I’m still at home.  In 1997 I visited Nicaragua and wrote an article about the Jews of Nicaragua, which was accepted for an anthology of articles about Latin American Jews, but the publisher canceled the book before it was published.  So it occurred to me that I can self-publish my article on my own blog. Unfortunately, wordpress doesn’t seem to provide a way to attach a PDF document.  I’ve pasted the text in here, but it’s long and the formatting is lost.  I will email the PDF to anyone interested, on request.

 

1
The Jews of Nicaragua
David Robboy
“Despite the occasional land mine, travelers will find Nicaragua’s bountiful geographical
treasures sublime and enticing.”
Central America, Fodor’s Travel Publications, Inc., 1996.
Welcome to Managua
I first visited Nicaragua in 1997 during a sabbatical from my job as a software engineer.
I had volunteered to lecture on computer science at universities in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
While there, I hoped to visit the local synagogues and get acquainted with the Jewish
communities. I knew nothing then of the catastrophe that had befallen the Nicaraguan Jews in
1979. The first hint that Nicaragua would not meet my expectations came at the end of my stay
in Costa Rica, the night before my departure for Managua. After Friday night services in the
Reform synagogue in San Jose, Costa Rica, as we were eating cookies and socializing, I asked a
Nicaraguan woman for advice on where to find Jews in Nicaragua. She became animated and she
told me angrily that there are no Jews in Nicaragua. I expressed some surprise, and asked if there
were none at all. With burning eyes, she said, “No hay Judios. Nada!” I found out that she was
almost right.
The Hotel Intercontinental in Managua is a landmark up on a hill, a stylized Mayan
pyramid presiding over the ruins of a city center that was destroyed by the earthquake of 1972
and never rebuilt. I figured that was a good place to find a pay phone. I walked past security
guards carrying semi-automatic rifles, into the hotel lobby. Suddenly I was in an air-conditioned
space that could have been a Westin or a Hyatt anywhere in the world. From a pay phone, I
dialed the number of Edith Cohen, the Nicaraguan ambassador to Israel. A man answered the
phone. Edith Cohen was not in, but when I explained what I wanted, he asked me if I was
Jewish. He said he is Jewish too, and invited me to come over to talk. His name is Roberto
Pataky and he gave me the directions to Repuestos Retelny, Retelny Auto Parts. The Nicaraguan
ambassador to Israel has her office in her auto parts store.
Roberto Pataky is a heavy man in his 60s or maybe 70s who looks like he has lived a
hard life. He spoke to me in English, apologizing that the ambassador was meeting with a foreign
delegation. Her car had broken down so she had borrowed Roberto’s car to get to the meeting. I
asked him about the Jews in Managua. He said are not very many. When the communists took
over, he said, the Jews all left for Miami, and only a few have returned. There is no synagogue
and there is not a minyan, but sometimes the religious Jews get together to pray. I asked him how
many Jews there are in Managua. He said eight or nine.
After many attempts, I reached Edith Cohen a few days later from a pay phone. As soon
as she heard my voice she switched to English. She asked me where I was and how she could get
to me. She said her chauffeur would come pick me up. I was stunned. This was typical of the
response of Nicaraguans. A total stranger with no professional credentials, I called up
government ministers and captains of industry to ask for an interview. They said “Como no?” –
“Of course.”
The chauffeur drove me to a doctor’s office that was temporarily being used for meetings
with an Israeli delegation. I walked in the door and met the ambassador to Israel, a short, thin
woman around 60 years old, wearing a white dress and a big gold star of David on a chain. Edith
2
Cohen is a United States citizen, having been married to a man from New York. Though she
was born in Nicaragua, she speaks English with a noticeable New York accent, and with the
intensity and engagement of a New Yorker. When I complimented her on her excellent English,
she said, “Well I should hope so, after what my father spent on that education.” She was warm
and friendly, and she wanted to help me, to give me what I was looking for.
Edith Cohen’s mother, Margarita Czukerberg, was born in 1915 in Hungary and
emigrated to Nicaragua in 1931. Edith’s father was Jose Retelny, from Poland. Her parents met in
Nicaragua. Edith married in New York while in college, and became a U. S. citizen. When her
father died in 1958, Edith and her husband returned to Nicaragua and stayed there. She has three
grown sons, two in the United States and one in Costa Rica. At the time of our interview, she
was involved in negotiations with the Nicaraguan government to recover property that had been
confiscated by the Sandinistas.
