The Family Trading Company That Became a Relief Network for the Jews of Yemen

In late 19th-century Yemen, Suleiman Habshush built a prosperous trading empire and harnessed its success to help needy members of the local Jewish community. Later, when his grandson inherited the firm, the family helped to bring the community to Israel

Yechiel Habshush and Yemenite Jewish orphans in the Land of Israel

Suleiman Habshush was born to a Jewish family in Sana’a, Yemen, in 1856, the youngest of five sons. When he was eight years old, his father passed away. Suleiman worked as a coppersmith in his youth, like his brothers and father before him. Yet he struggled to make a living in this field and soon switched to commerce. Suleiman left Sana’a and began building the great mercantile network that would one day become a household name in Yemen.

Suleiman, who knew poverty and deprivation in his early years, decided it would not be right for his family alone to enjoy the fruits of his success. In his travels throughout the country, he was exposed to the difficulties suffered by Jews across Yemen – neglect, persecution by the Muslim authorities and unemployment. “Upon realizing that there was a need to represent the community, he secretly took it upon himself,” wrote Suleiman’s grandson, Yechiel Habshush.

Suleiman gradually expanded his trading network, which alongside its business activity, also served as a relief network for Yemen’s Jews. During the horrific siege of Sana’a in 1905, Suleiman came to the community’s assistance.  He described this terrible period in his book Eshkolot Merurot, noting that “about two-thirds of the residents perished in this siege.”

The bustling atmosphere and the generosity practiced in Suleiman’s home in Sana’a were well known and became instilled in his grandson Yechiel, who was born a few years after the siege. In the preface to the book that Yechiel wrote in his adulthood, he described the family home during his childhood as filled with visitors at all hours of the day and night.

There was hardly any private life in any sense of the word. The doors to our home were open almost all day until late into the night, with the houses functioning as residences where the family ate and slept, as well as a center for trade in Yemen and abroad, on-site warehouses for the goods, and business offices. From the early morning hours, the street of the Habshush family, which was closed on one side, was filled with visitors. The street was lined with horses, mules and donkeys belonging to the visitors, telegram messengers and mail carriers, government officials, brokers, traders, buyers and sellers from Sana’a and across Yemen, troublemakers, businessmen, people asking for aid, people waiting for the distribution of bread at noon, and guests from Yemen and abroad. A council house for sages and businessmen, weddings and Brit Milah ceremonies, and also, unfortunately, mourning rituals and the like. The whole house was busy constantly.”

Suleiman died in 1922 and the trading network he founded passed to his sons and grandsons, who re-named it “Suleiman Habshush & Sons” and expanded it to other countries. As history would have it, the trading company came to prominence during the period that some called “the Second Return to Zion”—the era of the great waves of Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel and the establishment of the State of Israel.

Yechiel Habshush in 1992. Photo: Courtesy of the family

Over the course of his own life, Yechiel Habshush maintained the family legacy of generosity and philanthropy. Yechiel was a businessman and public activist as well as a writer, poet and researcher of Yemenite Jewry. He eventually donated the family’s vast archive to the National Library of Israel which has enabled us to trace the Habshush family’s broad humanitarian activities. It was here that we learned that Yechiel immigrated to Mandatory Palestine from the port of Aden in 1930. He had arrived in Aden three years earlier from Sana’a, and worked to develop contacts with the Jewish Agency office in the city, helping many Jewish families immigrate to the Land of Israel.

Upon his arrival in Palestine, he immediately joined the local branch of the family’s trading company in Tel Aviv opened by his uncle David Tov. At the Tel Aviv branch, the Yemenite Jews living in the Land of Israel could send money back to their families in Aden or Sana’a. With no banks in Yemen at the time, the fastest, and perhaps only way to transfer money was through trading companies. How did it work? A person would deposit a sum of money at the Tel Aviv branch, and the branch manager in Sana’a or Aden would then transfer the deposit to their relatives in Yemen.

The Habshush family company kept detailed records of these donations, and in the archive, there are hundreds of hand-written receipts for the funds received in Yemen. On the margins of these receipts, Yechiel added notes to his brothers in Yemen to “give so-and-so the liras that his relative donated to him.”

