While many countries did less than their all when Jews sought refuge from the Holocaust, the tiny South American nation of Ecuador made an outsized impact.
Named for the equator, the former Spanish colony became an unlikely haven for an estimated 3,200-4,000 Jews from 1933 to 1945.
Few of these refugees knew Spanish upon arrival, and many could not quite locate their new home on the map. Yet some emigres achieved success in diverse fields, from science to medicine to the arts, helping Ecuador modernize along the way.
This summer, Ecuador-based academic and author Daniel Kersffeld published a book in Spanish about this little-known story, “La migracion judia en Ecuador: Ciencia, cultura y exilio 1933-1945.” (It translates to “Jewish Immigration in Ecuador: Science, Culture and Exile 1933-1945.”) Kersffeld calls it the first academic study of Jewish immigration to Ecuador in over two decades.
The author surveyed 100 biographical accounts in writing the book. In an email interview, Kersffeld said that around 20 of the individuals he profiled hold significant importance for Ecuador’s economic, scientific, artistic and cultural development.
They include Austrian refugee Paul Engel, who became a pioneer of endocrinology in his new homeland, while maintaining a separate literary career under a pseudonym; concentration camp survivor Trude Sojka, who endured the loss of nearly all of her family and became a successful artist in Ecuador; and three Italian Jews — Alberto di Capua, Carlos Alberto Ottolenghi and Aldo Muggia — who founded a precedent-setting pharmaceutical company, Laboratorios Industriales Farmaceuticos Ecuatorianos, or LIFE.
Kersffeld’s book began as a smaller project in which Ecuador’s Academia Nacional de Historia (National Academy of History) asked him to research the origins of the LIFE laboratories.
Kersffeld learned that LIFE’s co-founders had been expelled from Italy in 1938 after the passage of dictator Benito Mussolini’s anti-Semitic Racial Laws. He found they represented a wider story in Ecuador from 1933 to 1945 — “a larger amount of Jewish immigrants who were scientists, artists, intellectuals or who were in distinct ways linked to the high culture of Europe.”
The growing menace of Hitler and Mussolini spurred Jewish immigration to Ecuador, supported by the small local Jewish community. President Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra promoted the country as a destination for German Jewish scientists and technicians suddenly unemployed due to Nazi anti-Semitism.
But, Kersffeld writes, “the fact is that until the mid-1930s, few emigrants had chosen Ecuador as their destination country,” with most coming after 1938. Ecuador views 1938 as the beginning of its Jewish community, and celebrated its 80th anniversary earlier this year.
Marked by the Amazon and the Andes, Ecuador could not have seemed a less likely destination. That changed after the Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany and Austria in 1938, the Racial Laws in Italy the same year, the occupation of much of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and the Fall of France in 1940.
Ecuador became “one of the last American countries to keep open the possibility of immigration in its various consulates in Europe,” Kersffeld writes. “One of the last alternatives when all the other ports of entry to American nations were already closed.”
The consul in Stockholm, Manuel Antonio Munoz Borrero, issued 200 passports to Jews and was posthumously inducted in 2011 as his country’s first Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.
Another consul, Jose I. Burbano Rosales in Bremen, saved 40 Jewish families from 1937 to 1940.
But Munoz Borrero and Burbano were both relieved from their duties after the Ecuadorian government learned they were helping Jews. Burbano was transferred to the US, while Munoz Borrero stayed in Sweden and unofficially continued his efforts.
Recently, the Ecuadorian government honored Munoz Borrero when it restored the late diplomat as a member of its foreign service.
According to Kersffeld, in the period covered by the book there was anti-Semitism in Ecuadorian embassies and consulates in Europe, and in its Ministry of Foreign Relations. Jews had to pay fees to enter the country — although these decreased with time — and conform to an occupational profile. And another president, Alberto Enriquez Gallo, issued a decree of expulsion for Jews who did not comply with immigration requirements, although it never took effect.
Kersffeld writes that Ecuador’s government maintained relations, “sometimes hidden,” with Nazi Germany. (Burbano’s granddaughter, Ecuadorian anthropologist Maria Amelia Viteri, provided a biographical statement about her grandfather, according to which Nazi Germany offered military aid to Ecuador during a war with neighboring Peru in 1941.) Kersffeld also writes that cells and other groups linked to the German far right operated in Ecuador.
But overall, Kersffeld called Ecuador’s immigration policy “less restrictive than that which developed in other countries of the region in the same era.”
Given a new chance, Jewish immigrants would write South American success stories.
