For some Jews desperate to escape Europe in the late 1930s, Ecuadorian consuls offered visas to those willing to work in industry or agriculture. These cultured European Jews knew little about where they would be going, beyond physical features like big mountains, tropical rain forests, and eucalyptus trees.
Eva Zelig, a producer and writer who was born in Ecuador’s Jewish immigrant community, was inspired by a 2010 reunion of former and current Ecuadorian Jews to start doing research that culminated in a documentary film, An Unknown Country, that was screened at Congregation Adath Israel in Lawrenceville on Dec. 11.
Introducing the film, Zelig said that she was telling the story of her country and why Jews were able to gain visas into “this strange country that no one had ever heard of.”
Rabbi Benjamin Adler invited Zelig, his father’s first cousin, for the screening. “I wanted to make sure that the story gets told,” he said. “Even though my part of the family came directly through New York, this is part of my larger family’s history, and part of the history of the Jewish people in the 20th century.”
Ecuador was mostly feudal in the 1930s, with landowners living outside the country in places like Madrid or Paris, explained Joseph Kohn, a former refugee and emeritus professor of mathematics at Princeton University who attended the screening. (For more on Kohn, see “Kohn’s bond,” on next page.) The middle class was small, he said, and “some pragmatic people wanted to encourage Jews to come in — and they did a tremendous amount for the economy of the country.”
Ecuador’s need for economic development, however, was tempered by strong German influences and some Nazi ties, generating some anti-immigration feelings. In fact, the film suggested that some consuls who gave visas to Jews were shunned and later found it hard to get jobs.
Jews came to Ecuador from many European countries, before and after World War II, leading to the Jewish population’s height of 4,000 in the 1950s. Today Ecuador has only 800 Jews.
Even though Ecuador was different from what they had known in Europe, some refugees were immediately content. As one immigrant said in the film, “My parents were happy to be [in Ecuador]. I was taught to love this country very much. Europe was a cemetery.” Many others eventually adjusted, but some suffered from survivor’s guilt, or simply never became accustomed to life in this poor and seemingly backward country.
Many Jews used Ecuador as a stepping-stone until they got visas to other places. Often they sent their children to the United States for college and then followed.
To make a living some farmed, at least until 1944, when they got official approval from the Ecuadorian government to work in fields other than industry or farming. One refugee sold fabric door to door. Many immigrants were able to eventually create businesses that provided necessary goods, such as pharmaceuticals and raincoats.
The Jewish community also contributed to Ecuadorian arts. Philanthropist Gisella Neustaetter donated money to build Casa de la Música, a performance hall, in Quito, and Olga Fisch became an ambassador of Ecuadorian handicrafts.
For most Jews in Ecuador in the 1940s, the Jewish community was the center of their lives: They had a synagogue, a social club, and a community center with a small stage for performances as well as High Holy Day services.
Yet the immigrants remained separate from most native Ecuadorans. “Being born in Ecuador doesn’t mean you’re an Ecuadoran. You don’t look like them, so you’re a gringo,” said Zelig.
Similarly, Kohn said, “In a country that is homogenous, the displaced people stand out.”
Zelig’s parents arrived in Ecuador in 1939 from Bratislava, in former Czechoslovakia. Her father opened a restaurant in Guayaquil, but it burned down, and her father was falsely accused of setting the fire for the insurance money. The family stayed in Ecuador for 10 more years, living off profits from a small bakery. Zelig said that her parents “were never happy, always depressed, and couldn’t adapt.”
After moving to the United States, Zelig did menial work for a year in Florida, but as she had been a ballet dancer with the National Ballet of Ecuador, she moved to New York City, where she still resides, and spent two years auditioning and taking ballet classes. Eventually she gave up dance and got a job at Columbia University, where she was able to take advantage of free evening classes to earn a degree in French literature.
After working for several years for a company that produced medical videos, she decided to follow her dream of moving into broadcasting, and took an internship at Channel 13. She was hired to do research for the science and technology series, “Innovation,” where she got a chance to produce shows, and she has since produced others which have appeared on The Learning Channel, New York Times TV, ABC, and National Geographic Channel.
Video creator and communications professional Ed Alpern, who has done work on the history of Trenton’s Jews, was especially impressed with the film’s depth. “There were so many voices and so many stories she was able to get in there — the before, how they arrived, the life they had in Ecuador, and the way they dispersed from Ecuador.”
After watching the film, Hazzan Art Katlin of Adath Israel said he was struck by the “stories of not just how they [the Jewish immigrants] made homes for themselves, but made differences in the lives of the country.”