Hand-written receipts of donations transferred to Yemen

And what of those who were not so fortunate? What of the refugees and the needy who did not have family abroad who could send such funds? In order to help, Yechiel and his cousin Meir Levi joined the Ezrat Ahim organization in Tel Aviv dedicated to the affairs of the Yemenite immigrant community in the Land of Israel. As for the work in Yemen itself, Yechiel mobilized a group of young men he knew from his days in Aden. These connections would play a crucial role in bringing Jews who still remained in Yemen to Israel.

An entire file in the Habshush family archive offers evidence of a critical part of Ezrat Ahim’s activity, which was dedicated to the care of Jewish orphans in Yemen. According to local Islamic law, children orphaned of both parents were obliged to be placed in the custody of a Muslim family that would raise them according to the religion of Muhammad. To preempt such an eventuality, a smuggling network was organized to rescue the orphans—first by transferring them to other Jewish communities, and then onwards to the Land of Israel, as quickly as possible.

Thanks to Ezrat Ahim’s activity and the help of the Youth Aliyah movement under the leadership of Henrietta Szold, hundreds of orphans were brought from Yemen to Mandatory Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel.

List of names of orphans brought to the Land of Israel by the Ezrat Ahim organization in 1945


Yemenite orphans in the Land of Israel. From the book The Habshush Family


The Habshush Family’s Efforts to Promote Zionism in Yemen

Apart from providing real aid to refugees and the needy within the Yemenite communities, Yechiel and his family members urgently believed in their cause because they no longer saw Yemen as a place suitable for Jews. Before and after the establishment of the State of Israel, Yechiel worked to convince rabbis and Jewish leaders in Yemen to support the Zionist movement. In the archive we found a vivid example of this in a letter written by Yechiel to Rabbi Yosef Shemen, one of the last leaders of the Sana’a Jewish community, in which he explained to the rabbi about the Jewish national movement that was calling on Jews to immigrate to the Land of Israel.

The letter Yechiel Habshush sent to Rabbi Yosef Shemen in Sana’a

The Habshush family attached great importance to education of the community’s children. In the 1940s, a Hebrew school for boys was established in Sana’a alongside a school for girls. This was an extraordinary development, as the education of girls in the Yemenite Jewish community had largely been overlooked beforehand. The students studied both religious and general studies, as well as Hebrew—perhaps in preparation for their immigration. The schools for boys and girls were managed by the leaders and rabbis of Sana’a, with donations by the Habshush family funding its establishment and operations.

Soon rumors spread throughout all the Yemeni Jewish communities about the possibility of travelling to Mandatory Palestine through the British-controlled port city of Aden. Crowds flocked to the city. The approval certificates were slow to arrive and the infrastructure could not support the influx of so many people. Many died of hunger and disease. Once again, Ezrat Ahim mobilized to help in these tragic circumstances.

Aside from the activity in Yemen itself, Yechiel saw importance in outreach to the rest of the Hebrew settlement, and with his sharp business sense he initiated a number of welcome initiatives. Among other things, he suggested to the mayor of Tel Aviv to organize a day devoted entirely to collecting donations for Aden’s refugees.

An urgent request presented to the mayor of Tel Aviv: “A Collection Drive to Help ‘Our Miserable Brethren'”

The materials in the Habshush family archive reflect the enormous scope of Ezrat Ahim’s activities. It seems that on every occasion one of the community’s members needed assistance, the organization rushed to help, to the best of its ability. The assistance included – requests from the Broadcasting Authority to resume performances by “the beloved announcer and singer Mr. Yechiel Adaki,” help with housing and rent for immigrant families, an appeal to the Mandate authorities on behalf of Jewish prisoners, and much more. Ezrat Ahim did not hesitate to involve itself in the life of the community in Yemen: it informed the members about the organization’s activities, and even called upon them to cease any bickering within the local community and unite behind the common cause to rescue the community.

In 1985–1986 Yechiel published a two-volume book about the Habshush family and included many documents from the archive to tell the story of his family. Yechiel remained active right up until the last remaining Jews in Yemen were brought to Israel in the 1990s. He passed away in 2002, at the age of ninety-one.

