BOLIVIA, South American republic; population: 8,724,156 (2004). Jewish population: c. 600.
History of Jewish Settlement
Desperate to escape the increasingly vehement persecution in their homelands, thousands of refugees from Nazi-dominated Central Europe, the majority of them Jews, found refuge in Latin America in the 1930s. Bolivia became a principal recipient of this refugee influx by the end of the decade when Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico – traditional "countries of choice" for European immigration – closed their gates or applied severe restrictions to the entrance of newcomers. Indeed, in the panic months following the German Anschluss of Austria in March 1938 and Kristallnacht in November of that year, Bolivia was one of very few remaining places in the entire world to accept Jewish refugees. In the short period between then and the end of the first year of World War II, some 20,000 refugees, primarily from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, entered Bolivia – more than in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India combined. When the war ended, a second, smaller wave of immigrants, mostly East European Holocaust survivors, displaced relatives of previous refugees, and Polish Jews who had fled to Shanghai after 1939 and abandoned it in the wake of the Communist takeover, arrived in Bolivia. (Also in these postwar years, a small number of Nazis who were fleeing or had help escaping prosecution in Europe – the best known among them being Klaus Barbie – came to Bolivia.) The new immigrants settled primarily in La Paz, a city more than 12,500 feet above sea level, as well as in Cochabamba, Oruro, Sucre, and in small mining and tropical agricultural communities throughout the land.
In Bolivia, the refugees began to reconstruct a version of the world that they had been forced to abandon. Their own origins and social situations were diverse in Central Europe, ranging across generational, class, educational, and political differences and incorporating various professional, craft, and artistic backgrounds. Some of them had at one time been engineers, doctors, lawyers, musicians, actors, and artists; others were skilled and unskilled workers whose living had been interrupted by Nazi exclusionary decrees. Although most people who came to Bolivia were Jews, or were married to Jews, a significant minority were non-Jewish political refugees: Communists, Socialists, and others persecuted by the Nazi regime. Jews themselves differed greatly in the degree of their identification with their religion and its traditions. There were Zionists, atheists, Orthodox believers, High Holiday Jews, and non-practitioners among them. They shared a common identity as Jews only in the sense, perhaps, that they had all been defined as "Jews" from the outside – that the Nazis had "othered" them as Jews.
No matter what their background differences had been in Europe, the vast majority of refugees arrived in South America in dire straits, with few personal possessions and very little money. This in itself had a leveling effect, cutting across their previous class distinctions. But other factors, also helped to create a sense of collective identity among them, aiding in their adjustment and survival. Their common history of persecution was certainly one of these. Each and every refugee had been identified as undesirable, stripped of citizenship and possessions. Despite differences in the details of their particular experiences, they were all "in the same boat." The war back in Europe, and the fact that so many of them had relatives and friends from whom they had been separated, were ever-present realities of which they were collectively conscious and that bonded them together. They kept themselves and each other informed of news about the war from accounts in the press and radio, and, they shared efforts to discover the fate of those left behind. In this regard, the German language (which they spoke at home and among themselves), was their vehicle of inquiry, information, and unity, allowing them to communicate intimately and to express themselves with a degree of familiarity that most could never attain in the Spanish language of their surroundings.
But ultimately, it was Austro-German Jewish bourgeois society, the cultural end-product of 19th century Jewish emancipation in Central Europe, that gave the new arrivals a model for emulation and a common locus for identification in their place of refuge. Indeed, at the very time when that dynamic social and cultural amalgam was being ruthlessly and systematically destroyed by the Nazis, the Jewish refugees in Bolivia tried to recall and revive a version of it in a land thousands of miles from their home; in a country that offered them a haven, but in which many of them felt themselves as mere sojourners.
Alto Perú, the region that became Bolivia after gaining its independence from Spain in 1824, had once before been the refuge of people escaping religious intolerance and persecution in Europe. In the course of the 16th century, and during the extended, often brutal sway of the Spanish Inquisition, thousands of New Christians, or *Crypto-Jews – persons of Jewish origin who had been converted to Christianity by force or prudent choice of their own – left the Iberian peninsula; clandestinely or openly, and many sought haven in Spain's Latin American colonies. Bringing badly needed technical and entrepreneurial skills with them, a number of Crypto-Jews settled around the silver-mining areas of Potosí and in centers of trade and commerce like Chuquisaca (later Sucre), Santa Cruz, and Tarija. Over the years, some of these Crypto-Jews,
But despite the early presence of Crypto-Jews in Bolivia's colonial past, and relics of Judaic practices and beliefs, few – if any – Jews seem to have emigrated to the country in the first century of its independence. In this respect Bolivia was quite different from its more accessible and economically attractive South American neighbors like *Argentina, and *Brazil, whose governments had periodically encouraged "white settler" immigration from Europe, and which developed substantial Jewish communities in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. A few East European Jews did trickle into Bolivia in the early 1900s, fleeing persecution in Poland, pogroms in Russia in the aftermath of the failed revolution of 1905, or in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. But before the rise of Nazism very few Jews, perhaps fewer than a hundred from Alsace, Poland, and Russia had settled in this Andean land.
