An Unknown Country

The story of European Jews who escaped Nazi persecution to find refuge in Ecuador---a South American republic barely known at the time. Featuring first hand accounts and archival material, the film follows the exiles' perilous escape and difficult adjustment as they remade their lives in what was for them an exotic, unfamiliar land.

AIRED: June 12, 2017 | 1:26:48

Woman: This is my family.

My grandparents.

Victims of the Holocaust.

Dead before I was born...

like other relatives I never met.

When Nazis defaced the family store in Czechoslovakia,

those who could escape fled Europe.

My parents and other family members traveled far away,

to a distant land called Ecuador.

This is the story of a community of exiles,

who, like them, found refuge in an unknown country.

Ecuador, the country where I was born and where I grew up.

I left as a teenager to live in the United States.

Decades later, I returned to Ecuador

for a reunion with others whose families

also found safe haven there.

The genesis of the trip began as an outgrowth of a

website that I created called the Jews of Ecuador, JOEs.

One of the JOEs suggested that perhaps

we should have a reunion of some type.

Together, we searched for traces of our childhoods.

All these are here, in Guayaquil.

After so many years. Unbelievable. Incredible.

I was born in that building,

and my sister was born there, too.

In the corner, my grandparents were at the first floor.

Man: That was our kindergarten,

and that's where Niko was Winnie the Pooh.

I was Eeyore. At the terrace

on the top floor, we had a play.

Up there. Winnie the Pooh.

(laughs) And he was Eeyore the donkey.

For me, this visit inspired a deeper journey

into our families' past.

Growing up, I knew my family's story,

but no details of their exile.

When I heard about a reunion, I did some research.

As I read memoirs of the exiles, I found that the group

that landed in Ecuador was far more diverse than I had thought,

with experiences I'd never imagined.

I felt I wanted to capture those stories

in the words of those who lived them and with video,

the medium I've been working in for many years.

The more I learned, the more I needed to know.

How did they escape and why to Ecuador?

How did they get there?

How did they survive and build new lives

in a country so different from their own?

It was a journey that began for our families oceans away

and a lifetime ago.

(flames crackling, crowd shouting)

On two fateful days in November, 1938,

a wave of violent anti-Jewish attacks

swept through Nazi Germany, Austria,

and parts of Czechoslovakia.

(glass shattering)

The events became known as Kristallnacht--

Night of Broken Glass-- for the smashed windows

of synagogues, stores, and homes.

Thousands were sent to concentration camps.

It was the turning point in Nazi Germany's policy

that would lead to the mass murder of European Jews.

Man: When Hitler came, my childhood ended.

What happened in Vienna was a pogrom.

You know what a pogrom is.

it's a bloody persecution of Jews.

In Vienna, it was chaos.

(crowd shouting)

My mother was already out of the country in Czechoslovakia.

She often went to see her parents.

And my father grabbed the phone and said, "Do not come back."

So she never came back.

They took away our apartment with everything that was in it,

and we had to vacate it within... hours.

I was in great shock and in great fear.

Man: At night, they had burned down the synagogue,

burned down some shops, and from the window

you could see the smoke coming up.

My father was taken to concentration camp in Dachau.

I was almost thirteen.

I couldn't quite grasp it, you know?

After all, we hadn't done anything.

There was no reason.

At that time, they still released them.

They told them, "This time, we'll let you go home,

but if you come here again, have no illusions.

You won't come out alive.

Woman: I was born in Hamburg, Germany.

We led a wonderful life.

We had a big family, a lot of cousins and friends.

At the school, life went on as usual,

but unfortunately, all Jewish teachers

had to be dismissed, had to be by order of Hitler.

I was born in a small town in Bavaria

in southern Germany called Bamberg.

My grandfather established a wholesale business

in electrical appliances, electrical items,

then a large factory.

Our life was very comfortable...

until Hitler came along.

The head of the school called me and said

they got a decree from Berlin that Jews can no longer

visit German schools and has to send me home.

So that was the end of my German education.

Man: My father was a very loyal German.

He felt that being a First World War veteran,

he would not be touched.

What made him decide that we definitely had to leave

is that his brother was arrested and eventually killed.


Woman: They took away everything you had, everything.

We left in '39.

The Germans walked into Prague in March,

and we were able to leave Prague in June.

Man: At that time,

everybody found his own salvation through flight.

Woman: We left Germany from Cologne to Holland,

packed our bags and left everything standing,

and saying we were coming back.

And the Germans, as far as I understand,

confiscated everything.

My parents both were born in Poland.

They were Polish Jews, and during the First World War,

both of them, both families went to Vienna.

After the war, my father went to Italy.

I was born there in Milan.

In 1938, when I was ten years old,

they promulgated what they called the racial laws.

One was the Jews who were not born in Italy

and who had lived there less than 20 years had to leave.

So my father said, "Time to go."

Egon: My uncle bribed a border guard,

and that's how we got into Czechoslovakia.

In Bratislava we thought we had escaped the hell,

which was not the case because we were caught,

and we were deported from Bratislava to Hungary.

(crowd cheering)

Ilse: I was frightened. Everybody was.

In 1939, I was sixteen, my brother was eleven,

and we were allowed to leave Germany

and to join our relatives in Belgium.

There was a British family

where my mother had worked as a secretary.

So they sent her a visa,

but only for her, not for her husband.

My mother went to England,

hoping to also get my father out.

My father went illegally over the frontier.

We were together again.

The war started also in Belgium.

My father said, "Let's just go to see if we can go to France,

to southern France,"

because that was not occupied yet.

And we did.

We had to walk.

I really don't know how many days,

but for quite some time.

Egon: For me, it was a primordial experience

to be without human rights all of a sudden,

stricken from the list of those who were permitted

to live in a normal way.

Of course the most important thing one needed

was a visa to go elsewhere.

Werner: That was easier said than done.

There was no country that wants us.

Egon: Most countries closed their borders

the moment that Hitler invaded Austria

because everybody knew that this would cause a wave of refugees.

It was very difficult for a family of four

to get a visa anywhere.

So my parents decided to send us to England

to get us out first and then to try and find

a country for themselves.

