Commentary Magazine


Ecuador: Eight Years on Ararat:
The Story of a South American Haven

The family of Ecuadorians who in 1938 invited me to spend Christmas with them were surprised when I rose to leave after dinner instead of waiting to go with them to the misa de gallo (Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve).

“I suppose you know I am a Jew,” I explained.

“But what does that matter?” my host replied. “Jew or Christian, we are all Catholics, aren’t we?”

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In 1938 the rather melancholy inhabitants of Quito—that paradoxical place, which, although on the Equator, is surrounded by snowy peaks—knew very little about Jews. Very few Jews had found their way into this hidden spot in the Andes, 9,348 feet above sea-level, the second-highest capital in the world. Now and again, perhaps, there had been a Jewish engineer, chemist, or peddler. In Quito Judío didn’t mean Jew. A Judío was a man who charged exorbitant interest or who sold merchandise at very high profit. The term referred to neither a nation, a race, nor a religion. The papers carried stories about the Jew-baiting in Germany, but those Jews were as distant and abstract as Hindus or Malays.

Then came the Anschluss, Munich, and November 10, 1938. It was the Flood. As the water rose, thousands began to flee. About three thousand managed to reach Ararat. This Ararat lay between two chains of the Andes and was called Pichincha. At its base lay an idyllic town with colonial lanes, Indian carriers, fierce noonday suns, dank nights: San Francisco de Quito.

They came in dribbles. Each wave tossed a few ashore. They were not all business men, as was sometimes the case in other South American countries. They were doctors and engineers, painters and musicians, journalists and technicians, industrialists and chemists, university professors, students, actors, artisans, cooks. Most of them spoke German, but some spoke Czech, others Hungarian, Polish, Rumanian, Italian. Very few knew Yiddish. These newcomers took in the twisted lanes, the cobblestones, the barefooted Indios, the dusty ponchos, and although they didn’t feel homesick their minds returned to the past. They couldn’t help making comparisons. Every other word was “over there” or “in Europe.”

There have never been many gringos in Ecuador. They have always been treated with respect, no matter what their nationality, and addressed as “Mister.” Xenophobia did not exist. An Ecuadorian would rather have rented his house to a gringo for three hundred sucres than to a compatriot for four hundred. To be an extranjero was like a guarantee of punctuality, cleanliness, and reliability. The Germans, Austrians, and Czechs who now arrived found their way made smooth by the other outlanders who had preceded them under other circumstances.

“You must be a friend of Mr. Giese,” the Quite¤os would say naively to the German-Jewish refugee. Mr. Giese was also an aleman. That he was a Nazi was a distinction that Senor Sanchez or Gonzales didn’t make. After all, Ecuador too had its liberates and conservadores. And if an Ecuadorian greeted a refugee with a “Heil Hitler” it was without any malice. He was just showing that he knew a few words of German.

Strangely enough, it wasn’t the Germans who first made the Ecuadorians aware of the distinction. The German Ambassador, Dr. Klee, made it plain that the Jews who called on him about their passports were simply German citizens to him and could always count on his assistance. It was the Jewish imigrants themselves who stressed the difference. When war broke out the Jews in Ecuador turned militant, and the anti-Semitism of the German population came in answer to that anti-Nazi offensive.

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In the little town of Quito with its 160,000 inhabitants, only about half of whom wore European clothing, a group of 2,500 foreigners made a substantial minority. The town was soon full of “Misters”—who lost some of their prestige in consequence. Moreover, many of them followed undignified occupations. They went from house to house selling candy for cash, and suits on credit. Or they hired themselves out as domestic couples. Evidently there was something wrong with these “Misters,” and it wasn’t long before the natives began to associate the adjective misterioso with “Mister”. . . .

But the “mysterious” foreigners were undoubtedly industrious. Their Jewish busyness had a revolutionary effect on sleepy Quito, where the number of working days is reduced to about 180 by the numerous festivals and holidays. Overnight there sprang up countless small businesses, “factories” located in garages and consisting of from one to five workmen besides the proprietor. Many of these enterprises failed because those who ran them were ignorant of local conditions or because the market was limited. Many of the immigrants were unable to readjust. There were cases of voluntary, almost masochistic degradation. Some Europeans couldn’t reconcile themselves to the thought of ending their lives in Ecuador. They thought of that small, undeveloped country as a kind of inexpensive stopping-off place. “Over there” they had known refinements and expensive living, but here they improvised furniture out of crates, pinched every penny, denied themselves even a bit of butter, although they had handsome bank accounts. They would subtract from their lives the years spent in Ecuador; many didn’t even unpack their trunks. I remember one pathological case: a wealthy man who peddled from house to house rather than withdraw from his capital the thirty dollars a month he and his wife required. In this way many of them exacerbated their feelings of alienation. They made comparisons between the new life and the old, and yet they made no effort to make the new life comfortable. Instead of contrasting freedom and persecution, they contrasted dirt and cleanliness, the vermin-ridden Indio and the neat European. But younger, more intelligent men, applauded the Viennese doctor who said: “I would rather live among vermin than among beasts.”

