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The Bolivian "Schindler"

Schindler

For several years after I came on aliyah, I lived in Netanya. Although I now live in Beit Shemesh, I have still remained an associate member of my former shul and during lockdown greatly enjoyed its varied and stimulating Zoom output. This included an outstanding sequence of presentations marking Yom HaShoah. Advance publicity had featured a talk entitled "The Bolivian Schindler". Intrigued, I settled down to watch, hardly anticipating the surprises to come.

The speaker opened by showing a figure he named as Moritz Hochschild. My ears pricked up at this because I recalled "Hochschild" being a surname I had noticed on my late husband David's family tree, a document I hadn't looked at for very many years. On hearing that Moritz was born in Biblis in 1881, my curiosity was thoroughly aroused: David's ancestors did indeed come from Biblis.

The speaker went on to recount amazing events in Moritz' life, so as soon as his excellent talk was over, I hastily dug out the trusty family tree to check up on it all. Sure enough, there he was – "Moritz Hochschild 1881 Biblis". But no indication whatsoever about the extraordinary content of this talk, information which really makes Moritz Hochschild noteworthy.

And what was this information? The fact that - unknown to any member of David's part of the family, even at the time - Moritz is thought to have personally saved the lives of at least 9,000 German Jews (some historians say more than 10,000) using his own money to finance passports and transportation, provide food, arrange children's education, find jobs and even build accommodation for them as they started their new life in Bolivia. (By comparison, Oskar Schindler is thought to have rescued 1,200 Jews.)

So how was I able to check him out? After David and I had married in 1962, we came into possession of an extraordinary family tree. It must have been drawn up, in Germany, in the early to mid-1930s because David's late sister Edna, older than him and born February 1933, is there: but nothing much later than that. This complex chart seems to have been originally set out on numerous separate pages but at a much later stage must have been photocopied on to one huge sheet, too big even to cover an average dining-room table.

It is handwritten in black ink and the German handwriting gets smaller and more illegible as each successive generation is recorded so that there are literally hundreds and hundreds of tiny names squiggled all over it. But names of heads of each family generation in earlier times are helpfully rendered in thick bold capitals. Information on the family tree ends well before the onset of World War II so who knows how many of the owners of these countless names would have survived? But all the information on this chart is precious.

Right at the top comes the very first generation:

Salme (Biblis) died 1796

(No surname indicated: Jews did not yet have surnames)

Below that, the second generation: Schemul (sic) Hochschild (Biblis) died 1811. Then come his two sons, Mosche b 1788 and Zodik b 1790. Our interest now continues only with Mosche Hochschild 1788-1864.

Below his name are listed his five children: Suss (the only girl: she married a Frankel and became David's great-great-grandmother) and four sons, the eldest being Mendele, with six children and eighteen grandchildren, amongst whom appears our person of interest, Moritz Hochschild, born 1881 in Biblis, near Frankfurt.

He was apparently lured from Biblis to Bolivia in 1921 by his love of mountain climbing. But once there, he started out in the field of tin mining and in a hugely successful business career became one of the three great South American "tin barons", building a vast economic empire which stretched from Peru to Chile, also bringing over lots of family members to work for him.

He was spectacularly philanthropic and gained considerable political influence using his contacts with the ruling classes so that by the time Nazi atrocities and persecution were underway he was able to quietly obtain visas and legal admission to Bolivia for the many thousands of Jews he was secretly rescuing, arguing that they could contribute to the country's labor force.

However, he led a particularly sad private life and his closest personal relationships were often disastrous. He married Kathe Rosenbaum, a marriage which did not last, and they had a son, Gerardo Hochschild, to whom he did not speak for many years.

If ever a film was crying out to be made, this story must be it. There is one episode, for instance, where he is arrested and sentenced to death; another when he is captured and held by his kidnappers for two weeks. And there's much more.

To find out more about this extraordinary story, I recommend three sources.

  1. to look up a video clip on Google, "History Bites – the Moritz Hochschild video" from May8, 2017 (Steven Spielberg.)
  2. to search Fox News on Google, March 17, 2017, for another video clip, which shows that though in his lifetime he was vilified as a ruthless entrepreneur, it was only when, by chance, a huge collection of files, documents and photos was discovered that his self-effacing philanthropy and life-saving mission were revealed to the world. UNESCO now lists these documents in its Memory of the World documentary preservation program.
  3. to access his story is to check out The Times of Israel, October 28, 2018, – "Moritz Hochschild".

For more details, there are also two fascinating books. One is about the detailed migrant experience of the refugees who were helped by Hochschild Hotel Bolivia by Leo Spitzer, whose family was directly involved, so he is both a historian and a participant (available on Amazon and Kindle).

The other, by Helmut Waszkis, is entitled Dr. Moritz (Don Mauricio) Hochschild, 1881-1965: The Man and His Companies, A German Jewish Mining Entrepreneur in South America.

What a happy chance that I chose to watch the Zoom that evening, unexpectedly learning about this long-overlooked member of our family. 

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Wednesday, 20 October 2021

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