Latinamerica Press / April 19, 1999
By Larry Luxner
Members of the Circulo Israelita in La Paz like to joke that when praying, they feel closer to God than any other Jewish congregation in the world. After all, at an altitude of over 4,000 meters, this is the highest synagogue on earth.
It is also one of the most remote, considering that fewer than 700 Jews live in this poor, mountainous and overwhelmingly Catholic country in the heart of South America.
"We are a small congregation, but we're very active," says Rabbi Palti Somerstein. "We have Shabbos services every Friday night and every Saturday morning and afternoon. We also have classes twice a week where the kids learn Hebrew and Jewish history."
When Somerstein, a conservative rabbi from Buenos Aires, arrived in La Paz four years ago, the tiny community had been without a religious leader for 20 years. And when he leaves in May, no one's sure where the next rabbi will come from.
The problem is that Bolivia's Jewish presence -- which began in the 16th century and reached its zenith right after World War II -- has been dwindling for decades.
According to historians, Jewish settlement in Bolivia dates from the colonial period, when "secret Jews" from Spain called Marranos arrived to work in vast silver mines of Potosí. Others are known to have been among the pioneers who founded the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in 1557 under the leadership of Nuflo de Chavez.
"Indeed," says the authoritative Encyclopedia Judaica, "certain customs still maintained by old families in that region, such as lighting candles on Friday nights and sitting on the ground in mourning when a close relative dies, suggest their possible Jewish ancestry."
The real wave of Jewish immigration to Bolivia didn't begin, however, until the early 19th century. In 1905, a group of Russian Jews arrived in La Paz; several years later, a handful of Sephardic Jews came from Turkey and Syria. By 1917, some 25 Jews lived in Bolivia. Even in 1933, the year Hitler grabbed power in Germany, there were still only 30 Jewish families in the entire country.
Things changed rather suddenly with the rise of Nazi persecution in Europe. Unlike neighboring Peru -- which kept a tight lid on immigration before and during World War II -- Bolivia granted thousands of visas to stranded Jewish refugees in search of a homeland. Between 1938 and 1940, several thousand immigrants arrived from Germany, Poland and Russia. After the war, between 1946 and 1952, another wave of Jews -- Holocaust survivors from as far away as Shanghai -- settled in Bolivia. At its peak, the Jewish community in Bolivia numbered 10,000.
"Peru tenia mayores posibilidades objetivas que Bolivia para acoger refugiados judios, pero no se consideraba a si mismo país de inmigracion y mantenia una actitud racista hacia los sectores mas importantes de su poblacion inmigrada, inclusive la judia," writes researcher Haim Avni in his book, Peru y Bolivia: Dos Naciones Andinas y los Refugiados Judios. "En cambio, Bolivia veia en la inmigracion un remedio saludable a sus problemas de poblacion, abastecimiento y produccion."
Marek Ajke, a Polish-born Jew who survived the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, arrived in La Paz in 1947. He recalls that one prominent Bolivian Jew, tin magnate Mauricio Hochschild, sought to establish a farming community in Bolivia's tropical lowlands, known as the Yungas, for impoverished Jewish refugees. "But it failed because the Jews weren't farmers," he said, "and because they found they could live in the city more comfortably and have a better living."
Besides giving refuge to Jews, Bolivia also opened its doors to more than a few Nazi war criminals.
One of the most notorious, the Klaus Barbie -- said to be responsible for the torture and murder of 26,000 Jews and others -- obtained Bolivian citizenship in 1957 and lived for many years under an assumed name in an apartment building only a few blocks from Ajke. The infamous "Butcher of Lyon," as he was known, was finally deported to France in 1983 and sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity. He died in a French prison in 1991.
"During World War II, there was very strong anti-Semitism here, even a Nazi political party," said Ajke, 73 years old. "Now, acts of anti-Semitism are very rare. Sporadically, people put swastikas on the walls, like when they showed the movie Schindler's List a few years ago. Happily, this is disappearing."
Nevertheless, Jewish institutions in Bolivia -- like their counterparts in much of Latin America -- keep a very low profile, with armed guards protecting the mostly unmarked buildings and all visitors carefully scrutinized before being allowed to enter.
A recent Saturday afternoon visit to the Circulo Israelita along Calle Landaeta revealed 27 men, most of them well over 60 years old, praying in an old sanctuary on the building's fourth floor. Displayed on a long hall just outside the sanctuary were the portraits of 16 past-presidents of the community, along with aging travel posters of Israel and an oil painting of a colonial street in Potosi. Just outside the building is Bolivia's only mikveh, or ritual Jewish bath.
Ironically, the well-known Colegio Boliviano Israelita, founded in 1940 for Jewish children, began accepting non-Jewish students in the 1960s. Today, the landmark building along Calle Canada Strongest counts only 20 Jews among its 500 students -- the result of emigration by many Bolivian Jews to Argentina, the United States and Israel in the 1970s and 1980s.
In another part of La Paz, along Avenida Esteban Arce, there's a monument to the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. When Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, the community held a ceremony attended by Bolivia's president and marked by a particularly emotional speech by the Vatican ambassador.
"I never felt anti-Semitism in Bolivia. Quite the opposite, they're very pro-Jewish here," says Rabbi Somerstein, 42. "Recently, we built an entire hospital -- the Centro Medico de Alto Obrajes -- in a very poor area of La Paz, together with a Lutheran German pastor and a Catholic priest. We're also working on an anti-discrimination project with the Conferencia Episcopal Boliviana and the Consejo Latinoamericano de Iglesias."
According to community leaders, some 400 to 500 Jews today live in La Paz, with another 150 in Santa Cruz, the country's fast-growing industrial capital. Most of them live in the well-to-do residential area of Calacoto, and hold down jobs as merchants, business executives, doctors, lawyers, accountants or engineers. In addition, maybe 50 or 60 Jews live in Cochabamba, which during World War II was home to hundreds of Jewish families and to this day boasts Bolivia's most beautiful synagogue. A few scattered Jews live in smaller towns such as Oruro and Tarija.
Interestingly, Bolivia doesn't have a chapter of B'nai B'rith, an international Jewish charitable organization active in most other Latin American countries. Somerstein attributes that to "internal conflicts and lack of interest," adding that Bolivian Jews today "have the resources to live comfortably."
Although few Jews keep the traditional dietary laws, given the fact that there's no shochet (ritual butcher) for miles around, a surprising number of Bolivian Jewish youth speak Hebrew, and many of them have been to Israel.
La Paz gynecologist Ricardo Udler, current president of the Circulo Israelita, says that despite the difficulties of being Jewish in Bolivia, the community's intermarriage rate is only 20% -- far lower than the 50% among Jews in the United States.
"Here, most Jews keep the Shabbos," he says proudly. "Not one Friday night goes by that we don't celebrate Shabbos."
Born of an Argentine father and French mother, Udler, 44, is known in Bolivia for delivering the country's first test-tube baby. He's also president of the local chapter of the Macabi, an athletic organization for Jewish youth.
Other prominent Bolivian Jews include Andy Schwartzberg, president of the city council in Oruro, and Moises Jarmusz, secretary of the UCS political party, which belongs to President Hugo Banzer's ruling coalition. Yet another is attorney Rene Dorfler, who in his distinguished career has served as city manager of La Paz, Bolivian minister of economy and director of Bolivia's Banco del Estado.
"We do everything we can to preserve our Jewish traditions," says Dorfler, noting that, thanks to a stronger economy and the return of democracy, fewer Jews are emigrating these days. "Fundamentally, our priority is that our children maintain this tradition."