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Happily, the attitude of the majority was positive. They acknowledged the mercy of God, who had brought them to this island of peace in the midst of a cataclysm that ravaged the world. For it was an island of peace, despite the usual local revolutions. For these people there existed not only yesterday and tomorrow, but also today.

Within a very short time a Jewish community life, unique in South America, sprang up in Quito. Of the 3000 Jews who between 1940 and 1945 constituted the Jewish contingent in Ecuador, over 95 per cent were refugees from Hitler’s Europe. While in most of the other Latin-American countries there was a marked separation between “old” and “new” immigration, the Ecuadorian Jews stressed homogeneity from the start. Almost throughout South America, the Jews divide themselves into Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and German Jews. In Ecuador the middle group hardly existed. East and West were joined by many intermediate stages, since many of the German-speaking Jews came from Poland or Rumania, even though they had made their homes in Germany or Austria. Since almost everyone understood German, that became the common language. Spanish was used only in contact with the Ecuadorians.

It was not long before the Jews in Ecuador, 80 per cent of whom lived in Quito, had an organization handling cultural and religious affairs, relief, and community life. They established a court of arbitration, a Chevra Kadisha, a women’s league, a young people’s organization, and an athletic group. A cooperative bank was founded, supported by the Joint Distribution Committee. They built a theater, a cemetery, a kosher restaurant. In addition they had two newspapers, a fortnightly in German and a weekly in Spanish. The large hall of the “Asociación de Beneficencia Israelita” was rented ninety-three evenings a year for Jewish cultural events. While in other Latin American countries there was a strong tendency toward conversion, in Ecuador, on the contrary, there was a tendency for converted Jews to return to the faith, attracted by the high level of Jewish community life.

Painters and musicians, doctors and scientists, architects and journalists helped to give prestige to this immigration. The pride which the most prominent members of the community took in their Jewishness inspired pride in the others and they felt no need to conceal the fact that they were Jews. Up to the beginning of 1942 Jewish community life in Ecuador was harmonious and almost exemplary.

Then the effects of the war began to be felt. Overnight, all those distinctions that had hitherto been insignificant—nationality, mother-tongue, and so on—assumed paramount importance. Following the lead of the United States, South America began to distinguish between friendly and unfriendly aliens. Suddenly the Czech Jews belonged to the Allies and the German Jews to the Axis. A Polish Jew was an ally of the United States, an Austrian Jew occupied an intermediate position and tried to shake off the German nationality imposed on him by his passport. New organizations mushroomed: Free Germans, Free Austrians, Free Czechs, Free Poles, Free Italians. These groups were further divided by political and ideological dissension, with the result that there were soon two German and two Austrian organizations, a situation that might have been normal in a larger community but seemed ridiculous in this microcosm. The Czechs opened their own restaurant, the Poles a club, the Germans a Heim, the Austrians a café. There were benefit balls in national costume, concerts of Czech music or Viennese songs. The Czechs and Poles no longer attended German-language events, even though many of them knew no Czech or Polish. Everyone talked politics. The Czech Jews quarreled with the Austrian monarchists. German Jews of Communist leanings blasted their political opponents, who were promptly labeled fascists. A Polish Jew in a fit of patriotism tore a picture of Stalin from the wall of the Polish club, whereupon the leftist Poles began boycotting the club. Czech, German, and Austrian monthly reviews came into being. There were polemics from the stage, the lecture hall, in the columns of newspapers. Mount Ararat had turned into the tower of Babel. The Jewish organizations were no longer social nuclei. People wore national emblems in their buttonholes and thought of themselves as Austrians and Poles first and Jews second.

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In due course anti-Semitism appeared in Ecuador. The country was beginning to suffer from the war. Imports ceased, prices rose 500 per cent or more. Although this was a universal phenomenon, to the natives of the valley in the Andes there was a simple explanation: the Jews could afford any rent, the Jewish women didn’t bargain for food (an old accusation in reverse). And besides, there were so many of them! To the Quiteo, who ran into them everywhere, there seemed to be thousands. The buses, which couldn’t be augmented because of the war, grew more and more crowded. Many Ecuadorians, grown accustomed to the restaurants established by the gringos, were now unable to make ends meet. The expertly arranged shopwindows of the Jewish stores tempted women to buy things they had never bought before. European energy had forced a new rhythm on the lazy Ecuadorian, brought up on the principle that mañana es otro dia. He didn’t like it. He felt second-rate in his own country. The term Judío began to mean foreigner. Anyone with blond hair and blue eyes was a Judio. The word began to replace the traditional gringo. Everyone was a Judio: Americans, German Nazis, Dutchmen, and even Jews.