The book The Habshush Family by Yechiel Habshush [Hebrew], an independent publication

Thanks to Amitai Aricha and Dr. Menashe Anzi from the Department of Jewish History at Ben-Gurion University.

The Yechiel Habshush Archive has been made accessible with the courtesy of his descendants. It is dedicated to the memory of David Tov, son of Hanina and Amy Habshush. The archive was initially cataloged as part of the research project of Dr. Menashe Anzi, supported by the Israel Science Foundation, and later thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.

Dr. Anzi is currently conducting extensive research on the Habshush family trading company.

The Case of Agatha Christie’s Mysterious Disappearance

One rainy December evening, Agatha Christie left her house and never returned. The disappearance of the bestselling mystery writer shocked the British nation, including Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who took a surprising part in the unprecedented search mission…

Autographed photograph of Agatha Christie

One rainy December evening, Agatha Christie disappeared without a trace, as if she were swallowed up by the ground.

All of Britain was anxious about the fate of their beloved novelist, and thousands of fans and volunteers joined in what was, at the time, the largest ever search operation conducted by the British police. Among the volunteers was none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who employed methods that might cause you to raise an eyebrow or two.

It sounds like the plot of a good English detective story. One that Christie herself, or Conan Doyle, could have easily written, but it turns out that reality sometimes trumps fiction.

In December 1926, Agatha Christie was already a famous writer. Her book The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, published a few months earlier, spread her fame beyond England and made her a respected figure in the international literary world. Her married life, however, was not as great a success.

She wed Archie Christie (whose name she kept until her death) on the eve of the First World War, in a hasty decision that was characteristic of many marriages all over the continent at the time.

Their relationship began to fizzle after the war. Archie returned to London from the trench war in France as Colonel Archibald Christie, and typical of the men of his day, he had a hard time dealing with his wife’s independence and professional success.

Agatha, however, was devoted to her family, even with her successful writing career well underway. “I didn’t consider myself a writer. A married woman was a profession in itself. Writing books was something I did on the side,” she said of those years.

Still, that “something she did on the side” was a sensation that brought publishers and fans knocking on her door while driving her husband away.

עטיפת אחת המהדורות הראשונות בעברית
An early Hebrew edition of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

On the night she disappeared, her husband confessed to her that he was in love with another woman—Nancy Neele— that he had been having an affair with her for two years and that he wanted a divorce. After dropping this bombshell, he left their house to spend the weekend in the arms of his mistress (who would later become his wife). Christie then went into her daughter’s bedroom, gave her sleeping child a kiss, and then she too left the house.

She didn’t come back.

Her car was found the next day between an abandoned quarry and a lake, with its headlights on and the motor still running. Inside was a bag with her personal belongings and an expired driver’s license.

Britain was gripped with worry. Did the beloved writer commit suicide? Had she been murdered? Did she drown in a terrible accident?

Thousands of volunteers (estimates range from 2,000 to 15,000), sniffer dogs and police officers embarked on an unprecedented search. For the first time in the history of the British police, planes were sent to assist in the search. But in vain.

Her disappearance made waves far from Britain’s shores, and was reported in the Jewish press around the world.

Haaretz made do with a short and somewhat laconic news item:

“In London, the well-known author Agatha Christie has disappeared. Following matters between her husband and herself, she left the house in an automobile and the automobile was later found stuck in mud.”

The editors of the American Yiddish newspapers Forṿerṭs (The Forward) and Der Ṭog devoted more space to the headlines, and in general were much more informative:

This edition of The Palestine Bulletin was also quite detailed:

It was at this point that no less a figure than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle entered the story. The creator of Sherlock Holmes offered to help with the police search for the vanished murder mystery novelist. However, contrary to what one might have expected, he did not offer Scotland Yard the benefit of his sharp logical mind, instead volunteering to help in a completely unexpected way.

By this point in his life, Conan Doyle had become an ardent spiritualist, something that Sherlock Holmes would have surely curled his lip at. He was now a firm believer in the existence of the world beyond this one as well as our ability to communicate with it.