They then went to the American consulate in Stuttgart,

in Germany, to try and get the visa,

and they were put on a waiting list,

and our number on the waiting list was 22,000 something.

So if we had waited for that, we would all be dead.

You had to have a place on the boat.

You had to have a visa.

You had to have the money.

And you had to have the permit

to leave Czechoslovakia with the passport.

Egon: There were refugee organizations in Prague.

They helped us to leave the country.

They paid for the passage and they gave us

a small sum of money, I think it was $8 per person.

Our Austrian passports were null and void.

We went to the German consulate in Prague,

and they gave us new passports marked with a big red "J"

so that everybody who saw them knew that we were Jews.

We were allowed to keep the names that we had,

but this was added.

My father got the name of Israel,

and I got the name of Israel,

and my mother got the name of Sara,

names that the Nazis had cooked up as particularly Jewish.

We were sent to Paris.

I knew that Prague was very endangered.

I felt that we were finally reaching freedom.

My mother ran from one consulate to another,

until in the end, she happened to apply

to the consul of Ecuador in Hamburg.

So they actually paid for the visa and got it,

and that saved them.

I was prepared to go to Canada.

When I was in London, my husband said,

"We are not going to Canada. We are going to Ecuador."

What is Ecuador? It's tropical.

There is a mountain called Chimborazo,

and there are woods that are eucalyptus.

That was all I knew about Ecuador.

Man: A Jewish organization that helped Jewish immigration

sent a team to study the feasibility

for Jews from Europe to settle in Ecuador.

At that time, they convinced the government

to sign a law, if Jews wanted to work

in industry or agriculture,

they could get a visa for Ecuador.

That opened the door,

when things got very bad in Europe,

for many Jews to think of an unknown country.

Ecuador elite wanted some-- some--

some European immigration, not in a mass,

but in some immigration to develop the country.

(speaking Spanish)

Man: Most of the economy in Ecuador

consisted of large farming enterprises,

which were run by absentee landlords

who lived in Paris or in Madrid.

(Manuel speaking Spanish)

Moselio: My father decided it was time to leave.

So one day he came home and said,

"I found the consul to Ecuador," and then he added,

"And I really don't know where it is."

Well, I was a bright-- what was I-- 11 years old then.

I said, "It's on the west coast of South America."

He says, "Good, that's where we are going."

Alberto: People really did not know where the country was.

(speaking Spanish)

Ecuador is a small republic

located in the northwest of South America.

Its name comes from the fact that the equatorial line

crosses the country.

Ecuador was ruled by the Inca empire

prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquerors

in the 16th Century.

In 1830, it became an independent republic.

My father, Pablo Freund,

was from Zbraslavice, Czechoslovakia.

He was an athlete who participated

in the binational games with Germany

previous to the Olympic games of 1936 in Berlin.

There he won the competition in discus throwing,

and he was singled out as Pablo Freund, the Czech Jew.

The Czech national team didn't let him participate

in the 1936 Olympics,

and he chose to emigrate to Ecuador.

Ecuador wanted to attract immigration

of agricultural, technical people.

And my father was one of them, so he could get,

with some of his friends, visas to come to this country.

My father, his full name

was Aladar Horvath Goldstein.

He came from what was then Czechoslovakia.

He was on a business trip in France

when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia,

and he never returned.

He was in France until 1940, when the Germans invaded France.

He was able to cross Spain and go to Portugal,

and from Portugal he was able to get a visa

to Ecuador, which was one of the very few countries

in Latin America that had open immigration for Jews.

Ecuador's consuls in Europe

had the power of life and death.

Some sold visas for personal gain,

while others acted humanely and even risked their positions

to help save lives.

Some of the consuls that were sent to Europe

had a liberal and humanistic outlook.

They were thus more open towards the plight of the people

that were suffering under Nazi rule.

Manuel Antonio Muñoz Borrero

was the Ecuadorian consul based in Stockholm.

This consul wanted to save lives.

He broke the rules, and he got fired for that.

A rabbi in Stockholm came to see him

and explained the plight of the Jews in Europe

and that if passports were issued to them,

they would save lives.

Together they formed a team to start issuing passports.

Many Jews lost their nationality due to the racial laws.

The Ecuadorian passports helped delay

the deportation of stateless Jews to death camps.

The Germans also wanted to exchange Jews

that had these Latin America passports for German prisoners.

Consul Muñoz Borrero's passports saved lives

but did not secure safe haven in Ecuador.

Other compassionate consuls issued visas

that ensured immigration.

Woman: My grandfather is José Ignacio Burbano.

He was a consular officer in Bremen, Germany.

He assisted Jewish families to get out of Germany,

saying that these people had permission

to emigrate to Ecuador.

We put together a list of the people that he'd helped.

My cousin, Maria Amelia Viteri,

was able to get that information.

We have the paperwork.

We have the visa authorizations with his signature on them.

I am the youngest granddaughter of José Ignacio Burbano.

He arrived to Bremen around 1938,

and he was asked to leave around 1941.

The visas cost a significant amount of money,

so he helped so that they could have the visa

without paying all that money,

plus telling the Ecuadorian government

that all these Jewish people were related to agriculture,

when they were not.

Betty: The letters that he wrote,

he really talks about the injustice

of what's being done to this group of people, the Jews,

that they're being persecuted,

and that he feels it's a terrible injustice,

and can we help them?

Maria: He's asking the ministry to act on this situation.

He was asked to leave Bremen and go to Houston,

or you go back to Ecuador without any position.

So I think that was a very clear, you know, sign.

I mean, he certainly didn't put himself at risk

as many other people did, but he did lose his position.

Maria: The humanist consuls who helped the immigrants,

in most cases were shunned,

and they were put in positions in which it was very difficult

for them to find work at their level.

They had to face very hard conditions thereafter.

(speaking Spanish)

A large part of it was opposed to it

because of a very strong German influence in Ecuador.

There were many, many German investments in Ecuador.

There were a group of Germans living in Ecuador

attached to the German embassy and with links

to the Nazi party trying to sway public opinion

and the political power of Ecuador towards the Nazi cause.

