“The refugee has got to be checked because, unfortunately, among the refugees there are some spies, as has been found in other countries.” It could have been said today about the Syrian refugee crisis, but those words belong to President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1940.
Back then, many of those refugees — Jews fleeing Nazism in Europe — turned to South America instead. But one by one, those countries stopped issuing visas to fleeing Jews. It was no surprise: for years Nazi and fascist ideology had incubated deep in South America.
But away from all oceans and high up in the Andes, one small South American country kept its door open — a country that has had its share of economic problems and that even today is considered part of the developing world.
It hadn’t always been this way. Up until the 1930s, most of South America was open to immigration, including Jews.
That tradition of offering a home to refugees is part of my family history.
At the end of the 19th century, part of my father’s family got out of Ukraine. The Jewish community, including my family, had lost several young men to a pogrom — an organized massacre of Jews. For 18 days, my ancestors lived on nothing but tea and matzo, saving their money for a boat ticket. They wrapped their feet in cloth (they couldn’t afford shoes) and made for the port in Odessa. After what must have been weeks at sea, they landed in Buenos Aires.