A couple of years ago Edith and I took the ferry to Ellis Island, to revisit the place where my parents and I had spent five days on arrival to the United States in January of 1941. Nearly sixty years had passed but some sights were still familiar. I best remember the great big hall where the people—it would be wrong to call them inmates—spent most of their waking hours. Having come from a Europe aflame and having had a rough crossing from Lisbon, Ellis Island didn’t seem so bad. We were not under any threat, got edible food, and had a future. It did seem strange to be nearly incarcerated when we had done nothing wrong and had no intention (or possibility) of remaining in the U.S. It was a rite of passage both in the physical and emotional sense, and felt OK as long as it didn’t last too long. There was no space one could call one’s own, and families were separated at night. We were given fresh bed sheets every night, which means that we didn’t have the same bed to ourselves. We were counted every time we went through a door, from the dormitories to the dining hall, to the recreation hall, which was manifestly a silly exercise. I still wonder what they would have done if the numbers had not added up. We were allowed to spend a few hours every day out of doors, but, it being a cold time of year, I don’t think we took full advantage of that. The sight of the downtown Manhattan skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty added to the dreamy quality of the experience.
My Tante Dina came to our rescue and posted a bond that allowed us to set foot in New York City. She and her husband (Onkel Henio) were living in Brooklyn, in one of the many ten-or-so-story buildings housing somewhat cramped apartments. I noticed later that many of these buildings had grand sounding names (e.g., The Albemarle, The Buckingham). We stayed with them for three weeks—the time it took to book passage on a ship to Ecuador. It didn’t take me long to learn how to use the subway system (nickel per ride) and my parents let me wander on my own. I headed for the museums, something that I had learned to do earlier in Milan. A digression: in Milan, I used to spend Sunday mornings in the fine museum of that city, the Pinacoteca di Brera, all by myself. I was stirred by the rousing names of the artists that seemed to roll off one’s tongue: Bernardino Luini, Cima da Conegliano, Andrea Mantegna, Tintorretto, Caravaggio. I think what drew me there was not just the art itself but that my visits lent actuality to the famous and revered names in my encyclopedia. On the other hand, what child (or adult) would fail to be moved by works such as Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ, the one that shows him feet first. I always thought of this as “my” painting. On one of my visits, there was a teacher lecturing to a group of students in front of a painting and, in apparent despair for lack of correct responses, he turned to me and asked what I thought of the work. He must have liked my answer because he turned to the students, saying: “See, he got it!” With such experiences in my recent past, it was not surprising that, once in New York City, I headed straight for the Metropolitan Museum. I ran into my parents there, which was totally unexpected, but which pleased me because it affirmed their interest in art.
The “Devil’s Nose,” a scary stretch in the railroad from
Guayaquil to Quito. Source.
We sailed on a Chilean ship, the Copiapó, of which I have almost no memory. It must obviously have been more comfortable than the Portuguese ship that brought us to New York. I have only a fuzzy recollection of going through the Panama Canal. My mental picture of what Quito would be like was that of a frontier town with a big square surrounded by low adobe buildings, all very dusty (had I seen Western films?). My father asked an Ecuadorian on board whether there was electricity there. So, we didn’t exactly expect what we were used to. We landed in Guayaquil, the major port city, but only spent one night there before taking the train to Quito. This narrow gauge railroad is an engineering marvel built by the British in the early part of the 20th century. It rises from sea level to over 12,000 feet and includes passage over the Devil’s Nose (Nariz del Diablo), a series of switchbacks above a very deep ravine used by the train to gain great height. In those days, this was a long and tiring ride. Parts of it are now considered a major tourist attraction, and for good reason: the landscape is spectacular. Upon reaching the highlands, the train travels along an amazing procession of snow-capped volcanoes lining both sides of the Altiplano.
Old Quito. Source.
I realized how wrong my mental image of Quito had been. The city did not look like an outpost town; rather it was an old city with narrow but well kept streets and some fancy colonial buildings. The main square was quite majestic, a park surrounded by the cathedral and other fairly imposing buildings. Because people then tended towards formality, the members of the moneyed class were very well dressed. There were Indians to be seen, many in native dress, but all in all it didn’t seem too strange. After a couple of days in a pension, we moved into an apartment on Calle Vargas, a fairly central street. My parents quickly made contact with members of the Jewish community who helped them with the basics of settling in. Most of the Jewish refugees there had come two or three years before us, thus had experience with living in Quito. All in all, I don’t think I felt subdued or disappointed. It seemed to me that our new home would turn out to be a livable place.
Our apartment was on the ground floor of a two-story, vaguely Deco-style house, with landlord and wife occupying the upstairs. We lived there for all the time I was in Quito. The apartment consisted of a living room, a small bedroom, and a dining room, all quite tiny but fairly bright. In addition, there was a disproportionately large entrance hall, a simple bathroom, and an even simpler kitchen with a wood-burning stove. Of course, we had no refrigerator or washing machine. My parents tried to have me sleep in the living room, but that didn’t work because there was no door between it and their bedroom. So I was moved to the dining room, which had to perform double duty. I didn’t mind because the room was otherwise used for meals only. There was a small garden. The house was quite centrally located in a quiet area on the slope of Pichincha, the mountain that looks out over Quito. Reaching the house from the city center required walking up a steep street, which I did innumerable times. In later years, I revisited the house, which was still standing, but was now in the busy part of town. Our apartment had been converted into a school for radio mechanics. The living room was now a small classroom, the dining room a shop. The owner seemed quite happy to meet me and to show me around (which took all of two minutes). He made the pronouncement that we should stay in touch so that we could exchange our views (of what I didn’t ask).
Despite the appearance of civility, the city was in many ways quite out-of-date. A few streets were paved with cobblestones, the rest unpaved and dusty. Electricity and water were sporadic and could go off at any time. There were few stores and shopping for food was done mainly at open-air markets. Every other block there would be a small, gloomy store, a “tienda,” where a few basic supplies could be bought. Gradually, it all changed and the city became more modern. The contrast with the Quito of today is startling, because much of it is now quite sophisticated. The part of town where affluent people live is extensive and reveals only traces of the potato fields of its simple past. There are now huge modern supermarkets and fancy stores where one can satisfy one’s desire for books and music of all kinds or sophisticated foods. That such a transformation could have taken place in less than two generations speaks volumes. Still, over half the population of Ecuador lives under conditions of extreme poverty, which contrast painfully with the better parts of the cities. But this story of intolerable suffering belongs elsewhere.