Then one day the newspapers carried stories of the wholesale extermination of Jews in Europe. The average Ecuadorian, though by no means a pro-Nazi, tended to think of Germany as a proletarian nation struggling against the wealthy United States and the vast British Empire. When newsreels were shown in the theater, the orchestra, where the upper classes sat, would applaud the Allies, while the gallery hailed Hitler and his troops. Surely an attractive people like the Germans wouldn’t kill off millions of Judíos without a sound reason. And wasn’t it rather strange that, while these things were being done in Europe, here in Ecuador the Judíos were allowed to open stores, compete with the natives, and grow prosperous? It just showed once again how little the gobierno was worth.

Ecuadorians are not violent people. Their change of mood had no practical effect. Yet it increased the traditional Jewish tendency toward the ghetto. And in turn, this tendency increased the Ecuadorian’s feeling that the Jew looked down on him. Mixed marriages were very rare; the contrasts were too strongly marked. A few cases occurred in the lower classes.

The term “Mister” had fallen out of use. Judío sometimes took its place, and even if it was not meant contemptuously “Mister” had sounded better.

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But the majority of the intelligentsia were definitely friendly toward the Jews. Hardly a single Ecuadorian of rank and distinction failed to support the Pro-Palestine Committee. Some of the best writers of the country, including the ex-Foreign Minister Dr. Benjamín Carrión, Dr. Pío Jamarillo Alvarado, José Rafael Bustamante and his brilliant wife, Hipatia Cárdenas de Bustamante, endorsed the Zionist movement enthusiastically. Other notable sponsors were Dr. Luis Bossano, chairman of the Law School, and such leading journalists as Dr. Jaime Barrera, Dr. Miguel Albornoz, Augusta Arias, Carlos Mantilla, and Humberto Vacas. Oswaldo Guyasamin, Diógenes Paredes, Pedro León, and many other Ecuadorian artists who had been closely affiliated with artists from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Rumania, lent their aid; one of them, Luis Mideros, drew the figure of a woman symbolizing re-emergent Zion. The conservatory, where some of the Jewish musicians taught, performed Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus. On the death of Stefan Zweig the University arranged a memorial program at which Jewish and non-Jewish speakers discussed Judaism in its political and cultural aspects. Almost all daily papers invited European editors to comment on international affairs, and the men chosen were Jews without exception. In the Catholic seminary, rector Léon Scamps and Ponce Rivadeneiren gave talks on Judaism and Zionism.

During the war years the Jewish community was also on excellent terms with the various allied embassies. In view of the present situation there is a certain irony in the fact that the British Ambassador, Leslie Charles Hughes-Hallett, and his wife organized a Hanukah ball for Jews and Gentiles at the Embassy, the proceeds of which went to Jewish charitable institutions.

Government circles were divided in their attitude. But it should be said that Ecuador was one of the few countries that never barred Jewish immigration. (It is true that in 1937 the dictator of the day, Alberto Enriquez, decreed that all Jews then living in the country—barely 300—were to leave Ecuador at once. But he rapidly changed his mind in the face of diplomatic representations and a cable from his beloved Berta Singerman, the famous Argentine chanteuse. And this happened during the “prehistoric” era of Ecuadorian Jewry.) From time to time right-wing circles demanded an investigation, because many of the immigrants who had entered the country as farmers or industrialists became engaged in retail trade. No such investigation ever materialized. President Arroyo del Rio, ousted in 1944, consulted only Jewish doctors and dentists, who practiced without official permission. When President Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra returned after long exile, he said at a press conference: “It hurts me to find on returning to my own country that a prejudice has grown up against the Jews. To the ancient Jews we owe our religion, and to those of modern times our most important scientific discoveries. As long as I am President the Jews will enjoy complete liberty and equality in Ecuador.” Some years earlier Dr. Velasco Ibarra, then a renowned university professor, had published a book on international law in which he dealt exhaustively with Zionism and reproached England for not keeping her promises. The present chancellor, Dr. Trujillo, is likewise a friend of the Jews. (In South America, where political ideas are rather muddled, this attitude is not necessarily an index of the government’s political bias. Today Ecuador is closely leagued with Peronist Argentina, has refused to recall its ambassador from Franco Spain, and employs in the office of the President a young Nazi woman who was formerly in the employ of the German embassy and spent the war years in Germany. Ecuador also welcomes back with open arms the Germans who were deported during the war years.)

