in Bolivia was not easy for the new immigrants. Its population was mostly indigenous Indian. La Paz, the major city, was at an altitude of over 13,000 feet which made many of them sick. At lower altitudes the tropics were not hospitable either, and because getting from one place to another was difficult, smaller towns were isolated from each other. In addition, the Bolivian government was unstable and the refugees encountered some latent anti-Semitism.
But the refugees made a life for themselves there, recreating, as best they could, the European culture they had left behind. For example they opened coffee houses, bakeries, stores selling European style clothes, and held chamber music concerts and evenings of cabaret theater. Spitzer has wonderful memories of going to the Austrian Club with his parents each Sunday where they would socialize with other refugees, all speaking in German, and he would delight in having a “typical” Austrian meal. He also notes that the Austrian/German Jewish community established a community center to minister to their needs as well as a school, Escuela Boliviana-Israelita, where the author was a pupil. Teachers were refugees who taught a largely European-style curriculum.
Spitzer has an informative chapter called “Buena Tierra” the name of a doomed agricultural community that was funded partly by the American Joint Distribution Committee and partly by the mining tycoon and Bolivian resident Moritz (Maurizio) Hochschild. He explains in detail how the plan emerged, what its goals were, and why it failed.
Hotel Bolivia was the name many refugees called their new country. They clung to each other, didn’t really work at assimilating, and once the war was over most left. Some had family who had immigrated elsewhere and they went to join them; others saw better opportunities in countries that did not feel so “foreign.” In 1950 when Spitzer was 10 years old his family left for America where his mother’s sister had already settled. Despite the hard times they’d experienced living in Bolivia, when Spitzer conducted interviews with those who left, he found they all looked back at the years in Bolivia as good years. After all, they had escaped a terrible fate.
This memoir includes photos and reproductions of documents, a Preface and a Postscript by the author, chapter end notes supplying information about sources, a section called "Personal Sources" which is list of all of the people Spitzer interviewed, and an Index.
To read an article about the history of the Jewish refugees in Bolivia, click here.
Family on father’s side
Leopold Spitzer – married to Lena
Jeno (Eugene) Spitzer – son of Leopold and Lena; married to Rose
Leo Spitzer – son of Eugene and Rose; married to Marianne (Manon) Hirsch; author
Alexander, Oliver, Gabriel - children of Leo and Marianne
Elly Spitzer Shapiro – daughter of Eugene and Rose
Tony Spitzer – son of Eugene and Rose
Carl – son of Eugene and Rose
Mindy, Erik, Jessica - children of Leo Spitzer's siblings (not clear which child belongs to which parent)
Kathe Spiegler – Eugene’s half-sister
Gisi – Eugene’s half-sister; married to Leopold Kohn
Frieda Kohn Wolfinger – daughter of Gisi and Leopold
Rosi Kohn - daughter of Gisi and Leopold
Hilde Kohn – daughter of Gisi and Leopold
Ferry Kohn– son of Gisi and Leopold
Family on mother’s side
Nathan Wolfinger – married Bertha
Regi Wolfinger – married Ernst Frankl
Rose Wolfinger - married Jeno (Rose) Spitzer; parents of author (see above)
Julius Wolfinger - relationship not clear
Ella Wolfinger - relationship not clear
Sigi Schneider – Rose’s cousin
Ida – Rose’s aunt
Dolfi Schneider – Ida’s son
Friends, acquaintances, and sources
Simon Aizencang (Eisenzang)
Susana Goldbaum de Ajke
Louisa Saperstein Badner
Eduard and Trude Blumberg
Walter E. Fried
Eva Renata Guttentag
Enrique Ellinger (relative of Mauricio Hochschild)
Otto and Gisi Helfer
Moritz (Mauricio) Hochschild
Fritz, Ernst, and Heinz Kalmar
Walter and Stefi Kudelka
Graciela “Leli” Kudelka
Heini and Liesl Lizczenko
Heinz and Hanni Reigler Pinshower
Theresa Blau Rechnitzer
Gunter and Susi Siemons
Ursula Lowenstein Taus
Places and Institutions
Le Paz, Bolivia
Buena Tierra Agricultural Colony, Bolivia
Comunidad Israelita, Bolivia
Circulo Israelita, Bolivia,
Escuela Boliviana-Israelita, Bolivia