The European Jewish refugee experience in Bolivia is often told in sunny generalizations, as follows. Bolivia offered wartime refuge to tens of thousands of Central European Jews. By 1940, the train from the Chilean port of Arica up to the Bolivian capital of La Paz was known as “el exprés judío,” or the Jewish Express. In La Paz and elsewhere, after some mutual incomprehension, the European population managed to thrive. They opened Viennese cafes and founded Bolivia’s national symphony orchestra. After surviving the war safely, the grateful Europeans left for more familiar terrain. A simple tale, and a happy ending. The reality was, of course, more complicated.
This talk presented in Bolivian miniature the larger arguments of Andrea Orzoff’s book manuscript, Music in Flight: Migration from Hitler’s Europe and Musical Politics in Latin America. The author begun with the story of Erich Eisner, a Prague German who directed Bolivia’s national orchestra, examining the ironies of Eisner’s Bolivian career. Through Eisner, Orzoff visited the chaotic mass migration to Bolivia, the country’s troubled modernization, and the dissemination of scientific racism and eugenics-inflected antisemitism to Latin America.
Bolivia’s efforts to integrate its sizable Indigenous population made the integration of thousands of European Jews all the more challenging: refugees were themselves the objects of racism even as they arrived with their European prejudices intact. Jewish “whiteness,” in Latin America as in Europe, was at best insecure or provisional. The music Eisner played, wrote, and conducted reflected all of these tensions. Orzoff’s book addresses global Holocaust history, and the global history of high culture, through the individual stories of a complex, energetic migratory population that transformed the Americas: the talk will tell a few of those engaging stories and the larger issues behind them.
Andrea Orzoff is an associate professor of history, director of the Fellowships Office, and an Honors College Faculty Fellow at New Mexico State University. She is the author of Battle for the Castle: The Myth of Czechoslovakia in Europe, 1914–1948. Her current project, Music in Flight: Migration from Hitler’s Europe and Musical Politics in Latin America, 1935–1955, tells the stories of European classical musicians who fled Nazism for refuge in Latin America.
Ludger Hagedorn, IWM Permanent Fellow, provided commentary and moderated the discussion.
Martina Steer (University of Vienna) provided a commentary as well.