The “Cottingley Fairies” appeared in a photographic series published in England in 1917. Apparently, Conan Doyle considered this proof of the existence of fairies. In the 1980s, the girls in the photographs revealed that the images were fake. The fairies were pictures cut out from a children’s book. The photographs can be found today in the National Science and Media Museum

The police gave Conan Doyle one of Christie’s gloves that was found in the abandoned car. He then took it to a local medium hoping that she would use her special abilities to uncover Christie’s whereabouts. The medium was unable to find out the exact location of the missing person, but declared decisively that she was alive, in no physical danger and would be found soon.

The proof Conan Doyle had been waiting for came eleven days later. A waiter or receptionist at a spa hotel in Harrogate where Christie was staying under a false name recognized her, and contacted the authorities. She was picked up by Archie and the police, safe and sound, her sanity intact, but she never fully explained her disappearance.


שרלוק וווטסון, איור של הסראנד לאחד מסיפורי הולמס של ארתור קונן דויל שפורסמו בעיתון זה.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, an illustration by Sidney Paget from the Sherlock Holmes adventure The Greek Interpreter, which appeared in The Strand Magazine in September, 1893

The official version (probably put out by her husband) was that she suffered from what would be described today as dissociation, and was not aware of what was happening to her the whole time.

But this explanation, is, shall we say, less plausible than some other possibilities. Did Agatha Christie stage her own disappearance? And if so, to what end?

She never offered an official version of events and the episode is not even mentioned in her autobiography. But years later it came out that on that evening, after abandoning her car, Agatha boarded a train to London, where she stayed the night with a friend in Chelsea Park Gardens.

The cynics tried to claim that it was a brazen publicity stunt. A sort of elaborate ruse to promote her detective novels.

The romantics, on the other hand (and probably also tabloid readers, in other words – almost everyone), thought differently.

Was it an attempt to embarrass her husband (whom the police snatched from Nancy’s bed the night Christie went missing), or worse—to frame him for her murder? Was she trying to shock him so that he would return to her or was it really the mental collapse of a woman who had just discovered the answer to a mystery that had been brewing in her own home for over two years?

In retrospect, we can reasonably assume that the motives were related to the betrayal, since beyond the extraordinarily coincidental timing, it turns out that the pseudonym Christie used to register at the hotel included the last name of her husband’s lover—she called herself “Teresa Neele.”

We will never really know for sure. This mystery, unlike all the hundreds of mysteries she solved for us, will remain just as it is: open and intriguing.

From that point, Agatha Christie’s life took a massively positive turn. She remarried an archaeologist, Max Mallowan, who took her on fascinating journeys around the world, and she won unprecedented professional success, the likes of which no other writer has been able to replicate to this day. Only the Bible and Shakespeare have sold more copies.

Agatha Christie on an archaeological dig in the Middle East with her second husband, Max Mallowan

In 1971, Christie was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, so in fact proper protocol would decree that we should have added the title “Dame” to her name throughout this article.

Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie passed away on January 12, 1976, taking the secret surrounding her disappearance for eleven days with her to her grave.

What’s It Like Being a Nazi Hunter? The Files of Tuviah Friedman

Tuviah Friedman never forgot nor did he forgive. He dedicated his life to finding and capturing fugitive Nazis, as part of the effort to bring them to trial for their crimes. He was the first to obtain credible information that placed Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. Looking through his archive files preserved at the National Library of Israel offers a glimpse into the day-to-day work of a Nazi hunter…


An image of Adolf Eichmann, from the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

Imagine a typical workday that went something like this: you wake up, drink your morning coffee, and leaf through the local newspaper. Then you shower, dress and head to the office where you find stacks of mail on your desk from all over the world. You read the European newspapers, open the letters, and arrange all the information you have gathered in an index-card file arranged alphabetically, which looks something like this:


Of course, back then the cards were either stored in a rotating desktop card index, called a rolodex, or perhaps filed in drawers in a fancy mahogany wood filing cabinet. But all that is less important – You lean back in your chair, smoke your pipe if you like, and go over the text on the cards once more. You open up the personal files, look over the photos and biographical details, and try to verify the information you’ve received. All this as part of the effort to discover the current whereabouts of these people—the individuals responsible for what is likely the greatest crime in human history.

