Shoa conference recalls Latin America as refuge

Shoa conference recalls Latin America as refuge

Educators remember the historical impact of unlikely havens

Monica Hartman, left, and siblings Evelyn Altenberg and Les Altenberg, children of Holocaust survivors who found refuge in Latin America, look at a photo album of survivors in the Dominican Republic.
Monica Hartman, left, and siblings Evelyn Altenberg and Les Altenberg, children of Holocaust survivors who found refuge in Latin America, look at a photo album of survivors in the Dominican Republic.

Experts and educators in Morristown shone a light on an unfamiliar aspect of Holocaust history in an all-day conference on teaching the Shoa’s impact and legacy in Latin America.

The Oct. 1 symposium at the College of Saint Elizabeth focused on the Jews who found refuge in Latin America, and the challenges facing the refugees once they arrived.

Some 84,000 Jewish refugees escaped the Nazis by immigrating to Latin American countries between 1933 and 1945.

But while the emphasis was mostly historical, presenters also urged attendees to consider teaching the Shoa with an eye toward North America’s growing Latino population.

Christina Chavarria, program coordinator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, urged that these less familiar stories be told alongside more common tales of survivors who fled to the United States and Israel.

“Think about Latin America as a refuge, Latin America as a way to teach very complicated history, Latin America as a way to reach out to your Latino students, and Latin America as a way to learn more about anti-Semitism and human rights,” said Chavarria.

In her keynote address, Chavarria noted that “by the year 2025, over 50 percent of Americans in the United States will be of Hispanic descent, and our fastest-growing minority group will soon not be a minority group.”

Teaching about rescue efforts in Central and South America and the Caribbean could build bridges between the burgeoning Latino population and American Jews, she said.

The conference included a screening of Some Who Lived, a film from the Shoah Visual History Foundation that included testimonies from Holocaust survivors now living in Argentina and Uruguay.

Breakout sessions included meetings with survivors and their offspring, a workshop on teaching the Holocaust in a Catholic school, and lessons on teaching about contemporary genocide

Chavarria discussed the range of receptions that the Jewish refugees encountered upon their arrival in the countries of Latin America.

“The role of anti-Semitism in the United States prevented so many refugees from coming here,” she said, even as she noted “the rising popularity of the Nazi Party” in the prewar years in such countries as Paraguay, Argentina, and Chile.

“These were the countries that were the most European. European Jews wanted to go to these countries. One of the great ironies is that many European Jews wound up in countries that were less European,” Chavarria said.

After the Kristallnacht pogrom in November of 1938, Bolivia accepted some 20,000 German and Austrian Jews. “Bolivia did not have a Jewish population, and Bolivia did have an active Nazi Party,” she said.

One place of refuge, rife with contradictions, was the Dominican Republic. Its own ruthless dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, offered to admit up to 100,000 Jewish refugees. Ultimately, only 654 of them came to settle in a rural area called Sosua.

“The Jews who fled to Sosua were given refuge by a dictator who a year before had overseen the murder of 15,000 Haitians,” said Chavarria.

“He used this opportunity to rehabilitate his image to the world,” she said. “He believed in racial purity, and felt that by importing European whites he could lighten his country’s racial composition.”

Among the five members of a panel of survivors and children of survivors were siblings Evelyn and Les Altenberg, whose parents met in Berlin before World War II. Their mother was interned in numerous camps; their father made it to the Dominican Republic. They were reunited by the Red Cross in Sosua after the war.

Les recalled his father’s culture shock as part of “this white German and Austrian-Jewish population. The deal was, they had to be farmers. It was very hard to picture my dad milking cows.”

It was their mother who had the greater share of suffering. “Our father was in paradise, our mother was in hell,” Evelyn recalled.

Another panelist, Norbert Zeelander, a Jew born in Belgium in 1932, fled with his parents to the Caribbean island of Curacao six years later.

He said that “being in Curacao made me totally colorblind.” Later, when his family moved to New York, Zeelander recalled, “I had trouble with people in our Jewish neighborhood who were upset when I had boys to our house who weren’t white. I just wish that what we have seen in the Caribbean, we could bring some of that here because we just have too many prejudices.”

Emphasizing the importance of Latin America’s role in saving Jews during the Holocaust, Harriet Sepinwall, codirector of the college’s Holocaust Education Resource Center, said, “Remember, Jews did not find refuge in many countries that closed their doors. Those people who found refuge owe the lives of their children and grandchildren and future generations to the opportunity they were provided.”

The workshop was supported by the college’s Linda and Murray Laulicht Holocaust Education Teacher Training Fund and, in part, by a grant from the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education.

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