In fact, Ecuador's President Alberto Enríquez Gallo

issued a decree in 1938 to expel Jews who were not working

in industry or agriculture,

giving them only 30 days to leave the country.

The decree was never enforced. There was no expulsion.

However, the fact that the decree existed,

shows that there were powerful forces that were trying to stop

any kind of immigration of Jewish origin into Ecuador.

(speaking Spanish)

Ecuador was a unique country in this period

because there were never quotas.

Ecuador was open, no matter what number

of people were coming into the country.

However, the limitation still existed which required

immigrants to engage in specific fields.

The declaration in the law was that Ecuador is open

to immigration and not the usual phrase, "it's closed."

And by that in the historical point of view,

there was an alternative.

Countries could have acted differently,

if this little, poor Ecuador,

not a developed country at that time,

acted consciously different and kept that policy.

I think it shows something very important.

Moselio: The war was on. This was 1940.

Our trip to Ecuador was not without complications.

We spent three months in Lisbon waiting for a ship.

There were no direct ships to go from Lisbon

to Ecuador, of course, so you had to go

to the United States, transfer there,

then finally, we got onto a Chilean ship.

Took us through the Panama Canal to Ecuador.

And I remember my father asking some Ecuadorians on board,

"Is there electricity in Ecuador?"

He had no idea.

Werner: Hitler invaded Western Europe.

There was no port in Europe where you could get a ship.

So my parents took a train to Moscow.

In Moscow, they took the Transiberian Railway

to Vladivostok, from Vladivostok to Japan.

And then took a boat from Japan to Hawaii, San Francisco.

And we have postcards from along the way,

Mexico, Panama, until they reached Ecuador.

The entire trip took three months.

Ecuador was one of the very few countries

that still accepted Jews during the war.

When the war started, the English were saying

that all immigrants, the men, would be...


So my parents decided to leave England

to keep the family together.

We left Liverpool on one of the last ships going out.

I was sorry to leave England and to leave my friends.

I'm sure it must have been harder on my parents.

It was certainly a relief to know

that we were away from the war...

away from the bombs in London, and together.

The country that these European refugees encountered

was a small country with three million inhabitants

split up in three different regions...

the coastal region, which is warmer,

the mountain region, the Andes, which is colder,

and the Amazon, the rainforest.

When the immigrants arrived in Ecuador,

there were two little towns where they would end up,

Salinas and La Libertad.

Vera: There was no way to land on the land of Ecuador.

It was only sand.

There was no pier. There was nothing, no harbor.

Sylvia: No facilities for these vessels to disembark.

So they had to climb down these rope ladders

into small boats and then be towed in to the coast.

Anne: So we left from La Libertad

and went to Guayaquil.

There was a sort of a tram, but it goes on rails.

Vera: And then all of a sudden, it went off the track.

So there we were, stuck.

So somebody got up, helped the chauffeur,

and they made-- herr-up, herr-up herr-up--

and put the bus again on the rails.

(laughs) And off we went.

We arrived in Guayaquil.

The first day,

my husband was fascinated by the people in the street,

and he started to draw and paint.

My husband was an architect.

He painted and drew, and he could design furniture,

houses, everything.

Kurt: When my father, Pablo Freund,

first got to Ecuador,

he stayed a couple of weeks in Guayaquil,

and they were holding athletic games.

Somebody mentioned there was a Czech athlete

in the stands, and they invited him

to make a demonstration, so he took off his shirt

and made some discus throwing

and broke the Latin American record of that time.

So immediately, he became related

to the people in athletics in Ecuador.

Man: All the Jews came through Guayaquil

because Guayaquil was the port city.

It was a city full of malaria, and my father used to tell me

that people were just walking down the streets,

and they fell over from the fever.

At the beginning, everybody was sick, everybody.

There were diseases like malaria, typhoid fever,

tuberculosis, hepatitis.

And I had very severe hepatitis,

and I was so, so weak, I couldn't stand on my feet.

Many immigrants had stomach illnesses for life

because of the amebas.

One of the first people who were buried

in this cemetery died of an infection.

She was the wife of Dr. Carlos Alberto Ottolenghi,

who was in charge of getting the group to Ecuador.

As soon as she gave birth, she died.

And then his sister died.

There were no antibiotics,

and everything was not very clean.

Egon: There's a river that borders Guayaquil,

and from the other side of the river,

river Guayas, is a tropical forest.

And in the so-called wintertime in our wintertime,

these insects, the grillos, they came,

they coated the streets, millions of insects.

Grillo is a cricket that comes with the first rains in Ecuador,

and it comes in big waves.

So my mother, the first cultural shock

she got in Guayaquil, the rainy season began,

and she got married in a white dress

covered with grillos.

And not only that.

Every night, we had to go around

with a flashlight to exterminate the scorpions.

Gabriel: Hungry children, barefoot children,

was a common sight at that time.

The garbage all around,

and the whole city had an awful smell.

Johnny: It was a very rough city for Europeans,

so as soon as they had the means,

they moved up to Quito, which is in the mountains,

has a milder climate, or to Cuenca, or to Ambato.

Werner: We took the train up the mountains to Quito.

(train whistle blows)

It was a very colorful trip.

Anne: They were selling cuys, guinea pigs,

as food by the train, and seeing the bamboo huts.

Male voice:Primitive villages, houses on stilts.

Unforgettable that first trip.

It started out in the early morning

in a tropical jungle with countless hues of green.

Benno Weiser was my uncle.

He wrote several books.

Among them, this book called "Professions of a Lucky Jew,"

a compilation of memories of his life.

In this book, he describes his arrival in Ecuador.

As the train started to climb, the scenery slowly changed.

The subtropics gave way to the Sierra...

the highlands with their glorious snow peaks.

Dark red Indios came into view

wrapped in blue and red ponchos.

I drank in the superb beauty of the unspoiled Andean scenery...

and the coolness of the mountain air.

I knew there would be no reason to feel homesick for beauty.

Until that moment, emigration had meant

only meeting the challenge of survival.

Suddenly I realized that life could be beautiful again.

The world is too big, I told myself,

even for Hitler.

Betty: Benno wrote columns for the newspaper El Comercio

in Spanish, which is amazing, because they started

a few months after he arrived in Ecuador.