Photos and “Wanted” posters. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

This was the life of Tuviah Friedman (sometimes spelled Toviyya), whose business card could have featured the simple job description: “Nazi Hunter”. In the 1950s, gathering information was a much harder task than it is today – no Google, no Facebook. But Friedman set himself one mission with a single objective: find and prosecute as many Nazi war criminals as possible.

His quest to catch Nazis began even before the war was officially over. When the Russian army entered Friedman’s hometown, Radom, in Poland, the new occupiers sought to reorganize the local police and Friedman took advantage of the opportunity, enlisting under a false identity. As part of his job, he exposed, arrested, and brought Nazi criminals to justice.

Nazi SS officer Bruno Streckenbach. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

At some point, Friedman concluded that his future was not in Poland. He quit the police and decided to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine. Leaving what was then communist Poland through illegal means, he arrived in Vienna on his way to Palestine, but then, his plans changed. In Vienna, he met members of the Haganah involved in the clandestine immigration of Jewish refugees to the Land of Israel (they belonged to the Haganah’s Mossad LeAliyah Bet organization). These operatives suggested that Friedman form a team to track down Nazi war criminals, which is exactly what he did. Friedman settled in the Austrian capital and began gathering information, and with the help of the Vienna police, he was not only able to locate SS officers in hiding, but also to bring forth evidence that helped in their arrest, and sometimes even their prosecution.

File card of Theodor Eicke, commandant of the Dachau concentration camp. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

Back then, how would one go about bringing Nazi criminals to justice? First, one would have to create a separate file for each Nazi, including their name, date and place of birth, rank and position in the German army, SS, Gestapo or Nazi Party. Next, one would have to find evidence and proof of that individual’s part in crimes against humanity. Then of course there was the need to physically locate the fugitives—find out where they were living, whether they had changed their identity and if so, all the details of their new identity, including any new names or aliases and whether they had changed their appearance.  Finally, one had to convince the authorities to act on the evidence and materials that had been collected. Friedman did all of this. For his files on suspected Nazis, he would track down photos and news articles or other information that would indicate their responsibility for the crimes committed personally by them or under their direction. In this way, he was able to capture SS officers who had ordered the extermination of the Jews of Radom. During his time in Austria, he managed to bring about the arrest of some 250 Nazis.

One of these was Kurt Becher, who served as head of the SS Economic Department in occupied Hungary as well as commissar of all German concentration camps. Becher is particularly known for his negotiations with Rudolf Israel Kastner which facilitated the escape of some Budapest Jews to Switzerland in exchange for goods and money. Kastner testified as a character witness on Becher’s behalf after the war and the former Nazi officer was eventually released. He would go on to become a successful businessman despite his criminal past documented by Friedman and others.

“Himmler’s Devil” – Odilo Globocnikת a senior SS officer involved in the mass-murder of Polish Jews. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

Friedman’s Nazi files contain details about many more Nazis: Theodor Eicke, commandant of the Dachau concentration camp; Hans Bothmann, commandant of the Chelmno extermination camp; Bruno Streckenbach, a senior officer in the Reich Security Ministry who was placed in charge of operations of the Einsatzgruppen. These are just a few examples from the hundreds of index cards on Friedman’s rolodex of Nazis.

In 1952, Friedman finally immigrated to Israel, and after working for a period at Yad Vashem, he moved to Haifa, where he re-established the organization he had founded in Vienna, now called the Institute for the Documentation of Nazi War Crimes. Friedman was critical of Yad Vashem’s focus on documenting the victims and survivors of the Holocaust instead of actively searching for the Nazi criminals responsible. Indeed, the documents at the Institute for Documentation are a kind of mirror image of the Yad Vashem archives. Instead of lists of those who perished, there are rosters of Nazis with information on their various roles and documentation of their actions during the Holocaust.

