By Melvyn Kohn
December 4, 2010
The answer to that title is Bolivia. And it is an answer to an urgent question inside of me, one I have been asking myself for some time; why am I so supportive of Bolivia? Well, yesterday at New York University I found out something that almost never gets discussed while attending Laura Gotkowitz's speech on Bolivia in the 1940s. The nation had a major upheaval due to an immigration issue - when it opened its doors to Jewish refugees in 1938. And wide were they opened; the visa applications were so simple that almost anyone could fill out their name and come, without even visiting an embassy or consulate or having means; some visas were rather vague, admitting a hundred people at a time. As they needed to be. With this policy, many were saved, some even from the camps, where the rules dictated that those who had a place to go could leave. So many poor Jews did just that. Up to 35,000 made their way to Bolivia. Leo Spitzer writes of this miraculous exodus in Hotel Bolivia.
Gotkowitz, noting that title in her speech, said that Bolivia was more than a hotel to many of them - though most have since emigrated - she told me there were only
10 Jews in Cochabamba today. And her research noted that upon arrival not all was a bed of roses; nazi instigators went so far as to write letters into the papers to instigate the crowds against the immigrants. The Bolivians expelled the German ambassador over it all. But it was not only the national socialists who caused problems, ironically, Polish Jews were barred from entry - on orders of one of the leading tin magnates - Mauricio Hofschild - a German Jew who insisted only German speaking Jews need apply. Thus 60% were from Germany, 20% from Austria, and only 15% from Poland.
The minister in charge of such generous policies was to lose his post over it all, Diez de Marina.
Today few know about this bit of history. Bolivia ultimately influenced other nations including the US to take Jews - the only other nation to act in time was the Dominican Republic, but that was not so desirable, as there they were told to take Latin names and attend Mass. They live on today as Garcias and Morenos and living on the north side of Santa Domingo.
The Jews of Bolivia have kept their identity but moved on, mostly to Argentina, Israel or the US. Gotkowitz is continuing her research and quite likely will publish a book on the subject. I am grateful for her already, and look forward to more on the matter. I am now more determined to work for Bolivia and promote its image in the press, a tough task as most journalists like to do stories by cutting and pasting! I will get on a few of them soon and get them on to the task, sending them such information as the discovery of new orchids and passion flowers (which can be seen at www.cuentasdebolivia.blogspot.com).