People here did not believe

that things were taking place in Europe.

And he described concentration camps

and Kristallnacht and how he and his family

had to leave and why.

And the Nazis really persecuted him,

but he kept at it.

Moselio: Eventually we arrived in Quito,

which is at 9,000 feet elevation.

Quito, the capital city, looked very primitive,

but there was electricity, there was running water.

However, not something you'd count on.

Werner: The arrival in Quito was a very sentimental event

because it meant that we'd see our parents again

for the first time since 1938, or four years.

There were times where my sister and and I weren't sure

if we would ever see them again.

And really, we were very comfortable,

very happy, for the first time

without worries about the Nazis, war, and so on,

far away from everything.

Quito was so different from what we knew in Europe.

You could see the Indians on their donkeys.

And the cow came every morning with milk for the children.

That was Quito in the beginning that we knew.

Werner: Quito was a beautiful old Colonial city at the time.

Small. The population was a 150,000

(bells tolling)

Lots of churches and monasteries.

And very little modern commerce,

almost no industry, until the Jews came.

Maria: Around 1939, a large percentage

of the population were native Americans.

They were called Indians as Columbus identified them

when he arrived to the Americas.

A large percentage were and are mestizos.

There were also a small percentage of whites

and African-Americans.

In the Amazonian region, there were hunter/gatherers,

nomadic tribes.

Werner: The class differences in Ecuador,

at least in those days, were tremendous.

The Indians lived the same way they had lived

for the past hundreds of years.

Sylvia: The indigenous women would sit,

one delousing the other one.

Taking the lice and eating the lice...

off the children, yes.

The other thing that surprised the Europeans

was that the indigenous people would get off a sidewalk

as a sign of respect to the white person.

The Jewish refugees were most in contact

with the native Americans who lived in the Andes.

Sadly, they were practically enslaved

by the Spaniards for centuries.

They were still subservient in the middle of the century.

Now there's far more participation

of Native Americans in the political

and social activities of the country.

At first, you suffer culture shock.

All you are holding onto is your cultural heritage,

your identity as a European, as a Jew.

Suddenly, you are in an environment

which is about a 180 degrees the opposite.

Egon: It was a hard fit.

We were in exotic surroundings, and we were regarded as exotic.

Our values and our style of life,

we were gringos.

Many people accepted us, but then for the Indians,

we were just another oppressor.

When we came to Ecuador, we were convinced

that it was temporary, and that we would return.

Most of the immigrants thought so, too.

But, you know, after a while, the shock wears off,

and you begin to cope, you know?

People felt liberated already on the boat.

Good riddance, you know, this hateful society,

why should I long for it?

Others never got over it. My mother for example.

My parents also felt the alienation of exile.

They were depressed

and had difficulty adjusting to their new life.

My father suffered from survivor's guilt.

Eva:He felt responsible for his mother's death

because he didn't force her to leave

with the rest of the family.

Growing up, I felt my maternal grandfather's sadness.

I don't think he was ever truly happy in Ecuador.

I think he was extremely disappointed

not to have that cultural life and intellectual stimulus.

And he was quite depressed for a while because of that.

My relatives were, to various degrees,

quite depressed, especially my mother,

because her brother and all her cousins

and practically all her friends remained in Czechoslovakia,

and they were deported to the concentration camps.

And we couldn't find out what was going on with them.

My parents had no nostalgia for Germany.

They were happy that they had left in time,

that they were able to work immediately.

I think that my parents adapted very well.

My parents were happy to be here.

I was taught to love this country very much.

My father never went back to Europe.

He said there was nothing for him to look for in Europe.

It was a cemetery for him.

My father was born in Prague in Czechoslovakia,

and he worked in industry.

He started life here in Ecuador farming.

Since he got a visa to work in agriculture,

he read a book on agriculture

on the way down to Ecuador on the boat.

And he used to say that what he learned in that book

made him kind of an expert.

This is really what I remember.

This little road here is basically

the same way it looked...

what, 50 years ago or more.

The house looks just the same.

There was a big staircase made of stone

where the porch is now.

This I remember.

We are now in the hacienda San Carlos,

about 35 kilometers south of Quito.

This is the first time I've been here since I was a child.

It's a very moving experience for me.

It's also moving for me to see how the owners of the farm,

who are the grandchildren of the gentleman

who gave my father his first job in Ecuador,

the way they have received us with so much happiness.

Woman: We all got very excited when we heard

about Pedro's interest in coming back to San Carlos.

This farm is our family farm.

My mother and father, they used to tell us

about this group of people that came from Europe

during the second world war.

It's very nice to know that the Steiners

and the Espinozas lived in the same house.

I am almost sure that this was my parents' bedroom.

this area here looks very familiar.

My mother's parents started their life

here in Ecuador farming a couple of miles down the road.

My grandfather actually did work in agriculture in Austria.

So when he came here, he was an expert.

My father found his vocation in agriculture

because that's what he did for the rest of his life.

Of course it was a challenge, it was a different society,

a different way of life.

The social situation with the laborers in the farms,

the poverty, and the lack of education.

My father had a really wonderful relationship with the workers.

The people did not know how to play soccer,

and since he liked to play it, he started a soccer team here.

I spent my vacations here, many weekends during ten years.

It was a very simple life.

No electricity, no running water.

I haven't come here in over 50 years.

It was wonderful.

This is very emotional. I am really touched.

My mother always used to say that the thing

that impressed her most about Ecuador

was how peaceful it was.

These were what my parents used to say

the happiest years of their life,,

and the fact that I can be here now

and relive a little bit of that is very, very nice.

Gert: The Oriente is the part of Ecuador

which slopes down from the Andes towards the east,

towards the Amazonas.

It is a very humid region, a subtropical rainforest.

We had to open the frontiers, go into farming.

My father, who was a lawyer, was very concerned.

For my parents, this was not only an adventure,

but a very scary adventure.

Had no idea what would be awaiting them.

The first house was leaking like a sieve.

Many of our things started to rot.

Luckily, we were in a subtropical area

where we didn't have to worry about malaria.

But the bacteria would immediately cause

an infection the moment that you even scratched yourself.