Photographs of Hermann Baranowski (above), a senior SS officer and concentration camp commandant, and Hermann Göring (below), one of the highest-ranking Nazi officials and the commander of the Luftwaffe. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

In Haifa, he continued his work to locate the same Nazi criminals, but with fewer resources and less assistance than he had in Austria. He built up his files on Nazi officers of different ranks, from camp commandants like Rudolf Höss, who was in charge of Auschwitz, to the most senior Nazis like Hermann Göring, commander of the Luftwaffe. Friedman mainly devoted his time to raising media awareness of the need to bring members of the Nazi regime to justice and maintaining public interest in their capture even when the country’s attention had turned elsewhere.

Photo of Adolf Eichmann. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel
Various photos of Adolf Eichmann. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

The highlight of Friedman’s life’s work was undoubtedly his contribution to the capture and prosecution in Israel of Adolf Eichmann. Friedman had begun gathering information about Eichmann, the Nazi officer responsible for implementing the Final Solution, during his Vienna days, and had even obtained an up-to-date photo of him. A number of rare photos of Eichmann are preserved in Friedman’s archive, which can be seen here. He continued to collect information from around the world about Eichmann’s current hiding place and used the media to lobby for his capture. He even offered a cash reward for information about Eichmann, after which he began to receive letters from people claiming to know his whereabouts. Friedman was the first to receive a tip that Eichmann was living in Argentina, which he passed on to the Mossad. It was Friedman who convinced the Mossad to actively pursue Eichmann’s capture.

Photographs of a youthful Eichmann and his wife Vera. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

After Eichmann’s capture, Friedman sent the file he had amassed for over 15 years on the Nazi officer to the Israel Police, and directly assisted in building the legal case against him. The Eichmann case is certainly the most famous of Tuviah Friedman’s Nazi hunting stories. Tuviah Friedman’s archive is preserved in the National Library of Israel. It contents, which show his methodical and painstaking work, are available for viewing here.

Persecuted for Their Judaism in Germany and for Their German Origins in America

The story of the Jewish refugees from Germany who fled the Nazis to Latin America and found themselves in internment camps in the United States during World War II

Jewish prisoner Leo Hamermann

After his factory was set on fire, his property confiscated, and two months spent behind bars, Max Brill finally managed to leave Nazi Germany with his family in 1937, beginning a new life in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

He worked in electronics for a while, but then opened a pub and seemed to be on the road to social and economic rehabilitation. However, Brill found himself once more in a state of economic uncertainty when the United States of America entered World War II and his name made it onto the U.S. embassy’s blacklist of German-owned businesses.

Brill had difficulty advertising his business in the local press or even purchasing merchandise. Local suppliers were afraid of doing business with a person on the blacklist for fear that they might end up on the list themselves. His repeated appeals to the embassy claiming he couldn’t be a Nazi supporter because he himself was Jewish and had been forced to emigrate from Germany due to the regime’s persecution fell on deaf ears.

In a separate case from May 1944, the new Bolivian government, which had seized power in a coup in December 1943 and had yet to be recognized by the United States, was forced to hand over a number of German and Japanese citizens living in its territories, some of them without any semblance of proper justification.

These examples illustrate one of the most bizarre anomalies of World War II—the blacklisting of eighty-one Jews, the confiscation of their assets and their subsequent imprisonment in internment camps in the United States, along with 4,707 citizens of the Axis countries who had been living in Latin America, most of them Germans. The very same Jews who had left Germany because of their Judaism, were persecuted in their country of refuge because of their German origins. During part of their imprisonment, they were even detained in the same camps as those who held Nazi views.

Germans began migrating to South and Central America as early as the 19th century. Some owned large coffee plantations or engaged in large-scale trade. Those with means were connected through economic and family ties to the local elites. After Hitler came to power, a number of them joined the Nazi party—some due to a belief in racial purity and Nazi ideology, and others in order to maintain good relations with the German authorities, or to ensure the safety of their families back in Germany, or to secure the German state’s continued partial funding of local German institutions.

