Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Shoah Remembrance in Bogotá

Holocaust survivors, still strong and eloquent.
It was probably best for my ability to sleep that I arrived late at a talk today by five Colombian survivors of the Holocaust.

By the time I entered the standing-room-only event at the Bogotá Museum of Modern Art , the accounts of horrific experiences had passed and the survivors were describing the war's end, their migrations to Colombia and whether they could ever forgive, a point they disagreed on.

Faces of many who did not survive.
The four women and one man, speaking still imperfect Spanish with European accents, displayed vigor, spirit and strong memories, a testament to their vitality despite what they suffered: discriminatory laws, being driven from their homes, from their countries, packed in rail cars and seeing friends and relatives taken away to be  slaughtered by a civilized nation converted into a machine of mass murderer. 

The museum's Shoa exhibition, which fills some three levels, is sophisticated and detailed, with personal experiences, photos, recordings and examinations of Spain's mixed role in the Holocaust (a fascist nation friendly to Hitler, some Spanish diplomats individually risked their lives to save Jews and others). The exhibition also looks at  South America's involvement in World War II and Jewish refugees' efforts to flee to Latin America. The information is powerful and moving, as the account of history's most terrible and calculated slaughter must be.

A rally of Nazi fanatics in Barranquilla during WWII
What's missing, however, is the story of Colombia's own relationship to World War II and the Holocaust. An ally of the United States, Colombia cooperated militarily with the U.S., and, after Japan's Pearl Harbor attack, Colombia broke its diplomatic relations with Germany. In 1943, German U-boats sank Colombian ships, prompting Colombia to tardily declare war on Germany. Pro-Nazi conspiracies evidently existed in Colombia, a strategic nation thanks to its nearness to the Panama Canal. In a policy similar to the U.S.'s interment of Japanese immigrants and their children, Colombia rounded up and expelled German citizens and nationalized their property, even though most of them were likely inoffensive residents.

Some other Latin American nations, or their officials, did play either tragic or heroic roles during the war. Cuba notoriously turned the S.S. St. Louis, a ship packed with Jewish refugees, back to Europe, where many were murdered by the Nazis. In contrast, the Dominican Republic agreed to accept 100,000 Jewish refugees, although escaping Europe became so difficult that only 645 people actually made it. George Mantello, an El Salvadoran diplomat stationed in Switzerland distributed El Salvadoran citizenship papers, which saved the lives of thousands of Eastern European Jews and later helped pressure Hungary to resist the Nazis' deportations of Jews to Auschwitz.

After the war, many Jewish survivors, German refugees and Nazi persecutors took refuge in South America, but relatively few came to Colombia, which at the time was suffering a period known as 'La Violencia,' a politically-driven fratricide which at times rivalled Naziism in barbarity.

Five of those Jews who did come to Colombia, mostly because they had relatives already here, spoke on Tuesday at the Modern Art Museum. Now octogenarians, they heard with difficulty, but spoke strongly, with no lack of passion or strong beliefs. A woman whose family managed to send her to England to wait out the war recalled how after Germany's surrender the refugee children received lists of the dead from the Red Cross - "where they found their parents' names."

Max Kirschberg shows the number tattooed on
his arm in Auschwitz.
After telling their stories, the octogenarians reflected on how to prevent another genocide.

"Memory is the best shield so that it doesn't happen again," said one woman. Others spoke out against neonaziism, or the importance of living one's own life in a good way.

The survivors have handled their experiences differently. One decided to forgive. Another said she could not, until she had the permission of "my aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives" slaughtered by naziism. A woman from Holland has vowed never to step on German soil.

Yet, despite the world's collective memory, genocide has happen multiple times since World War II, in Africa, Serbia, Cambodia, and likely other places - while the rest of the world did little.

Still, the Colombian survivors managed to draw positiveness from tragedy. "There is one God for all of us," said one survivor, to a strong applause from the packed room.

Inge Chaskel hasn't let her WWII experiences ruin her life. 
The Holocaust revertebrates particularly strongly in Colombia, because some of the crimes by the country's lefitst guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries almost rival the Nazis' crimes for cruelty and barbarity, although certainly not in scale.

Sadly, at least one Israeli is accused by Colombia of helping train Colombian paramilitaries to commit such crimes.

Like many nations, Colombia also has its own skinheads and neo-Nazis - a bizarre phenomenon in a nation where the great majority of people are of Spanish, Indian or African descent, or of mixed background.

On the other hand, having lived throughout South America, I've seen and heard less racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia here than in other Latin American nations.

There have been at least two famous Jewish Colombians: Actress Fanny Mikey, who organized theatre festivals and founded the National Theatre, and Leo Siegfried Kopp, who founded the Bavaria Beer Company and who has become a kind of saint in Bogotá's Central Cemetery.

The Shoa exhibition ends March 31. The museum is also showing films about the Holocaust.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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