If you survived it for about a year,

then you created such a resistance

that nothing can kill you anymore.

My father looked for a proper name,

and of course freedom is the main thing.

So he decided to call the farm La Libertad, freedom.

My father had to make up his mind

just what he would cultivate.

We decided to go for cattle.

The first years, we did, of course, everything wrong.

Some of the cattle had a terrible time

because it came from the highland.

We lost most of them, until we got to talk

to local people, and they would advise us

of what kind of cattle to get,

and the cattle which we got there

were really used to the area.

We definitely had to learn everything

which had to do with cattle farming.

But my father was extremely nervous

about running out of money

before we could get anything going.

In order to gain some money,

we would go with our backpack twice a week into the village,

about a half an hour walk through the forest.

Puyo at that time had three or four merchants already,

and you would just kind of offer your wares.

It could only be called subsistence farming.

When our farm income went down, my mother started weaving.

We also augmented our income by baking bread.

It would be difficult to starve to death

because there're always bananas around.

I lived down there for nine and a half yeas,

and at one time I estimated that I probably ate

a little bit more than 30,000 bananas.

We never had any formal education really there,

but my father would read to us from various books,

and we knew enough of basic arithmetic.

With time, the soil gets washed away

and gets less and less nutrient.

The milk yield of the cattle goes down,

and our income started going down.

We couldn't stay there forever.

My mother always loved it.

My father secretly despised the life,

but he hung in and did whatever was necessary.

My father was probably the one who was most happy to leave.

He finally got to Quito,

where he had some intellectual life again.

(voice breaking) He definitely had enough, yeah.

(coughs ) No, he couldn't take it anymore, yeah.

I don't think any of us were really sad

of leaving that kind of life.

It was tough work,

and to do something else would again be exciting.

Eva: Some refugees who tried farming failed,

either from inexperience,

severe hardships, or poor yields.

But making a fresh start in the cities was not so simple.

Until 1944, when the law was repealed,

they still had to get official approval to work

in fields other than industry or farming.

Whether they arrived with all their possessions or none,

many had to make sacrifices.

(speaking Spanish)

(man speaking Spanish)

Monica: In Guayaquil my grandfather had a store

called Apolo.

He sold mostly shirts and things like that eventually

because the story that I hear from the beginning

is that my maternal grandmother, my Oma Alicia,

who was brought up in the Swiss finishing school,

ended up having to go door to door selling fabric.

But you did what you had to do.

They became peddlers, taking merchandise on their back

and going from door to door

and trying to sell it to the Ecuadorians.

Egon: You went to an established store

and got merchandise on loans,

and then you went to villages and sold it from house to house.

Even went to the market and opened the suitcase.

It was very hard, but it was also a profession.

The people who did that made some money

and slowly started a business, started a store,

some manufacturing and so forth,

and most of them did rather well.

Ralph: The opportunities when first arriving in Ecuador

were very limited economically.

But what's amazing, within a few years,

they were able to really raise themselves up.

Joseph: A real middle class was developing very slowly,

and the Jewish immigration

helped that advance very quickly.

So they needed an educated middle class,

and Jews supplied that.

Most of the European Jews who came to Ecuador

switched their professions.

They started small shops, opened small factories,

did things which in Europe they didn't do

but had to adjust to the local economy.

Pablo: The Jewish community organized

a savings and loan association

that lent money to immigrants who needed money

to establish their businesses here.

Not all the refugees succeeded.

Many new enterprises failed either because of ignorance

of local markets or limited demand.

My family traveled from one town to another,

trying their luck first in Ambato

making laundry soap, then with a store.

In Cuenca, a restaurant. In Salinas, a small hotel.

Finally, in Guayaquil,

a restaurant that gave us a livable income.

We were getting poorer and poorer and poorer.

My father started to sell things, buy things.

One day he sold radios, another day shirts,

another day canned tomatoes, whatever.

We were in not abject poverty because compared

to the poor Ecuadorians, we were rich.

But I had to walk several miles at times

in order to save a ten-cent bus ride,

so it wasn't easy.

Eventually, my father started a store.

And since the Ecuadorians couldn't pronounce

a name like Schaechter, they knew the cigarettes,

Chesterfield cigarettes, which they called Chester.

He called it Almacenes Chester, the store of Chester.

My father in 1941 started a factory

making milk cans and pots, because during the war

you couldn't get anything.

There really was nothing.

So you could just about start anything.

And that was, in certain aspect,

the advantage of coming to Ecuador:

a Jewish community that could start

a lot of things which didn't exist.

My father's uncle owned a Panama hat

in Germany back in 1935.

So they applied to work in the Panama hat business

without knowing anything about the hats.

The trademark of Ecuador were the Panama hats.

Most were exported through Panama.

That's why the name of Panama hats.

The idea of the hat saved our lives,

gave a living to the family.

So we are very thankful for that.

Henry: My father made several discoveries,

several patents in Czechoslovakia,

in a new field that was called engineering in radio.

When he arrived in Ecuador, he started working

fixing whatever electrical equipment

he could find and odd jobs.

He had his first break when the Shell company

was looking for oil in the Ecuadorian jungle.

He started setting up and building transmitters.

To get there he had to go on the back of a mule

and travel several days.

That's how his life started in Ecuador.

Most people in Ecuador in the 1940s

lived in the rural areas.

My father started installing radio stations

in all the small towns.

It was common to pay the radio station

to play one, two, three songs

and to send a message to their families.

This was extremely important

because people could communicate.

It made a very big difference.

And I used to travel with my father all over Ecuador,

and he would listen in to his radio stations

to see if the signal was strong,

and that's how he made his living.

Werner: My father got together with two partners

to make raincoats which were called Waterproof.

They lined the cloth with rubber,

which was produced locally in Ecuador,

and made it waterproof.

Until this little factory came along,

there were no raincoats in Ecuador, only umbrellas.

Joseph: My uncle, Kamil Kohn, was very enterprising.

When we arrived in Ecuador,

he tried his hand in many businesses.

After trying many things, he hit upon the idea

of buying a machine which made wire netting.

Even though he didn't know anything about such machinery,

he set up a little factory.

And this factory grew tremendously.

