QUITO – Jewish men and women who arrived in Ecuador as refugees during Nazism played a leading role in the social, economic and cultural development of this Andean nation in the second half of the 20th century.
Their legacy has now been rescued in a book published by Ecuador’s National Academy of History, entitled “Jewish Migration to Ecuador: Science, Culture and Exile, 1933-1945,” which is based on nearly 100 biographies and several emblematic cases.
“Understanding modern Ecuador would not be possible without 15 to 20 of those Jewish immigrants,” Argentine scholar Daniel Kersffeld, who wrote the preface of the book, told EFE.
Most of the Jewish immigrants arrived from Germany and Austria, although some also arrived from Czechoslovakia, Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Russia.
The researcher said that some 3,000 to 4,000 Jews arrived in Ecuador, a country that many had not even heard of.
Many of them were professionals with university degrees, and some were even at the top of their field.
The year 1938 became a turning point for many European Jews, as it was when the Italian Racial Laws were enacted and when the Kristallnacht took place in Germany, a pogrom that lead to the destruction of hundreds of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues.
“The events of 1938 mark a point of no return for many German Jews who were sent to the Dachau concentration camp. Those who had avoided arrest knew they had to leave the country,” Kersffeld said.
However, many countries in the Americas, including the United States, had started closing their borders to Jewish refugees, with Ecuador being one of the few exceptions.
The Andean nation had a very small Jewish population, but figures such as journalist Adolfo Simmonds and engineer Julio Rosenstock took action to help newly arrived Jews, founding the Jewish Community of Ecuador in 1938.
Although Ecuadorian authorities officially offered visas for agronomists, many different Jewish professionals found a home in the Andean nation and helped develop important industries.
One of the most notable cases is the Life pharmaceutical company, founded in 1940 in Quito by a group of Italian scientists and businessmen, led by Alberto Di Capua, Giorgio Ottolenghi, and Aldo Mugia.
Life became Ecuador’s first large pharmaceutical company and a major exporter of medicines, providing jobs for Ecuadorian workers as well as for other Jewish scientists who did not speak Spanish.