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Commemorating Latin America’s role as Holocaust refuge

Updated: June 6, 2013 2:17AM

Years ago, while working for the Holocaust Museum in Houston, Christina Chavarria gave a radio interview about the history and relevance of the mass murder of Jews under the Nazis.

Later she received a startling message from an angry listener. “He asked why I was working on Jewish people when my own are being prejudiced against,” Chavarria told me now.

“That phone call started making me think. Is there something in the history of the Holocaust that speaks to Latinos?”

The atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust should be enough to make it relevant forever. But Chavarria, in her seventh year as program coordinator for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., understands that as years continue distancing us from World War II and survivors leave us, education is as important as ever.

Taking into account evolving demographics in the U.S., she put together a presentation on Latin America’s role in providing refuge to Holocaust survivors. It is part of the museum’s 20th anniversary tour paying tribute to survivors and rescuers that stops in Chicago on Sunday at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers. It is free to the public.

Chavarria found that more than 80,000 Europeans found refuge in Latin American countries. Many didn’t establish permanent residency because of unfamiliarity with altitude, heat or the Spanish language. Some who lived in urban areas, such as Mexico City, stayed.

The project opened another window into the world of Holocaust survivors. “It expands what we know of the Holocaust,” Chavarria said. “It shows how vast the geography of this history is.”

She can connect a few famous Latin Americans to the Holocaust, and many Latinos here would surely recognize her slide show picture of Don Francisco, host of the long-running TV variety show “Sabado Gigante.” His family fled Germany in 1940, the year he was born, and found refuge in Chile.

There are also stories of regular folks like Peter Span, a survivor from Yugoslavia whose mother moved the family to Mexico City after his father died during surgery for an ulcer after years in a labor camp. His mother thought Mexico City was as beautiful as Barcelona, Span told me. He arrived in Mexico City as a 9-year-old and stayed 30 years before a business opportunity took him to California.

“It wasn’t easy,” he told me of the move. “Mexico was not accepting with open arms, but the refugees, we lived there very happily. There had to be 30,000 Jews.”

Some Latin American countries took in refugees reluctantly, fearing a spread of communism that could threaten religion, Chavarria said. There was also anti-Semitism and active Nazi parties working against the Jews (many Nazis who ended up on the run turned to Latin America).

“No matter how difficult life was, it saved lives,” Chavarria said of Jews’ uphill climb in new countries.

Chavarria’s work is far from finished. Part of the museum’s mission is to register survivors, and she is urging Chicagoans who have a hand in history to contact the museum. Survivors can be registered posthumously.

“If you have something in your history,” she said, “this is the best place for it to live on.”

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