They make all types and kinds of wire products,

including tubing, and drawing wires.

So it made a tremendous impact.

Werner: One of the biggest commercial

industrial enterprises

was the pharmaceutical company called LIFE.

Marco: The Germans were the only suppliers

of pharmaceuticals to Ecuador.

And thus the Ecuadorian government

decided to establish a factory

to supply medicines for the Ecuadorian people.

LIFE stands for Laboratorios Industriales

Farmaceuticos Ecuatorianos.

They had equipment but they needed technicians,

and they needed technical expertise

to put the factory into operation.

Jewish professionals could no longer work

for the Italian government.

The main entrepreneur was Carlos Alberto Ottolenghi,

there was also his brother-in-law,

and Aldo Muggia, who was a physician

but had experience as a bacteriologist,

and my father, Alberto Di Capua,

who had experience building distilleries

for the Italian government.

And the way they set it up is they sat around

in a hotel in Quito drafting the terms of the company

in receipts for drinks in the bar

where this meeting took place.

And the date of this is October 21st, 1939.

The company employed a large number of Ecuadorian people.

It had employee benefits unknown at the time in Ecuador,

a workers union, a child care center.

And also, unusually for Ecuador,

it always paid its workers on time.

Several companies the immigrants created

have grown into some of the largest in the country.

They developed industries, products,

and services till then unknown in Ecuador

such as dry cleaning and paper bags.

Before that, everything, even food,

was wrapped in newspapers.

The shops then were little holes in the wall,

and the immigrants brought in window displays.

They also introduced selling on credit.

There were other contributions.

Dr. Isidore Kaplan, born in Latvia,

was the first radiologist in Ecuador,

and introduced X-rays to the country.

He also immortalized his adopted homeland in his photos.

Juan Neustaetter, a German-born engineer,

designed and helped build over 80 bridges in Ecuador.

His uncle, Hans Neustaetter,

pioneered the country's steel industry.

The immigrants also contributed to the arts.

Alberto: Hans and Gi Neustaetter really wanted

to thank the country for being here,

and they decided, among other things,

to donate the best concert hall they could.

They were able to build Casa de la Música,

the highest concert hall in the world,

with really perfect acoustics.

She helped design it.

I admire her vision and her desire

to change things with music.

Joseph: My father, Otto Kohn, was an architect.

He joined up with his younger brother Karl,

and they had a firm

which became quite prominent in Prague.

Karl Kohn worked in Quito for many years.

He built a lot of buildings for three years

jointly with my father but the rest on his own.

Woman: My father, Karl Kohn, had a great influence

in Ecuador in architecture and in the arts.

My father had painting exhibits, and he was also a teacher.

The most important painter of Ecuador,

Osvaldo Guayasamín, was his student.

He made a portrait of my father.

He made very many beautiful villas.

My father built this house

around the furniture that he designed.

It was important for him for people to see

that you could live with a lot of light,

and with space harmoniously.

He loved the word "harmoniously."

Woman: Olga Fisch was a Hungarian immigrant

that came to Ecuador in 1939.

She was the ambassador

of Ecuadorian handicrafts to the world.

My grandfather, her brother, was living here in Quito,

and he was the one that got the visa for her.

She had a job here already

as an art instructor at the university.

The first piece of handicraft she sold,

was to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Ecuador donated a rug designed by Olga Fisch

to be in New York in the lobby of the UN building.

She built this house to have her shop,

her living quarters and her workshops here.

After she passed away in 1989,

we made a museum in her living quarters

with her collection of pre-Colombian and colonial art.

She was interested in everything that was popular art,

especially in the Corpus Christi feast.

The feast is filled with color, with music.

When she saw the paintings in the drums,

she told them, "Why don't you do paintings?"

So she taught them, and she guided them,

and now they're a live world heritage.

The government gave her the title

of the Mistress of Handicrafts.

She did teach Ecuadorians how to love

and see beauty in Ecuadorian handicrafts.

Woman: My father, Paul Engel, was born in Vienna.

He was a doctor.

He was one of the founders

of the Endocrinology Society in Ecuador.

My father wrote scientific works and also works of fiction.

He was well-known in Germany as a writer,

where his books were published.

They were also published here in Ecuador.

As a writer, he took the name of Diego Viga.

His first novel was "Der Freiheitsritter,"

"The Freedom Rider."

He had an impact in the literary life in Ecuador.

Despite contributions they made to the country

and their general acceptance by Ecuadorians,

some Jews still faced an age-old prejudice.

Woman: I personally never had any problem.

I know that my father didn't feel too well

because there were places that didn't want to accept him.

Once somebody wanted to take him to the Lions Club.

And they said no, we cannot accept you.

So he asked why.

He said, "Well, your name is Cohn,

a very Jewish name," and that was hard on him.

I think there was anti-Semitism when I was a child.

There was quite a bit of it, more because of ignorance

than because of any specific reason.

Some of the sectors of the Catholic church

were still very conservative.

The teachings, now discredited completely,

of Jewish people as Christ killers

were still permeating certain areas of society,

which could create a bad experience

for the Jewish refugees.

We had religion classes at school,

and the Catholic boys would come scream at us,

"How come if you are Jewish,

you're not displaying your horns and your tails,"

and, "You're Christ killers."

I internalized that,

so when we eventually emigrated to the United States,

I didn't, until I was in eighth grade,

tell people I was Jewish.

I was afraid to tell people I was Jewish.

Eva: When I was a child, my family's restaurant

in Guayaquil burned down in an electrical fire.

Several people died.

My father barely escaped, then helped rescue others.

Most of what my parents brought from Europe burned.

My father was jailed for months without trial,

falsely accused of setting the fire for insurance money.

A newspaper published a cartoon that showed him

standing in a cemetery holding a bag of money.

The caption read, "Now I can return to my country."

But he didn't leave.

He stayed ten more years, making a modest living

with a small bakery and later a restaurant.

Were these actions xenophobia or anti-Semitism?

I'll never know.

Despite this ordeal, I remained close

to Ecuadorian friends from outside the Jewish community.

I don't think my parents ever felt segregated

or different.

They were very accepted.

We participated in every aspect of the Ecuadorian society.