In the wake of the large Jewish refugee influx in the late 1930s, some resentments were generated and fueled among Bolivians against the immigrants by pro-Nazi provocateurs, especially after the discovery that many refugees had entered the country with visas bought illegally from Bolivian officials in Europe or under false pretences – with agricultural visas that stipulated that they would be engaged in rural land settlement and agricultural development. In fact, while many immigrants did receive visas as agricultural workers, the majority of them established themselves in the urban centers, in commerce and industry. Several colonization projects were attempted, however, under the auspices of the Sociedad Colonizadora de Bolivia (Socobo), founded in 1940, and with the help of the tin magnate Mauricio *Hochschild. The latter spent almost $1,000,000 between 1940 and 1945 on an agricultural development project at Coroico; but, like an earlier one in the Chaparé jungles, it failed. Climatic conditions were exceedingly difficult, and there was a dearth of roads to suitable markets. The early years of the Jewish community in Bolivia were marked by difficult economic conditions, especially for those who did not own business enterprises. Between January 1939 and December 1942 $160,000 were disbursed for relief by the *American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, by the Sociedad de Protección de los Inmigrantes Israelitas, and by Mauricio Hochschild. The majority of the immigrants entered manufacturing and trade and ultimately played a prominent role in the development of industry, imports and exports, and in the free professions. By the fall of 1939, when immigration reached its peak, organized Jewish communities could already be found in La Paz and in Cochabamba. The first organization to be founded was the Círculo Israelita (1935) by East European Jews, followed by the German Comunidad Israelita de Bolivia. During the next few years other organizations were formed, such as B'nai B'rith, the Federación Sionista Unida de Bolivia, Wizo, and Macabi, with the Comité Central Judío de Bolivia coming to serve as the representative roof organization. Under the auspices of these groups, various communal services were established in the 1940s: the Chevra Kaddisha, the Cementerio Israelita, Bikkur Ḥolim, a kinderheim, and a home for the aged. The La Paz community also established and maintained the Colegio Boliviano Israelita, a comprehensive school with kindergarten, primary, and secondary grades. Attracting Jewish as well as non-Jewish students because of its excellent academic program, the school exists even today, despite the drastic decline in the Jewish population of the country.
Starting with the end of World War II, continuing with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, and accelerating in the 1950s, the demographic trend that had been marked by a sharp increase in the Jewish population of Bolivia was reversed. Large numbers of the Jewish wartime immigrants and their children left the country, either to move to other "more Europeanized" Latin American countries like Argentina or Brazil, to the United States, to Israel, or back to their countries of origin in Europe. The consistent exodus was stimulated by a variety of factors, including the political instability in the country. The 1952 revolution that brought to power the National Revolutionary Party (the MNR, which had been close to the Nazis during the war) aroused anxieties in the Jewish community. These fears were allayed, however, when Jewish rights were not affected. Economic insecurity, health hazards caused by climatic difficulties, and the lack of adequate facilities for higher education also motivated the emigration trend.
The Contemporary Situation
By the early 1990s, there were around 700 Jews left in Bolivia. That number has declined even more, as many members of Bolivia's Jewish younger generation decide to emigrate – either temporarily, to seek higher educational or vocational training elsewhere, or on a permanent basis. As in the past, the majority of remaining Jews live in the capital, La Paz, but there are smaller communities in Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. The Circulo Israelita, the central Jewish communal organization, now embodies both of its predecessors, the Circulo Israelita de La Paz established by East European immigrants and the German Comunidad Israelita de Bolivia.
Relations with Israel
Bolivia was among the supporters of the 1947 UN resolution on the partition of Palestine. Subsequently, a Bolivian representative was named to the Palestine Commission. In ensuing debates at the United Nations, notably those on the refugee problem, despite changing governments and resultant differences of policy, Bolivia was remarkably consistent in maintaining a friendly attitude to Israel. Israel's first minister presented his credentials in 1957, and an embassy was established in 1964; Bolivia, in turn, established its embassy in Jerusalem in the same year. The two countries engaged in a variety of assistance programs. A technical cooperation agreement between the two countries, signed in 1962, provides for an agricultural mission of Naḥal officers that has been active in Bolivia in cooperation with the Bolivian army in the fields of agricultural settlement and training. Bolivian students on scholarships in Israel included irrigation engineers and youth leaders. An effort in the private sphere is a joint study in medicinal tropical plants undertaken by the School of Pharmacology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and its Bolivian counterpart.
Mangan, in: Commentary, 14 (1952), 99–106; N. Lorch, Ha-Nahar ha-Loḥesh (1969), passim; Asociación Filantrópica Israelita, Buenos Aires, Zehn Jahre Aufbauarbeit in Suedamerika (Ger. and Sp., 1943), 172–98. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: L. Spitzer, Hotel Bolivia: the Culture of Memory in a Refuge from Nazism (1998); H. Klein, Bolivia: the Evolution of a Multi-Ethnic Society (2nd ed., 1992).
[Netanel Lorch /
Leo Spitzer (2nd ed.)]
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.