In February 1939, two ships approached the shores of Venezuela after a long, desperate voyage. The Konisgtein and the Caribia’s captains had already asked for asylum in many other ports, now they pleaded with the authorities to allow the entry of its 251 passengers.
But it was 1939, and the ship’s human cargo was considered radioactive. Why? Because most of the passengers were jews, newly expelled from Nazi Germany.
For Hitler, the fact that no country would accept them – not even the U.S. – was proof that everyone, and not only Nazis, hated the Jews.
Eleazar Lopez Contreras was president at the time, and after consulting with other institutions, he authorized the Jews’ entry.
That’s how many of my friend’s grandparents arrived to what they saw a “land of opportunities.” Joining Jews that were already here and arrived later escaping their countries for other reasons, they established the Jewish Community that I grew up in.
Venezuela also received my own family with open arms. It received my maternal grandparents who escaped Aleppo, Syria when the country gained independence from France. Clashes between Arabs and Jews escalated with the idea of the state of Israel coming under international consideration after WWII. After the partition of Israel was approved in 1947, more than 200 homes, shops and synagogues were destroyed, and the 2500-year-old Jewish community was devastated. My grandparents arrived in Venezuela back then, in search for a stable future.
My dad’s parents came from Cuba fleeing Batista’s dictatorial rule, also in search of opportunities. With a degree in Law and Accounting, my grandpa was able to have a prominent professional life.
None of them could have foreseen what came next. The country was completely transformed from a refuge into a hostile, threatening place. And so we, the young, are leaving in search of exactly what our ancestors came looking for: a better future.
According to this piece on NBC, the Jewish community in Venezuela has shrunk from 25 thousand in 1990 to 9 thousand in 2011. Families are increasingly taking root in the Miami suburbs, they report.
I’ve seen this in my own family, and I can say with certainty that what they are looking for is a community that resembles the one they lived in here. “There’s no Jewish community like the one we had in Venezuela” say displaced Jews with regret- and I include myself here, remembering how they grew up in a cohesive, supportive community.
Although most of the Jews who have left the country have done so for the same reasons that non-Jews have: crime being at the top of the list.
But the fact that the community’s place in Venezuelan society was – is – under threat became a source of concern for leaders of Jewish institutions who have struggled with integration and mutual contribution since the community was established. Signs of anti-Semitism in the government became evident in 2009, when Chavez condemned the state of Israel, expelled the Israeli ambassador and conducted meetings with Iran’s Ahjmadinejad. Our Holocaust survivors saw in the news how our president shook hands with a leader who denied what they and their loved ones had gone through.
I graduated from Hebraica, Caracas’ Jewish school, in 2011, along with 120 other students. Of those, at least half have already left the country, and most of the other half is planning on leaving. Only 69 students are graduating this year. Each younger cohort has fewer students, a sign that entire families are leaving along with their kids, and that our community becomes smaller every day.
Leaving the country that opened its arms to our roots is perplexing. Some of us remember the way we grew up, and wish to come back some day to have our future kids grow up the same way. Others still don’t even consider the possibility of coming back because members of their families or themselves have been through terrible situations that they want to protect their future families from- kidnappings, something many friends have experienced.
The same country that received our ancestors is practically pushing us away. This will always add a touch of irony to our homesickness.