Monday, January 31, 2011

Hotel Bolivia: The Culture of Memory in a Refuge from Nazism by Leo Spitzer, 1998

"An evocative, thoughtful, and otherwise impressive combination of memoir, oral history, and reflection on the nature of memory by a child of Viennese Jews who immigrated in 1939 to the exotic, landlocked South American country." from Kirkus Review

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
        George 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)
Marek Ajke
Susana Goldbaum de Ajke
M.S. Aspis
Louisa Saperstein Badner
Aron Balbaryski
Jacabo Blankitny
Eduard and Trude Blumberg
Walter Blumenau
Otto Braun
Alfred Brecher
Ludwig Capauner
Alexander Deutsch
Stephen Fisch
Naftali Fischzang
Walter E. Fried
Salo Frischman
Max Gans
Susan Gara-Frei
Jaime Gottleib
Werner Guttentag
Eva Renata Guttentag
Enrique Ellinger (relative of Mauricio Hochschild)
Trude Hassberg
Otto and Gisi Helfer
Ilse Herz
Herman Hirsch
Moritz (Mauricio) Hochschild
Hans Homburger
Marcos Iberkleid
Heinz Jordan
Hans Jungstein
Fritz, Ernst, and Heinz Kalmar
Mia Kalmar
Alicia Kavlin
Walter and Stefi Kudelka
Graciela “Leli” Kudelka
Hans Kulka
Rosl Kupferstein
Heini and Liesl Lizczenko
F.D. Lucas
Heinz Markstein
Eva Markus
Julio Meier
Samuel Mejer
Heinrich Neumann
Josef Pasternak
H. Peiser
Heinz and Hanni Reigler Pinshower
Theresa Blau Rechnitzer
Lizi Rosenfeldt
Werner Schein
Egon Schwarz
Renata Schwarz
Werner Selo
Gunter and Susi Siemons
Andres Simon
Abel Solis
Max Sommer
Bruno Stroheim
Fiszel Szwerdszarf
Egon Taus
Ursula Lowenstein Taus
Erna Terrel
Alfredo Weinhaber
Guillermo Wiener
Lotte Weisz
Manfred Wihl

Places and Institutions
Rechnitz, Austria
Vienna, Austria
Le Paz, Bolivia
Buena Tierra Agricultural Colony, Bolivia
Cochabamba, Bolivia
Sucre, Bolivia
Comunidad Israelita, Bolivia
Circulo Israelita, Bolivia,
Escuela Boliviana-Israelita, Bolivia


  1. I was a little girl when we were in Oruro, my faher an Economist that run the family mines kept homes in Oruro and La Paz,I only played with family, but this day he came and asked my mother to take me with my nanny to play with a a little girl, she was maybe a year or 2 older, we went, I had never seen tea served in glasses, we have tea time, her name was Celine, we stayed a bit.
    Never saw them again, I asked my father when I was teen, who they were, he told be they were Jews that had come from a camp after the war, and he wanted to show them they were welcome.
    Even that I was maybe 3, I never forgot,I wonder what happend to them.
    The Jews that stayed in Bolivia, are Bolivians to the core.

  2. Thank you for posting that interesting memory. It was wonderful of your father to be so welcoming.

  3. This is an amazing and little known part of Jewish and Bolivian history. An incredible detail I checked out personally was that Klaus Barbie, who came to Bolivia in 1951,and, as recently revealed, was in the pay of the West German Secret Police,lived in the Jewish refugee community of "Buena Tierra", now known as Charrobamba, near the town of Coroico. Barbie was part of the Merex organization of Nazi officials in Latin America run by Reinhard Gehlen, head of the West German Secret Police.
    In June 17, 1980 he was part of the "cocaine coup" that took over the gov. of Bolivia.

  4. Anyone who goes to Wikipedia's entry on Klaus Barbie will see much of the above post corroborated. I don't know about his living in the refugee Jewish community. I'm not saying he didn't, but it certainly sounds unbelievably outrageous.