My father was a Rotarian. He was a bridge champion.

By and large, except for the very few times,

I never heard something bad said about being a Jew.

I have to tell you, in the last 20-some years,

I have never felt anti-Semitism or any kind of discrimination,

neither has my son or my grandchildren.

So it's not prevalent,

it probably is in some homes, but it's not voiced.

Werner: I think it was in 1942, 1943

that we got the first news of the terrible things

happening in Europe, the Holocaust.

Nobody realized the extent of the murder that was going on.

Roberto: My father was born in Rumania

and through destiny ended up in Ecuador in 1948.

He actually went through the concentration camps.

He was in Auschwitz and Birkenau,

and he worked in the coal mines

and ended up in Paris

where he met my mother, and they fell in love.

My grandfather on my mother's side got a visa to Ecuador.

Took the family with him,

and my father followed shortly thereafter.

After my father got married, he ended up working on a farm.

My father wrote his memoirs in a book

called "Man of Ashes," and there he told us

about his experience with the Indians,

a turning point in his life.

Male voice:Up there in those high barren plateaus,

the spectacular vistas seemed to be in harmony with nature

except for the poverty-stricken condition

of the unfortunate Indians.

Their unabated hunger, their innumerable diseases,

and their servility to the boss

all filled me with the same anxiety

I felt in the concentration camps.

Just as I had been unable to fathom

how some of the most advanced civilizations in Europe

could inflict cruelty on my people,

I simply couldn't believe that such deplorable conditions,

anonymity, poverty, slavery,

could still exist in contemporary times.

Roberto: My father moved towards Riobamba,

and he became a door-to-door salesman there.

By then he had become fluent in Spanish

and also, he became fluent in Quechua,

the language of the indigenous people.

He enjoyed talking to the people in the market.

He left and went to work in Quito.

And eventually, he opened his own textile factory.

He became an Ecuadorian citizen.

That was his country.

Woman: Trude Sojka was my mother.

She was a Czech artist from Prague.

in 1944, The Germans came to her house,

and they took all the family,

first to the Therezienstadt camp,

and then to Auschwitz.

She left the camp in 1945, and she went back to Prague,

but her family had disappeared.

The only thing that she found was at the Red Cross office,

a little message from her brother, Walter Sojka.

Her brother had come to Ecuador.

He started looking for the family.

In 1946, she arrived in Ecuador.

My mother decided to begin again her work as an artist.

She started sculpting with cement.

She also used recycled materials...

which at that time was very unusual.

My mother painted her sister, Edith,

but she never finished this work

because her sister died at the concentration camp.

She didn't want anybody to see it.

I discovered it, and I asked her about it,

and that's how I knew about it.

I think she created more than a thousand works.

The Ecuadorian Cultural House, Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana,

honored my mother, naming her artist emeritus.

After my mother died,

we turned her home into a museum and a cultural house.

When my parents built this house,

they were still very afraid

because of their experience in Europe,

and so they also built a secret room.

Here it is.

This was my parents' hiding place.

They had here some blankets, some food.

When we remodeled the house,

we turned this into the Holocaust room.

My mother liked Ecuador very much,

and she never wanted to live any other place.

Ralph: In my case, my parents did not survive the Holocaust

through concentration camps.

But my mother's parents had very unique stories.

My grandmother, she was separated

from her family for almost eight years,

living in England and then going to Ecuador,

where she knew she had a sister.

Meanwhile, my grandfather and his children

spent the war period in Belgium.

Ilse: During our march to France, Southern France,

there were several people

standing on the side of the routes,

those wonderful Christian Protestants

who made it their task to take care

of all these people that marched by.

And this is where I found this family

where I stayed until the end of the war.

My brother ended up with another family not too far.

And my dad also found a family.

So we were all safe.

I stayed with them for six years.

When my father finally told me

that we are leaving for Ecuador, I said I won't go.

He said, "I promised your mother

that I will bring you to Ecuador."

We hadn't seen my mother in seven years.

Ralph: They arrived in Guayaquil in 1946.

My father was born in Dresden.

He lived throughout the war in Ecuador as a young man.

My mother and father met and were married in 1947.

He asked me to marry him. I didn't want to, actually.

I still wanted to go back to Belgium.

Can you imagine? (laughs)

Anyway, he convinced me.

And then we had three children.

The community was the center of everything.

There was not much else anyway.

So all the activities were inside this community,

which was the center of our lives here.

You didn't get out of Ecuador,

so everybody traveled within Ecuador.

So holidays were spent like that with the community.

Werner: The Jewish community in Quito was very well organized.

They had a social club.

They had a synagogue,

Jewish education for the children, youth club.

They had a sports club.

My sister and I took part in all these things.

She won all kinds of records in the Jewish sports club.

One time she was elected the beauty queen

of the Jewish community.

(laughs) They elected one every year.

Fred: I do have recollections of the old club

in Guayaquil, of course.

The social setting was the club. That's where we met.

Johnny: Behind me, we have the original building

where the Jewish community was.

It served all the purposes.

They had a little stage for shows.

For the high holidays,

it was transformed into a synagogue.

Ralph: There was no rabbi in Guayaquil

or even Quito, for that matter.

The Jewish life was conducted by the Jews themselves.

But I think the life here was more

of a cultural Jewish life than a religious Jewish life.

Egon: In Cuenca it was a very traditional society.

There was a small Jewish community there,

and we were a colorful group.

(speaking Spanish)

(speaking Spanish)

They wanted to re-create their lives,

the food they were used to, the cultural life.

There was a semi-European atmosphere among them.

They created an environment

that was compatible with their memories.

We opened our suitcases and took out our culture

that we had brought with us, and that worked for us.

For example, German was the official language

for the newspaper of the communities.

Egon: Jews opened bookstores, opened restaurants.

And there was a theater.

Plays were performed for refugees.

I participated.

Everybody was recruited sooner or later to be an actor,

and I became an actor in one or two plays.

Tanya: My mother, Vera Kohn, was fascinated

with theater for many, many years.

She worked for a long time in a German Kammerspiele,

the theater for the German-speaking people in Quito.

I was totally involved in theater during ten years.

