No sooner had I arrived in Quito that I had to deal once again with questions of identity, as if I hadn’t had enough of this. I had already assumed a bunch of identities: I had been an Italian, a Central European, an Eastern European; a traditional Jew and an assimilated Westernized one. Now, challenges came simultaneously from my new South American homeland and from a Jewish refugee community that was also unfamiliar to me. In Italy, I had been exposed to three traditions, Italian, Polish Jewish, and Austrian. In Northern Italy where we had lived, Jews were strikingly Italian, high class, wealthy, educated, and aloof. Among them were major artists, writers, and scientists, not to mention some prominent members of the Fascist party. Some Italian Jews were Sephardi, claiming descent from the Jews who fled from Spain during the 1492 expulsion, and many of them did in fact have ancestors who came that way. We, on the other hand, were Ashkenazi: Eastern European Jews. We were tolerated and could attend their synagogue and school, but my parents were not integrated into this community. However, as a small child I did not sense the difference and thought that I was one of them. This was the community I had grown up with and knew.
In stark contrast, Polish Jews had typically lived in small towns and were only tangentially touched by Western culture. For several centuries, my ancestors most likely led a secluded life, centered around deep religious practices, family, and community. They were probably small shopkeepers, or at least the women in the family were. The men were supposed to spend their time studying the Talmud under the guidance of a Rebbe, a man of greater or lesser mystical leanings. This was particularly likely in the case of my family, since they lived in Galicia, the home of Hassidism. Until the 20th century, my ancestors spoke Yiddish between them, although I assume that they could handle the local language, e.g., Polish or Ukrainian. Yiddish was what my parents spoke throughout their lives.
My parents had left Poland in their mid-teens. My mother, as I said already, had been swept along by the process of Westernization that had already taken place among German and Austrian Jews. Going back into the 19th century, most Jews in Central Europe had become quite assimilated and felt themselves to be part of the larger society. Hitler came as an unimaginable shock to them. Germans and Austrians in general had tended to have pejorative views of all Poles, Latvians, Russians, and Romanians, who all were supposed to be unkempt, uncultured, untrustworthy, unschooled. In parallel, Westernized Jews looked down with contempt on their unassimilated and unsophisticated brethren. That many of the Eastern Jews were scholars of the Talmud and had a long tradition of learning counted for little. The process of Westernization went fast and newly arrived Jews from the East tended to acquire the new manners and appearance very soon. My mother was a good example. Had she stayed in Vienna, she would have become indistinguishable from other Viennese Jews.
In Quito, my Italian identity, dubious as it was at best, counted for little because few kids my age there came from Italy. Most of my new friends were Austrian Jews, a few German, and what did they know about Italian Jews.
Abruptly, I was no longer the Italian Jew I had aspired to be. In my new group, I was typecast as an Eastern Jew, not without some logic, because I didn’t speak German. The refugees brought with them to Ecuador their full baggage of attitudes and prejudices, including making sharp distinction about what kind of a Jew one was. The distinction was between the Germans and Austrians on one side, the Poles, Romanians and Russians on the other, and there were even finer splits. The Czechs, for example, wanted to have nothing to do with anyone else. Language and accent gave away who was from where.
Initially, the social contact between the groups was limited. Each group had its own social club and its members studiously avoided the others. Eventually, the rifts became less important for the adults as well, in part because the Quito community was too small to support these divisions, in part because people began to realize how absurd this was in light of the cataclysmic events in Europe. The kids my age had an easier time getting along, and overcame these barriers more rapidly and easily. Slowly, as everybody felt more and more at home in Quito, the interactions between them increased, the distinctions coming in time to be much less important. Ecuador, it was said, was a place where Polish Jews learned German and German Jews learned Yiddish. Even so, the old prejudices lingered. Before my marriage to Edith in 1994, I said something to my future mother-in-law about being Polish. Almost in panic, she blurted out: “But your mother was Austrian!” Grosser Gott!
