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Finding ‘paradise’ in Ecuador
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Finding ‘paradise’ in Ecuador

Film chronicles challenges of European refugees who found an unlikely home by the equator

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Jews from Ecuador at the Equatorial monument in the 1940s. Courtesy Eva Zelig
Jews from Ecuador at the Equatorial monument in the 1940s. Courtesy Eva Zelig

To Heddy Belman of Pine Brook, Quito, Ecuador, is “a paradise.” Ecuador is where her parents landed when they were finally able to leave Romania after the Holocaust. It’s where she was born and spent her first four years.

“We had a wonderful life there,” she said. “It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous country. And you could have a job and raise a family. It was a beautiful place to be: in the Andes, with snow-capped mountains and volcanoes.”

It wasn’t that her parents had selected Ecuador over other countries for its beauty or opportunity; rather, she pointed out, they were prepared to go to “whichever country gave them papers first.” Like many other Jewish refugees from Europe, they found sanctuary in Ecuador.

Belman’s parents went there in 1947 after the Holocaust to start their lives over, though most other refugees had escaped to Ecuador during the Holocaust. Although Heddy’s father was an attorney with a doctorate in political science, he found work in Ecuador selling pots and pans. Her mother, who had studied medicine, would never be a doctor. But she did use her medical knowledge to institute practices of cleanliness in the family to avoid rampant bacteria and amoebas that caused a variety of ailments, including diseases similar to dysentery. The family remained in South America until the late 1950s, when they moved to New York. 

The Aron family in the 1940s — their attempts at cattle farming in the Amazon is chronicled in “An Unknown Country.” Photo courtesy Eva Zelig

Many of those who arrived in Ecuador during and after the Holocaust had never heard of the country before being welcomed as refugees. The majority lived either in and around Quito, in the mountains at about 9,000 feet, or in Guayaquil and its environs, at sea level. Some, like Belman’s parents, found work and settled into a new life. Some tried different occupations from farming to peddling to opening stores — restaurants, even factories — until they found ways to earn money. Others never got over the loss of lives and relatives they left behind, or couldn’t adjust to life in the tropics.

Their collective story, as the Jewish community of Ecuador, was documented in “An Unknown Country,” a film by Eva Zelig.

“An Unknown Country” will be screened at the Pine Brook Jewish Center, where Belman is a member, on Tuesday, Jan. 15, at 7 p.m. Following the screening, both Belman and Zelig will participate in a question and answer session. (Though some of her family members appear in “An Unknown Country,” Belman does not; her interview session for the film was cancelled due to a snowstorm, she said, and Zelig wrapped up her work shortly thereafter.)

Zelig herself grew up in the Guayaquil Jewish community. When she was invited to a 2010 community reunion, the film producer realized the residents’ stories needed to be told. At the reunion she filmed interviews with some of the former refugees, as well as their first visits to their old homes in Ecuador since leaving decades early. The footage is interspersed throughout the film.

“I felt the need to tell their story, which is also mine since my family had escaped Czechoslovakia to find refuge in Ecuador,” she told NJJN in an email interview. “It was my way to honor my parents whose trauma and sense of displacement I witnessed growing up.”

It took her five years to complete the film, which premiered in Jan. 2015 to coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27. Since then it has been screened in Quito as well as at various film festivals and on PBS-TV. It was also nominated for a New York Emmy Award in 2018.

The film captures the experiences of the Jews of Ecuador, including the tragedy and horrors they lived through in Europe, and their initial ignorance about Ecuador — its foreignness, from the heat to the bugs after the first rain, to being considered “gringos” by the native people. It also fills in the sociopolitical context during that era: the consuls, some of whom put their lives — and livelihoods — in harm’s way by providing immigration papers to Jews in Nazi Europe; the government decision to limit visas to those who would work in industry or agriculture so the refugees could help develop the country; and the expat Nazis living in Ecuador at the time who tried to sway the government against allowing entrance to the Jews.

Heddy Belman, in her Pine Brook home, with photos from her family’s time in
Ecuador after World War II. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg

At its peak, there were approximately 4,000 members of the Jewish community in Ecuador, but the natives resisted integrating the Jews into their society. “There was no tradition of absorbing outsiders in large numbers, so the refugees stood out,” Zelig wrote to NJJN. But “despite unique challenges, difficulties, and setbacks in the early days, they found ways to create a community to support one another — though a community somewhat isolated from the local society.”

While she was quite young when her family left Ecuador, Belman recalls snippets of her life there. “I remember the people, the plazas — everything was cobblestones. I remember the apartment we lived in and the parties my parents had whenever someone had a birthday. I remember the farming that would happen on the mountainside, so it looked like a quilt, and I remember the animals … the llamas.”

She also remembers going daily to the open-air market because there was no refrigeration. On one occasion, she said, “My father would pick a chicken out and I remember putting a rooster or chicken around my head and saying a blessing.” Now she realized it must have been kapparot, a ritual for making amends before Yom Kippur. “My family was not Orthodox, but we were traditional and everyone wanted to keep Judaism alive.”

She still considers everyone in Quito a cousin, regardless of whether they are blood relatives. Perhaps, she suggested, they all stayed close because everyone there had lost so much. Even after they left, Belman said, her family remained tight with the community.

“When someone in Quito sneezed, we heard.”

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