In comparison with stories of genocide inflicted by the Holocaust, refugee narratives are few and far between. Consequently, they’re often overlooked in the context of Holocaust studies, despite the obvious necessity to share them with the public, accounting for some of the most moving testaments to the powers of altruism in a country.
On Saturday, January 27, the Film Society of Summit will have the honor to provide a platform for one of these stories, one which has almost completely slipped under the radar of public knowledge.
Ecuador’s very noble role in WWII, which as you’ve likely assumed pertains to the admittance of copious amounts of Jewish refugees, is at long last delineated in the Holocaust documentary An Unknown Country directed by Eva Zelig. A child of two of these refugees herself, Zelig chose to document this largely unknown story amidst many opportunities for other projects at her job on Channel Thirteen. As so often happens with great creative minds, the idea to do so was quite spontaneous - it had not been lingering in the back of her mind for years as the comprehensive quality of the film would indicate.
For Zelig, inspiration struck after hearing about and deciding to participate in a reunion of other first-generation Ecuadorians like herself. “Nobody knew there was a Jewish population in Ecuador. They would be returning to relive and reminisce about their childhood memories. I thought, ‘Gee, this sounds like a story I should be telling!’”
The documentary touches on two major themes of Ecuador’s personal fragment of Holocaust history, being the efforts of the government to resist Nazi influence in their immigration policy and admit as many Jews as possible, beginning in 1933 and the manner in which the refugees settled and adapted to life in Ecuador. It is as compelling as it is informative, calling into question how exactly this narrative has been so long omitted from WWII studies.
Even as a practiced objective filmmaker, Zelig found herself completely infatuated with these stories and had to restrain herself from telling too much about the stories of escape and survival, she explained during our conversation. Still, some of this is recounted through the film, and with it the serendipity and high improbability of the refugees’ survival.
Just as Ecuador was the infamous unknown country for some 100,000 Jewish refugees, to us it remains largely an unknown story, which we hope you will join us in amending this Saturday Night.
Statistics: The Jewish mass immigration to Ecuador began in the wake of the rise of Nazism and the ensuing Holocaust in Europe. During the years 1933-43 about 2,700 Jews arrived, and by 1945 there were 3,000 new Jewish immigrants, 85% of them refugees from Europe. At its peak in 1950, the Jewish population of Ecuador was estimated at 4,000 persons, living mostly in Quito. Today, the Jewish community of Ecuador comprises 290 active people.