Family footsteps in the Jewish sanctuary of La Paz

Brisbane Times reports:

Family footsteps in the Jewish sanctuary of La Paz


My family and I did not expect to like La Paz: not its oxygen-restricting altitude, 3700 metres above sea level, nor the successive days of rain predicted for the duration of our visit.

But mostly we did not expect to like the Bolivian capital because it had become, in our collective imaginations, an impoverished option of last resort; the lonely resting place of a close relative; a country of sadness.

Seventy-eight years ago, my husband’s grandfather Georg began to understand that not all Germans were equal. Although he had fought as a German Jewish soldier in World War I, by 1938 it was clear that nothing he had ever done would afford his family protection from the rising wrath of Adolf Hitler.

When, in November 1938, anti-Jewish pogroms attacked many synagogues and businesses, including Georg’s Berlin haberdashery store, he finally accepted that his family had no future in their homeland.


During those two violent nights known as Kristallnacht, Georg was in hiding, tipped off about the imminent riots and accompanying round-up of Jewish men by an old army mate now serving under Hitler. When Georg emerged to a shattered neighbourhood, he began preparing to move his family to Shanghai, one of the few places then accepting European Jews. Then his army comrade mentioned he had an aunt living in Bolivia. She helped organise visas for Georg, his wife and their two school-age sons. In return, the family gave the soldier virtually everything they owned and left Europe forever.

Via sea and land, the four arrived in La Paz in 1939, with their heavy European clothes and German manners. For the older generation, life in this Third World haven was tough. There were struggles with language, food and employment, not to mention the vast cultural chasm between the refined milieu they had fled and what seemed like the barely contained mayhem in which they now existed on the other side of the world, in South America’s poorest nation.

But for their sons, it was the start of a boys’ own adventure as they immersed themselves in Scouts, movies and girls, learning Spanish and meeting up with many of the thousands of German and Austrian Jewish children who, with their families, had also made their way to Bolivia.

Years passed. The faraway war ended. In 1946, Georg died suddenly, leaving behind a bereaved widow and two shocked young adult sons. By 1948, the surviving trio were on their way to Australia to join extended family. Another beginning.

Like so many new arrivals, they worked hard, and eventually flourished. Australia became home. But South America left an enormous impact on Georg’s two sons, who, for the rest of their lives, when asked where they were from, answered proudly that they had grown up in Bolivia.

But it was so far away, and in the decades that followed, they managed few return visits to La Paz’s small Jewish cemetery where Georg was laid to rest amid a ring of pine trees that grew steadily as one century merged into the next.

BY THE TIME we arrived in La Paz in late December, the town had assumed almost mythical status in our minds. Every family member who had sought refuge in the city had since died, and all that remained were some old sepia photos of Georg and his family standing stiffly in their formal clothes and smiling, naively it seemed to us, in this strange new world. The muted tones could not hide the dust from the unpaved streets with their flimsy homes and entrenched poverty. What a terrible shock, we thought, this place must have been for them.

After so many years, a single childhood friend of my late father-in-law’s, now living in the US, was the only link we had to their shared past, and he had provided details of their lives in La Paz. Over our first few days in the city, as we acclimatised to the altitude and admired the stunning landscape, we wandered along the streets he and my father-in-law had happily followed to the local football stadium, entering the old movie theatre they had loved and ambling along the wide promenade that had been a favoured meeting spot.

We could not be sure exactly which building my father-in-law had worked in as a young man, but when we saw the jaw-dropping expanse of snow-covered mountains at the end of a city street, just as he had described it, we knew we were in the right block.

Then, on our third morning, when we felt we had become accustomed to the thin air, we took a taxi to the cemetery. Through the winding streets we rode, across a bridge, down a valley, and back to a past we felt we knew, even though we had been born decades later. The taxi stopped at a gate bearing a Star of David, and we took a collective breath. Although we had talked about it often, we never expected to be here.

And then there it was: a simple white gravestone, with Georg’s name and the two dates that had bookended his life. More than a sign of death, this was, we realised, the one true marker of a family’s presence in an extraordinary city.

There were hundreds of gravestones in this surprisingly peaceful place, a lovingly tended series of terraces, overlooked by spectacular mountains. Almost all the inscriptions were in German and they revealed that, apart from a handful who had died in the mid-1930s, almost everyone else had been laid to rest here from 1939 onwards, leaving behind, according to the loving descriptions, countless family members. Bereaved, yes, but alive.

The sun shone on the beautiful cemetery’s fields, as it did throughout our stay, and in the pine trees birds trilled. We left with an unexpected sense of peace and an abundance of gratitude: for the 45 years of care and compassion that one family of caretakers continues to provide to the final resting place of so many people they never knew; and for the tens of thousands of lives saved in Bolivia. And for all the futures that had been able to flourish as a result – my Australian children among them.

Published by Bolivian Thoughts

Senior managerial experience on sustainable development projects.

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