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The young generation of immigrants has grown up without illusions. Their memories of Europe are too distant and hazy, and the contrast between them and their Ecuadorian fellow students, on the other hand, is too great. They are no longer Europeans and not yet Latin Americans. There is nothing for them to look up to. Small-town life robs the adults of glamor and reveals them in all their weakness and vacillation. The parents have watched with concern as their young people absorb only the negative features of both old and new environments. These youngsters smoke at fourteen, play cards at sixteen, and by the time they are eighteen life no longer holds any secrets for them. The flight from Europe has brought about a devaluation of the intellectuals, for the artisans, merchants, and industrialists find adjustment easier than do lawyers and college graduates. In the beginning the parents welcomed this trend, since they were unwilling to see their children grow into vague idealists. But as standards of living increased, the old ambition to let the children study and “be something” reappeared. Parents began to cast longing glances toward countries with better schools and universities. If they were unwilling to end their lives in Ecuador, they were just as unwilling that their children should live their lives there.

Then there were the constant political shifts: revolutions, short-lived dictatorships. The country, economically poor, though potentially rich, barely seemed to move forward. It was relatively easy to earn one’s living, but any considerable saving was out of the question.

A few years of living at this altitude showed its effects. Not specifically physical effects, because the organism easily adapts itself to the climate—spoken of as “eternal spring” though it resembles more nearly an eternal fall—but the altitude, the monotony of the seasons, dry and rainy, together with the small-town complex, the inevitable gossip, began to get on everybody’s nerves. People became hypersensitive and sometimes malicious. As the end of the war drew nearer, exile was harder to bear. It was borne in upon them that this was only a stopping-place, not a new home. In the bad days of the war, to be alive was all that mattered. But with the approach of victory spirits revived and so did ambitions and pretensions. Most felt an urge to start out again. The only question was where to go.

They had left Germany, Austria, or Czechoslovakia knowing that it was to be forever. They had left full of hatred and bitterness. But the artificial romanticism of the national organizations filled them again with nostalgia. Against all logic and experience they began to idealize the very people from whom they had fled only yesterday. Many began to tell themselves that everyone alike had been violated, that the Germans and Austrians were good at heart and not really anti-Semitic. They longed to speak their own language once more, to struggle no longer with foreign vocabulary and grammar. They began observing national holidays, getting drunk and singing old songs. The Czechs even made plans for a collective repatriation and thought of chartering a ship.

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Then peace came, with all manner of disappointments and disillusionments. The sentimental neo-patriotism dissolved into thin air. For a while no one thought of leaving a country where life was carefree, even if not ideal. Where, after all, was the place where one could be really happy? But the new restlessness had already struck root too deeply. The craving for culture was too strong; people who had never attended concerts or the opera in Europe suddenly fancied that they could not live without these things. They knew perfectly well that Europe was dead as far as they were concerned. All that they associated with Europe had emigrated, concentrating mostly in New York. They read in Aufbau about their favorite singers, poets, actors, and musicians. Their trunks were packed; it was only a matter of changing their destination. The compass pointed to the United States.

For many this was an easy matter. Ecuadorian consulates have never been as overworked as those in Europe. The well-dressed, well-fed European who applied for a visa in South America was more welcome to the authorities than the ragged, half-starved inmate of the German concentration camp. A whole populace began to move. The mass migration disturbed the ones who had not yet thought of leaving. With each departure the group felt more isolated and lonely.

Yet those who left did not find it easy. At the moment of leaving, the green landscape and the picturesque town with its fringe of mountains took on a new loveliness. Eight years in the Andes had made different beings of these people. They had grown slower, they were used to the philosophy of mañana, and now they were apprehensive of the hectic life and the struggle for existence that awaited them in the United States. They suddenly discovered that it had been easier to say goodbye to Vienna, Prague, or Berlin. They felt a belated sense of gratitude toward a country that had treated them well and decently. And as the plane took off they realized that they were saying not “Leb’ wohl,” but “Adiós.”

One dove departed, then several, then whole flocks. The Flood had subsided. Somewhat chagrined, the government refused to naturalize any more of these immigrants, who as soon as they became citizens wanted to leave the country. In 1946 the Jewish community of Ecuador lost one-fourth of its members. At this rate it will be non-existent in another three years. That would indeed be a pity, since it is the most attractive and best organized in all South America.

This peculiar phenomenon of a migration without compulsion is being partly offset by a new influx of Europeans. The country remains open as always. The President, Dr. Velasco Ibarra, who himself had had his fill of exile, and who made many Jewish friends in Argentina, Chile, and other countries, stands by his promise. New Jewish immigrants are constantly entering the country from Europe or from Shanghai. Some come only to wait for their visas to the United States. But others, after a life of torment and privation in Europe, are planning to build a new existence. These people have fewer pretensions than those who were fortunate enough to leave Europe in time and who spent the critical years in security. The future Jewish community in Ecuador will consist of people now in Rumania, Hungary, Italy, and the countries of Western and Central Europe rather than of those now in Ecuador. The first Aliya was unable to strike root completely. Perhaps the second will succeed. . . .

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