  5. It WAS unbelievably outrageous, but I went there twice to check it out, and found the location of the sawmill that Barbie managed. But remember that by that time nearly all of the Jewish families were gone. Only 9 left at the end of 1944. What was more outrageous was that Barbie was involved in every government of Bolivia from 1964 onward, and he and his friends actually took over the government of Bolivia in 1980. Want details, see the incredible book, The Big White Lie, by Michael Levine.
    By the way, the last of the original group in
    Charrobamba, Betty Hamburger, has built a charming tourist attraction at the old community site. There is still much to be seen.

  6. Hi, my name is Marie and I'm writing this for my friend Tina. Tina is looking for information regarding her maternal grandfather Otto Kafka. She only knows very little about him - he apparently came to Bolivia in the thirties from Austria/Hungary/Germany. He married Tina's grandmother who were spanish but born in Bolivia. They had three daughters. As far as she knows - her grandfather died when the daughters were quite small. There were rumors that he already had a family back home! If anyone knows where Tina can find more information we/she would very much appreciate your help.

    1. If you look in Bolivian Geneology and post the names, maybe somebody might know. It would help to know her name,Bolivians we do not loose our maiden names when we marry.

    2. Hello:
      I am the wife of Otto's grandson, Eric. I no nothing of another family, but am extremely interested to contact them and would be very pleased to hear from them. Please respond as soon as possible. We do know that he did much business in South America, import/export and steel.
      Lynev (& Eric) August

      P.S.: I also know that many others in the family would be pleased to be in touch.

    3. Hello:
      I am the wife of Otto's grandson, Eric. I no nothing of another family, but am extremely interested to contact them and would be very pleased to hear from them. Please respond as soon as possible. We do know that he did much business in South America, import/export and steel.
      Lynev (& Eric) August

      P.S.: I also know that many others in the family would be pleased to be in touch.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. Hello, Marie:
      You gave us NO POSSIBLE WAY to contact you or Tina. I clicked your profile but there's no contact info.
      If she is the granddaughter of the Otto Kafka that died in NY in 1939, then time is of essence. The best way to contact me is to look for my Facebook under Lynev August. We KNOW that Otto did business in S.A. If he is the same Otto, then Tina has MANY cousins since our Otto had six children.
      We have a portrait (painting) of Otto, who was the first cousin of the famed writer Franz Kafka. Otto was the person Franz used to create the rich uncle in his novel "Amerika".
      Lynev & Eric
      P.S.: We cannot help if we cannot contact you

  7. In La Paz when I was growing up my parents would take us to an Austrian Tea Room, there were several germans at one time or another, my father point me one in the group and told he is a nazi, and is sitting with German Jews.
    Everybody knew who was what, even now.
    A day after I arrive , everybody knows I am back.

  8. Loved this book. We are publishing it as an ebook in a few months from Plunkett Lake Press Ebooks of Life Writing -- a digital press that focuses on Central European and Jewish non-fiction

  9. That's terrific. It will get wider circulation. I'm truly amazed at the comments posted about this memoir on this site. It's almost the only book that's generated comments, and certainly more comments than any other.
    PS I'm going to look at Plunkett Lake Press's list.

    1. My mother's name is Henny Elba Goldstain-Golberg . She came to Bolivia during the Holucost . Married Raul Pinto . She had two children. She left them with this man in other words run away becouse he abused her. I was told by a family whom they new her( Arturo Buchman).Aparently she did suffer during the persecution of JEws .
      I'm 63 years old looking for her. If you could help me wich way to go and find her.

    2. Hello:
      I would be happy to help you for nothing. I have helped many loved ones find relatives after great lengths of time, and have had some success. Please contact me if you wish for assistance. Since this blog is over 3 years old, I have no idea if you ever got help. Search Facebook for my name and contact me.
      Lynev August

  10. I hope someone who reads your post will have an idea on how to find where your mother settled.