Survivors Build Community Over Cinnamon Tea

By Jordan Stolper

Published August 01, 2003, issue of August 01, 2003.
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When a hunger strike by government deputies forced the Bolivian president to call an emergency session of Congress in June, a group of men gathered at Eli’s Confiteria in downtown La Paz to assess the situation. When rival Bolivian security forces clashed in the capital earlier this year, leaving some 30 police and military troops dead, Eli’s Confiteria again served as a venue for heated discussions. Whatever the political hot potato is — and in Bolivia, there is always the sputtering economy or the teetering democracy to address — it’s being discussed at Eli’s over glasses of cinnamon tea and maybe a slice of cake.

Such discussions aren’t unusual in Bolivian cafes. But what makes the crowd at this particular restaurant unique is that it includes a handful of the few remaining members of La Paz’s Jewish community who emigrated from Nazi-era Europe.

For over 30 years, these men have met each day to trade wisecracks and witticisms — and to share in the knowledge that each is not alone in the improbable experience of escaping death in a concentration camp only to find oneself in an isolated Jewish enclave in a small, landlocked Andean nation.

It is no coincidence that these men gather at Eli’s. The restaurant has been a meeting place for Jews since Eli Northmann, a German-Jewish refugee, opened the restaurant in 1932. Northmann served what she knew: cakes and hearty meat dishes, like the restaurant’s signature meatloaf. (It is still served, although it is translated as hamburguesa — hamburger — on the menu because there is no Spanish word for meatloaf. It costs U.S. $2.50.) All of the sweets are on display in a brightly lit, refrigerated case, ready to be served by waiters garbed in white coats, their hair fixed with pomade. If not for the bits of Bolivian fare on the menu, it could be a scene out of any New York delicatessen, down to the “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon” posters hanging on the salmon-colored walls.

Every day at around 5 p.m., Irachmil Nudelman comes to Eli’s from his small chocolate shop across the Prado, La Paz’s bustling thoroughfare. Once inside, he heads directly to the basement, where, below photos of Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe, he joins his friends to exchange news and gossip.

When Nudelman first learned that a reporter had come to observe the group, he wasn’t interested in talking: “If you want my story, go talk to Spielberg,” he barked.

But after some coaxing from a friend, Nudelman, a robust 69-year-old, relented and suggested that the reporter join the group at its usual table to learn about the history of the gathering.

Originally, there were seven members in the group, none of whom knew each other before arriving in La Paz. They became friends in their adopted homeland, and started meeting daily. Of those seven original members, four remain; two died and one moved to Buenos Aires.

This shrinking circle mirrors the larger trend of Bolivia’s never-thriving Jewish community: After reaching a peak of around 10,000 members in the years following World War II, the country’s Jewish population today has dwindled to 600 — slightly more than half in La Paz — as most families have moved to the United States or Argentina.

But the remaining original members have opened their discussions to new members — including other survivors, children of immigrants and even a few gentiles — to keep things lively. On weekdays, between four and eight people show up for about an hour. On Sundays, as many as 10 men show up, including a few camp survivors who don’t make it on weekdays.

How did these men, fleeing from the Nazis’ campaigns, end up in South America’s poorest country? For most, Bolivia was simply a feasible option at the right time — a country issuing entry visas when Jews were being rounded up and shipped to concentration camps — rather than a particular destination of choice. Such was the case for Nudelman, whose arrival in Bolivia is owed mostly to chance and the vagaries of immigration laws at the time.

In 1939, Nudelman’s family was ordered out of their town on the German-Polish border. After stops in Siberia, Uzbekistan and Israel, Nudelman arrived in La Paz with his parents in 1955. He has built his life in Bolivia. He is married, has two grown children and earns a living manufacturing and selling chocolate confections. “The only thing I buy are the raw cocoa beans,” he told the Forward. “Everything else I make.”

Alfredo Weinberg, a wiry man with a warm smile, wouldn’t tell his complete story — only that he came from Germany in 1940 and has since worked at a small print shop. “Bring me a hot dog,” he whispered to a waiter leaning down to take his order. Moments later, his plate appeared, topped with sauerkraut.

Harry Sojka, who is 80, arrived in Bolivia in 1939. His son, Peter, told the story of his family’s arrival: “My grandparents were in Germany and took the first chance they had to get out. Somebody managed to get Bolivian visas, so they took them.”

Harry immigrated to New York in 1950, but after raising a family in Queens, the elder Sojka divorced and returned to La Paz in 1977. Upon returning, Sojka inherited ownership of Eli’s Confiteria from his stepfather, Leo Northmann. Peter, who was born in New York, followed his father a decade later to work at Eli’s. The confiteria is still the Sojkas’ business, although Peter also owns a chain of seven New York-style pizzerias.

While the Sojkas host afternoon tea at their restaurant, any suggestion of authority would be grossly mislaid. There is no formal organization to the meetings, nor is there any formal leadership — which, after 10 minutes watching these gentlemen talk, is entirely believable. “We’re all chiefs,” said José Quiroz, a Bolivian native wearing a matching houndstooth tie and sport coat.

Peter Sojka, busy running Eli’s, popped over to greet everyone but then quickly returned to the dining room.

The group “just came together,” said Henry Rau, a Bolivian born to German-Jewish immigrants who arrived in 1939. “We’re very close though, and we do things together. For example, last Saturday night we all got together to watch ‘The Pianist.’”

They speak in a mix of Spanish, German, Yiddish and English about a wide range of topics. “Economics, politics and Israel. We talk a lot about Israel,” added Rau, before hurrying off to a doctor’s appointment. History seems to be the least favorite topic of conversation. As is true everywhere in Bolivia, complaining about the corrupt government is a favorite pastime.

There are no women in the group, “unless somebody brings his wife,” said Clark Joel, a German gentile who arrived in La Paz in 1986 via the United States.

“But we love women,” added Quiroz.

“If somebody’s sick or his wife is sick, we call him or go visit him,” said Joel, stirring his café con leche.

“But not you, because I’ve never been invited to your house,” joked Quiroz.

After a half-hour of friendly ribbing, Nudelman got up to return to his shop. As he stepped into La Paz’s unyielding traffic, a taxi came to a halt, nearly hitting him. But Nudelman seemed not to notice.

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