Not surprisingly, my admission into the Jewish group demanded some fortitude. At first, I got much painful ribbing for being a Polish Jew, an “Ost-Jude”, and not speaking good German. I remember the chant: “Du bist so schön wie Apoll… Apoll… Wie ein Polnischer Yid” (“You are as lovely as Apollo, Apol…. A Polish Jew”). I had to work on my German pronunciation and improved it fairly rapidly. I have puzzled how come I became fluent in German so fast because this was not a language I thought I knew. (One Jew asks another, “Do you speak German?” “Oui,” he answers. The friend says, “But oui is a French word!” “You mean I also speak French? I didn’t know!”) My parents usually spoke Yiddish between themselves and, in Italy, Italian to me. Perhaps the closeness of our living quarters during the last few years in Italy and the trip to Ecuador had taught me more Yiddish than I was aware of. And Yiddish was a stepping-stone to German. For all I know, I may also have picked up some German from our relatives in Austria. To borrow someone else’s expression, Italian was my mother-tongue and Yiddish my grandmother-tongue.
So, why did being picked on for being Polish sting so much? Was it the familiar signal that, once again, I was an outsider? Did I inherit this? I knew that my father was well aware of his lower social standing as a Polish Jew. He spoke German with an accent; his dialogue was not very sophisticated; his manners at times revealed his origins. Thus he was readily “found out.” An impetuous and assertive person, he was deferential to Italian and, to a lesser extent, to German Jews. It became a source of pride for my father to be the go-between for the small group of Italian Jews and the larger community. My mother was quite the opposite, and could readily be taken for an assimilated Jew. So who was I? Talk about “farblonget” (mixed up)! All this and puberty too!
My hurts were my own to feel. The class distinction was more important to me than to the other refugee kids, most of whom treated this in an age-appropriate manner and soon got over it. I became very close with several of them and they provided me with an enriching and stimulating experience. Among others were Egon, Fritz, Michael, Walter, Werner—their names tell of their origins (listed alphabetically as it would be hard to do it by their order of importance to me).
The Jewish community had an active intellectual life. It numbered not more than 3000, yet it supported a small newspaper, lectures, concerts, and musical shows. There was even a tiny theater in the director’s house. All of this, of course, was done in German. I had a few minor roles in plays, such as George Bernard Shaw’s Candida and an end-of the century German comedy called Der Raub der Sabinerinnen (The Rape of the Sabine Women). There was also an active sports organization with basketball and soccer courts, and even an indoor boxing ring. This ring was the site of a story that Edith likes to tell. When I was about 15, I was boxing, or tried to. I was terrible at it, which prompted Edith and her friends (aged perhaps ten) to get the giggles. She says that afterwards I came over to her, gave her a coin, and said: “Here, when you grow up, give me a call.” Which she did, some fifty years later. To my joy, we got married two years thereafter.
Some of my friends and I belonged to a discussion group that met twice a month, led by a well-read older person. We explored Thomas Mann, Andre Gide, Hermann Hesse, the existence of God, whatever theme was deemed to be intellectual enough for us. Belonging to this group was a mark of cerebral distinction and membership in it surely facilitated my integration into the upper intellectual echelons of the Jewish community. Actually, quite a few of my friends went on to do great things. We all hold on to the notion that our group spawned an unusually large proportion of high achievers. Perhaps. The stimulus was there.
Very few of these friends stayed in Ecuador. After the war, there was a sudden and dramatic exodus, mainly to the U.S. The reason was not only alienation from the surroundings but also that the prospects were limited, other than for making money. Some of those remaining kept their European identity, others married Ecuadorians and their children became assimilated.
The intricate and exciting story of this refugee community has been told by a German, Maria-Luise Kreuter in her book Wo liegt Ecuador? Exil in einem unbekannten Land (Where on Earth is Ecuador? Exile to a Land Unknown). It is available in Spanish translation but not in English.
Another source is a book by Benno Weiser Varon, Professions of a Lucky Jew. It was most appropriate for Benno to write such a book. In my day, he was a journalist in the pay of the British Embassy charged with counteracting the Nazi propaganda evident in Ecuador until the U.S. entered the war and the Nazis were expelled from the country. Benno then served as ambassador of Israel to Paraguay. Later he became a professor at Boston University, which is where I got to see him again.
As I will relate next, my European persona was only part of my personality. I was also something of an Ecuadorian.