Sam Freedman en The New York Times

ugust 16, 2003

A Treasure Hunt for Lost Memories


ONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — Twenty years ago, an anthropologist named Teresa Porzecanski placed an advertisement in a Jewish newspaper serving this distant compass point of the Diaspora. She was looking for the residue of an unrecorded history, the letters and snapshots of tens of thousands of immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

Mystified about why a scholar would care for the contents of their closets and bottom drawers, the aging immigrants or their offspring warily came forward, not only with mail and photographs but also with silverware, ritual candlesticks, samovars. Ms. Porzecanski and her students then set out, notebooks and tape recorders in hand, to interview family elders.

Those memories and donations began an unlikely boomlet in scholarship and literature chronicling the Jewish experience in a nation that espoused and largely practiced an American-style commitment to the melting pot. Uruguay's Jewish population has dwindled from 40,000 after World War II to an unofficial estimate of 15,000 now, primarily because of economic woes in this country of 3.4 million. But it has produced a stream of memoirs, academic treatises, oral histories and novels. The most commercially successful to date, Mauricio Rosencof's autobiographical novel "The Letters That Didn't Come" ("Las Cartas que no Llegaron"), will be released in English translation in the United States in 2004 by the University of New Mexico Press.

"It was like they discovered something that had been invisible," Ms. Porzecanski said of her interviewees. "They didn't give importance to their own lives. There was a sense of being ashamed of their own history, of being pursued and persecuted in their homelands. And they didn't realize the importance of what they'd done here — form a bank or a charity or an organization."

Miguel Feldman, a leading historian of Jewish life in Uruguay, sees the recent outpouring as a kind of desperate act. "The Jewish community is becoming smaller and smaller, and the eldest people realize the knowledge of our origins is getting lost," said Mr. Feldman, 74, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter at a Montevideo hotel. "The first generation is already gone. I'm an immigrant's son and I'm already old."

The body of Uruguayan Jewish writing points to a broader demographic truth, the shrinking of the Diaspora itself. Today Israel and the United States account for more than 80 percent of the world's Jewish population, 10.3 million of 12.5 million, said Steven Bayme, the national director of contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee.

In 1939 fewer than one-third of Jews lived in the United States and what was then Palestine — 5.2 million of 17 million. Even after the Holocaust, fewer than half the world's Jews lived in those lands.

Yet Uruguay is also distinctive in its neighborhood. Unlike Argentina and many other Latin American countries, Uruguay has been a liberal, secular democracy for much of its history. It became a republic in 1830 and has remained one, with the exception of right-wing dictatorships in the periods of 1932-38 and 1973-85. It separated church and state in 1917. And by 1890, it had enacted a "policy of the open door," encouraging immigration by issuing visas free of charge and even providing a hostel for new arrivals.

Although the earliest Jewish immigrants to Uruguay hailed primarily from Ottoman Turkey, the majority ultimately came from Eastern Europe, Hungary and Germany. Thousands arrived in the middle and late 1930's, when the United States largely refused to accept Jewish refugees from Hitler's Europe, and Latin American nations like Cuba, Mexico and Argentina set similar barriers.

The experiences of the first generation of Uruguayan Jews now fill such scholarly works as Mr. Feldman's "Difficult Times" ("Tiempos Dificiles") and Ms. Porzecanski's "History of the Lives of Jewish Immigrants in Uruguay" ("Historias de Vida de Imigrantes Judios al Uruguay"). In a more personal vein, Esther Cukierman's "Immigrant" recounts her father's journey from Poland to Uruguay in the 1920's, while Raul Jacob explores the belongings of one German Jewish refugee to depict a life in "Uncle Hugo's Suitcase" ("La Valija del Tio Hugo").

By the mid-1990's, the books had begun to attract attention among Uruguay's other ethnic groups, which include Spaniards and Italians. The incomparably titled "From Matza to Mate" ("Entra la Matza y el Mate") — mate being the national drink, a kind of tea brewed from a local tree — was written by Jewish and gentile authors. It received a full-page review in the Montevideo newspaper El Pais under a headline that translated as "Fiddler on the Roof."

"It is a happy sign that the multicultural mosaic is seeking to give a space to its parts," said Ilan Stavans, a professor at Amherst College who is an expert in Latin American Jewish literature. "Jews, no longer pariahs, are recognized as playing a crucial part in the nation's puzzle."

The encounter of Jews and Uruguay has yielded both humor and poignancy. The quintessential immigrant worked as a peddler known by the Spanish-Yiddish term "cuentenik." The "cuente," meaning bill or check, referred to the handwritten records that the peddlers used to keep their accounts. A really successful "cuentenik" hired underlings called "klappers," from the Yiddish word for knocking, who went door to door soliciting orders. A customer who failed to pay his bill was called a "tshvok," the Yiddish word for "nail," alluding to a Uruguayan idiom that an unpaid debt is as irritating as a nail.

Research by Mr. Feldman and Ms. Porzecanski has also resurrected the heroism of an Uruguyan diplomat named Florencio Rivas. While serving as consul general in Germany, Rivas harbored more than 150 Jews on embassy grounds during Kristallnacht in 1938, when Nazi-inspired mobs attacked synagogues and Jews. He then issued them all passports and visas ensuring passage to Uruguay.

So far, however, no book has matched the phenomenon of Mr. Rosencof's "Letters That Never Came." This stream-of-consciousness narrative traverses 60 years of Uruguayan history, from the immigrant pluck of the author's father to the deaths of the author's Polish grandparents in the Holocaust to the author's own imprisonment for 11 years during the 1970's and 1980's because of his leadership of the revolutionary Tupamaros group. "Las Cartas," which has gone through 10 printings in South America and two printings in Spain, is being adapted for the stage in Uruguay and translated into English by Louise Popkin. (Mr. Rosencof's American publisher has already released English versions of two novellas by Ms. Porzecanski, "Sun Inventions" and "Perfumes of Carthage.")

"It's a work that touches on the relationship between parents and ancestors," Mr. Rosencof said in a recent telephone interview. "We all have in our ancestry someone who came on the boats." His own parents belonged to a generation of poor Jews. "They worked all day," he said. "They didn't talk much about the past. We never had the chance to ask, how was the music in your village, what was the war like, what was life like."

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Estela Valverde escribio´¨Erocentrismo en la obra de Teresa Porzecanski¨