Kersffeld called the LIFE laboratories “truly unique,” noting that di Capua, Ottolenghi and Muggia made LIFE into “one of the most outstanding businesses in Ecuador,” able to export medications to much of Latin America while performing advanced scientific research that discovered new bacteria and viruses.
Other immigrants also made an impact in medicine. Austrian native Engel led the first endocrinological studies in Ecuador while pursuing literary fame under the pseudonym Diego Viga, while German-born Julius Zanders — who had been imprisoned at Dachau after Kristallnacht — did pioneering work as a veterinarian and involved himself in Jewish community life.
Kersffeld credited Jewish immigrant doctors with introducing developments to Ecuador such as radiology and Freudian psychoanalysis.
Journalist Benno Weiser used his investigative skills to denounce his new country’s relations with Nazi Germany and inform fellow citizens about World War II. Later in life, he became a citizen of Israel, where he reported on the trial of infamous Nazi Adolf Eichmann and served as an ambassador to the Dominican Republic and Paraguay. His brother, Max Weiser, became the first honorary consul of Israel in Ecuador.
In arts and culture, Kersffeld said, Jewish immigrants brought educational training from Europe and connections to luminaries such as Thomas Mann and Marc Chagall.
Hungarian refugee Olga Fisch became a celebrated collector of Ecuadorian indigenous handicrafts; her own acclaimed works are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian and the UN. Fellow artist Sojka “brought a personal testimony of the horror of the Nazi genocide to her artistic works,” Kersffeld writes, noting that virtually all of her family, including two daughters born six years apart, died in the Holocaust.
Kersffeld said that all of the biographical accounts he researched “represent distinct variations about how the tragedy of the Holocaust had an impact on the history of Ecuador. In each case, I was interested to see how the Holocaust was reflected in these biographies, as well as the tragedy marked by European anti-Semitism, persecution, exile.”
In each case, he said, he was also interested in examining “the imprint left by European totalitarianisms on an important group of scientists, artists and intellectuals who had to leave behind their families and communities of origin to begin a new life in a country as different as Ecuador.”
The subject of Holocaust-era Jewish immigration to Ecuador has been experiencing increased attention in recent years.
In 2015, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Eva Zelig released a documentary about the subject, “An Unknown Country.” An Ecuadorian-born daughter of Holocaust refugees, Zelig interviewed survivors and their descendants for the film, including Engel’s daughter and Muggia’s son (who is now an oncologist at NYU). She traveled back to the country of her birth while working on the film.
Zelig has not read Kersffeld’s book. However, she said that Holocaust-era Jewish immigrants to Ecuador “created a modern climate that moved the country forward.”
“Those who succeeded did spectacularly well,” Zelig said. But she noted that while some succeeded, others failed because “they did not understand the country, the economy of the country, what they should do and not do to move forward.”
After WWII, Zelig said, many Jews left Ecuador, “especially after quotas became available from the US.” Today, she said, the Ecuadorian Jewish community numbers only about 800.
“I think most [Jews] who went to Ecuador saw it as a stepping-stone,” she said. “Nobody knew where it was on maps.”
But, she said, “I feel tremendous gratitude. A lot of exiles felt very grateful to Ecuador having opened its doors.”
Her documentary continues to be screened — including in the capital of Quito earlier this year, where it was shown at the Museo de la Ciudad during a photography exhibition reflecting immigration to Ecuador from 1930 to 1970. Yet, she said, “strangely enough, not one Jewish film festival has taken it.”
“People [who watch the film] are saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t know, amazing, I didn’t know about this,’ whether they’re Jewish or non-Jewish,’” Zelig said.
Kersffeld himself said that there has not been much scholarship on Jewish immigration to Ecuador, contrasting this with what he calls successful studies in other Latin American countries. He said that his investigation has sparked interest in the subject across the globe — from Latin America to the US to Israel.
Alberto Dorfzaun, a former president of the Quito Jewish community and a descendant of Holocaust refugees, called the book “well documented and well written,” adding that it “gives the reader a very good perspective on how the Jewish immigrants despite… the relative small number had a considerable impact.”
Raanan Rein, the Elias Sourasky Professor of Latin American and Spanish Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former president of the Latin American Jewish Studies Association, wrote, “His book offers a fascinating story on the formation of a Jewish community in Ecuador, their social integration and their contribution to the development of science and cultural institutions in Ecuador.”
Kersffeld himself hopes that the descendants of the Jewish immigrants will find a sense of connection through his book.
“It has generated a very positive impact in Ecuador’s own Jewish community,” Kersffeld said. “My book is generating much interest and curiosity around certain individuals who hold importance not only for the Jewish community but also for the modern history of Ecuador.”