Most of the Germans in South and Central America did not join the Nazi party, but neither did they display any ideological opposition to the regime. While there was friction between the “old guard” and members of the Nazi party over control of the community’s cultural and educational institutions, it seems that these conflicts had more to do with personal and intergenerational tensions than with ideological differences.

A voting form for German diaspora communities on the Anschluss. The voting took place on board German ships stationed near South American port cities

In any case, the establishment of the new regime in Germany led to the spread of the Nazi party in South America and a rupture in relations within the German diaspora communities, between Jews and non-Jews. Some of the Nazi leaders wanted to replicate the persecution of Jews that was being carried out in Germany and target the local German Jewish population as well. Eric Heinemann, one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Guatemala and later Israel’s ambassador to the country, noted that only four families out of all the Germans in Guatemala continued to maintain friendly relations with his family after Hitler came to power. Moreover, Hentschke, the leader of the Nazi party in Guatemala, even organized surveillance of Jewish homes to make sure that the local Germans were indeed boycotting them.

The growing concern in the United States over Germany’s military successes and the U.S. decision to join the war in late 1941 led the government to take action against German citizens. The U.S. administration saw them as a potential fifth column and decided to issue blacklists of German-owned businesses. American companies were prohibited from trading with the businesses on the list. Later, Central American countries and a number of South American states were forced to hand over Germans suspected of Nazi activity to the American administration. The U.S. however, which relied on corrupt and self-interested local intelligence sources, did not conduct a thorough examination of the candidates for deportation and thus Germans who had nothing to do with the Nazi party, and even anti-Nazis and Jews persecuted by the Nazis were sent to prison in the United States along with Nazi party activists.

A list of foreign citizens living in Bolivia, prepared by the FBI (of the 12,000 Germans, 8,500 were Jews)

The conditions in the internment camps weren’t exceptionally harsh and the detainees’ basic needs were reasonably met. At the family camp near Crystal City, Texas, there was a school, cultural institutions and even a makeshift swimming pool. Each child received a daily milk ration. However, life for the Jewish detainees was not easy, as the most vocal and powerful group in the camp were the Nazi supporters, who sometimes harassed the Jewish detainees. For example, in the Stringtown internment camp, pro-Nazi detainees managed for a while to prevent the Jewish detainees from attending English classes and from taking part in the camp’s sports and cultural activities. Eighteen Jews who were housed in a steamy bunk next to the camp’s showers faced daily antisemitic ridicule from passers-by.

German prisoners from South America arriving at Camp Kenedy, an internment camp in Texas

Luckily for the Jewish inmates, in March 1942 the Department of Justice assumed control of the camps from the State Department. The Justice Department officials were more sensitive to questions concerning the legality of incarcerating people without trial solely because of their background, and without any evidence of subversive, pro-Nazi activity. Jewish and refugee organizations pleaded the case of most of the Jewish detainees and in the spring and summer of 1943 the Jews were transferred to a separate camp near Algiers, Louisiana. Within a year, all but six detainees received a conditional release. They were allowed to make a living, and some were even able to volunteer to serve in the United States military. After the end of World War II, seventy-five of the Jewish prisoners decided to move permanently to the United States. Only two returned to South America.

It turned out that the American imprisonment of German citizens offered an opportunity to save Jews from the Holocaust. Hoping to “repatriate” some of its citizens in the diaspora, Nazi Germany had built a special compound inside the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for this purpose. This facility was intended to house Jews who had real or forged documents testifying to some connection to countries in North or South America. So long as the Nazis had hope of exchanging their own citizens for these detainees, the detainees were kept alive. However, the U.S. government’s reluctance to send its German detainees back to Germany, mainly due to the fear of strengthening the German war machine, meant that very few Germans were actually returned to Germany in exchange for Jews with ties to the United States or to countries in Latin America. The failure of these efforts meant that these Jews had lost their importance as bargaining chips. Only a handful of them managed to survive the war.


Further Reading:

Friedman, Max Paul, Nazis and Good Neighbors: The United States Campaign Against the Germans of Latin America in World War II, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003

Strum, Harvey, “Jewish Internees in the American South, 1942-1945”, American Jewish Archives 42,1 (1990), pp. 27-4