Tanya: And she acted in Spanish

in the main theater of Quito.

And she was always the main actress and loved it.

It was really a rather lively experience.

I've talked to people of that generation.

I think they were so happy to be alive

because, you know, most of them had lost somebody there.

They just made it a point to enjoy life

to the fullest every single day.

Marco: And there was actually a tremendous effort

on the part of the others to give them moral support.

They gave each other dignity.

There was actually-- (voice breaking) to me it's--

was really one of the most touching things

of actually how these Jews tried to support each other

in this environment that was so different and so--

so complex.

There was a very small attempt made to become integrated

in the local culture,

or to understand the local culture,

which was not insignificant.

We took no part of that.

You have to understand where the reaction came from.

To the Europeans who came to Ecuador,

it was a threatening environment.

It was so different.

It was unfair to people who had saved our lives,

and who had taken us in, gave us an education.

Ecuadorians were very friendly.

They saw Jewish refugees as extremely curious beings.

They had different habits.

They wanted to work very hard.

The women also wanted to work very hard.

They were very independent. They go to the market.

They do things that the elite, the Ecuadorian elite won't do.

Werner: Ecuadorians had great respect

for the foreigners in their midst.

They tried to learn from them.

They tried to be employed by them.

And they looked up to them.

(speaking Spanish)

Egon: One of the pillars that made me survive mentally

was literature, were books.

This not only sustained me at the moment

but also laid the foundation for my later work

when I became a professor.

When I started my studies there,

I made friends among the Ecuadorians.

(man speaking Spanish)

Anne: The difference in certain aspect of my family

is we went out into the Ecuadorian society,

which wasn't very usual at that time.

We started our little business selling toys.

My husband worked a great deal

to make a connection between the Ecuadorian society

and the Jewish society.

He was honored by the presidents

for what he had done for Ecuador.

That an immigrant from Germany gets honored by two presidents,

that was possible in Ecuador.

Since the 1940s, Ecuador's population grew,

from three million to over fifteen million.

But the Jewish community declined in numbers,

from 4,000 at its peak to about 800 today.

Right now in Guayaquil we are 70 Jews, seven-o.

Not 70 families, 70 Jews.

In my family we were about--

I would say 25 people between my mother's

and my father's side,

and me and my son are the only ones left now.

A lot of people used Ecuador as a stepping stone

until they got visas to go somewhere else.

Monica: People went to Israel, to the States, to Chile.

The community became smaller and smaller.

Eventually, kids left and stayed abroad

because there were no Jews to marry in Ecuador.

Ralph: Those who remain in Ecuador

have created economic situations where they're very comfortable.

Most Jews probably did not have that,

and that's one of the reasons they probably left,

in addition to the fact

that their children needed an education.

Whenever parents could afford it,

their children were sent abroad for university studies.

Ronald: My parents were insisting

on us getting a good education.

At that time, things were going better for the family,

and they were able to afford to send us to the States to study.

And then why would they come back to Ecuador?

There was no real future there for the majority of the people.

My father, I think he rather liked it in Ecuador.

But he didn't want to have his family separate

once the children became of college age.

And that's why he emigrated, to prevent the dissolution

of the family once the kids went off to college.

It is sad to think that there was

such a large Jewish community here,

and there are so few of us now.

My social life was mainly with the Jewish community.

Now I feel totally integrated to the Ecuadorian society.

Most of my friends this moment are not in the Jewish community.

The Jewish community we visit on our return to Ecuador

is smaller but more assimilated than the one we remember.

The Jews of Ecuador today are upwardly mobile.

They have a strong Jewish identity

but are more rooted in local culture,

many through intermarriage.

In Guayaquil, we stop to pay our respects

to those we left behind.

Johnny: This was the first piece of land

that the Jewish immigrants bought

once they arrived here before the Second World War.

(praying in Hebrew)

This prayer we just said was in honor of my grandfather.

My grandfather, who established the synagogue

with Johnny Czarninsky's grandfather.

They both did it together.

This is my great-grandmother, my grandfather's mother.

We just had a really special relationship.

So I have very, very, very fond memories of her.

It was very important to come back

and see my father's grave again.

That was very emotional, being at my father's grave.

But as much as I felt emotion seeing his grave,

it was to see it with my brother.

For me it was important to have my children

learn about their heritage,

to see where their grandfather was laid to rest.

Johnny: ...On his resting place. Now let us respond, amen.

All: Amen.

And I think it was important for them also to understand

where I come from, notwithstanding the fact

that I don't feel particularly Ecuadorian

or have any roots left in this country.

I've heard about this country called Ecuador,

where my father and my aunts and uncles were born.

I always wanted to come to this country

to see where my grandparents came to seek refuge.

And Ecuador was the only country that gave them a visa,

so I knew this place was special,

and it's the reason that I'm here today.

This is my great-great-grandmother,

who I'm named after, and I didn't actually know

that I was named after her until today.

Pretty moving.

Man: It's quite a touching experience

to come back to the roots for all of us, next generation.

This has really been an eye-opening experience.

I think I understand my grandparents a lot better now,

my dad a lot better now.

This country provided safe haven

and made it possible for my parents to have

a place to come to and then to start new lives.

So for that, I'm very grateful.

I wonder how they struggled actually to put together

their lives after leaving all of this behind.

I often think of what they had to leave,

the people they had to leave...

the life they had to leave...

how they came with nothing...

the hardships they had...

grateful for the life they made for themselves...

but still mourn the fact that they were displaced.

We did not know what they had lost.

Only very much later, when I became an adult

and after my mother died,

I finally came to the realization

of how much she'd left behind and how courageous she was

in putting a life, a meaningful life together.

That they were able to overcome that in a new culture,

in a new world, learn the language, and succeed,

that to me is a great example of the human spirit

really overcoming great tragedy.

This monument continues to grace Guayaquil's waterfront,

and the Guayas river still flows as steadily

as it did when our families first arrived here.

But the Ecuador of the exiles' experience

can hardly be found today.

It's a modern nation.

For some of us, in many ways,

Ecuador has also become an unknown country.

Yet the refuge this nation offered our families

at a desperate time should always

be recognized and remembered.


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