Ms. Cohen told me about the Jews leaving Nicaragua after the revolution:
“Well, everybody left because they said that we were friends with the
Somoza regime …. But really we didn’t know Somoza personally. I mean, he
never bothered the Jews and we never bothered him. In fact the Jewish
community was grateful to the government of Somoza because in 1948 in the
United Nations, Nicaragua was a decisive factor in the forming of the state of
Israel…
“… We were never in politics in Nicaragua. The Jewish people just
weren’t, you know, they were in textiles and private businesses… We never
mixed in politics whatsoever. It was none of our business. We just went our own
way and we made our living, to make sure that our children get a proper
education. In the case of the boys, most of us sent them to the United states for
the summer to study for their Bar Mitzva. They were all Bar Mitzva’d in
Nicaragua, but they did study in the United States. Or in Costa Rica. We went
on summer vacations, because we all went to the American Nicaragua school. …
[We went to Miami in the summer] and the kids in the afternoon went to the
cantor in the temple at Miami Beach, and they learned their Bar Mitzva.”
“In 1979 there were 36 Jewish families in the whole country. Most of
them were very active, we did have Friday night services, and we do have a
Jewish cemetery. And then, we all had to leave.… Except maybe one or two of us
that stayed because we had an American citizenship… “
Ms. Cohen estimated the number of Jews currently in Nicaragua as five or six. She
surprised me by saying that she herself never left Nicaragua after the Sandinista revolution.
“No, I stayed here with the Sandinistas. I fought against them… I mean actually
we were harassed plenty but we were very insistent and we stayed… I met with Mayor
Koch, when he was the mayor of New York City and we met on the steps of the
synagogue and we decided that is not going to be a synagogue anymore, so one of our
Torahs is in Costa Rica and one of our Torahs is in Miami. But I already have the land
for the future to build a new synagogue, God willing. If we have ten men. If we don’t
have ten men there’s no sense in building the synagogue… I don’t care if they tell you
that nine men and one woman makes a minyan, I don’t believe in that… because I wasn’t
brought up that way…”
A Little Recent History of Nicaragua
Anastasio Somoza Garcia started a family dynasty in 1937 that ruled Nicaragua until
1979, and these dictators had a reputation for brutality and corruption that was legendary even for
3
Central America. Franklin D. Roosevelt was speaking of the elder Somoza when he made the
famous comment, “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Anastasio Somoza
Garcia was assasinated in 1956 and his son, Luis Somoza Debayle, succeeded him. When Luis
died of a heart attack in 1967, he was succeeded by his younger brother, Anastasio “Tachito”
Somoza Debayle, who ruled until 1979 when the FSLN overthrew him.
Nicaragua did not participate, during this time, in the development of modern
governments and modern economies taking place in what we call the “western” world. Except for
a tiny landed aristocracy, the country was populated by impoverished, illiterate peasants. An
educated Jewish immigrant arriving in such a place found opportunities for enrichment. The
Somoza family liked Jews: they were good for business. As long as they didn’t threaten the status
quo.
By the 1970s, Tachito Somoza was in trouble. His support among even the elite was
draining away. The FSLN guerillas were gaining strength, and a moderate opposition was
growing, whose most prominent spokesman was Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, publisher of the
newspaper La Prensa. Chamorro was assassinated in January, 1978. If Somoza assassinated
Chamorro, it was a grave mistake. There were nationwide strikes, and the FSLN guerillas gained
popular support. Somoza, along with his father and brother before him, had depended on support
from the United States for survival, but President Jimmy Carter finally recognized that Somoza
had become an international pariah and halted arms shipments to Nicaragua. The FSLN began a
military offensive in early 1979, and gained control of the country on July 19, 1979. A junta of
five members assumed the government, and the Sandinistas soon gained control. After a few
years of internal power struggles, Daniel Ortega emerged as the head of state.
The United States applied an economic embargo and supported military opposition
forces, the Contras, on the grounds that the Sandinistas were spreading communist revolutions to
other countries, notably El Salvador. The Contras did not have the military power to launch an
all-out offensive against the Nicaraguan government, whose powerful army was well supplied by
the Soviets. Instead, the Contras engaged in guerilla attacks across the borders from their bases in
Honduras and Costa Rica in order, as the United States euphemistically termed it, to apply
pressure to Nicaragua and destabilize the government. The Contras frequently attacked and
destroyed villages and towns, and they mined highways carrying civilian traffic, resulting in
heavy civilian casualties. Under the weight of the embargo, the relentless Contra war, and the
Sandinistas’ own economic mismanagement and corruption, the economy slipped into ruin, and
Nicaragua became the second poorest country in the western hemisphere, after only Haiti.
In the late 1980s, two external developments influenced the course of Nicaraguan history.
In 1986, the Iran-Contra scandal broke in the United States, resulting in the termination of covert
U. S. support for the Contras. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union collapsed, depriving the Sandinista
government of military and economic aid. Both the Contras and the Sandinistas were in
jeopardy. President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica recognized the potential of these developments
and brought the parties to negotiations, where he persuaded them to sign a treaty that eventually
brought about the demise of both sides. The Contras agreed to terminate their attacks, and the
Sandinistas agreed to hold free elections. For this achievement, President Arias won the Nobel
Peace Prize. In 1990, a national election was held, which Violeta Chamorro won, and the FSLN
peacefully relinquished power to the elected government. Nicaragua has been governed by
conservative elected leaders since then and peace has prevailed.
The Jews and Somoza: The Israel Connection
The relationship between Nicaragua and Israel dates back to before the state of Israel
existed, and a strange relationship it is. In the 1940s, when Palestine was a British protectorate,
Jewish military groups were struggling for independence from Britain. At that time, the United
4
States imposed an arms embargo on the region in order to avoid antagonizing both Britain and the
Arab countries. The Jewish rebels depended on arms smuggled to them illegally by Zionist
supporters in the United States and Europe, and also from another source. A Jewish Nicaraguan
named Bernardo Sehtman-Gorn told me,
“There was a [Nicarguan] man who had a lot of influence, a lot of money, who
was a good friend of the Old Somoza, whose name was Maurice Pataky. … The United
States had an arms embargo for the region, and the Americans told Somoza they would
sell him arms, and the arms went from Nicaragua on a ship to Israel. This was because of
the influence of Sr. Maurice Pataky, and also of my uncle Abraham [Gorn], who was also
a good friend of the Old Somoza.”
In 1948, Nicaragua was one of the first countries to vote for Israeli statehood in the
United Nations. A prominent Jewish Nicaraguan told me, “…the Jewish community was grateful
to the government of Somoza because in 1948 in the United Nations, Nicaragua was a decisive
factor in the forming of the state of Israel.” When the new state of Israel was declared on May 1,
1948, their first concern was to fight for survival against a massive attack by all their Arab
neigbors. Israel survived, using a military organization and arms that were in place before
independence.
In the 1970s, as we have said, the United States imposed an arms embargo on Nicaragua.
The dynasty that the United States had supported for about 40 years was left hanging out to dry.
The only remaining supplier of arms to Nicaragua was Israel. Several Nicaraguan Jews, perhaps
wanting to put a better face on it than to say that Israel was America’s proxy and did our dirty
work for us, told me that Israel owed a debt to Somoza because of the earlier aid to the Haganah
and because of his support for Israel in the U. N.
In January 1979, the FSLN escalated from guerilla actions to an all out military offensive.
The doomed Somoza became ever more brutal and committed ever worse atrocities against the
people of Nicaragua – in 1978 he bombed the town of Masaya in order to put down an uprising,
and in 1979 he bombed a poor barrio in Managua itself. This was a man who was willing to
bomb his own capital city in order to stay in power. The FSLN soldiers were winning the war, but
were suffering casualties and the FSLN military victory was delayed by the weapons shipments
from Israel.
Maurice Pataky, the man that Bernardo Sehtman-Gorn told me had influenced the Old
Somoza, had three sons, Roberto, Julio, and Lazlo. Lazlo Pataky was a colonel in the army of
Tachito Somoza. In 1979, after they overthrew Tachito, the Sandinistas accused Julio and Lazlo
Pataky of involvement in the shipping of Israeli weapons to the dictatorship. Every Jew in
Nicaragua vehemently denies this accusation, saying the Israelis did not need a middleman to sell
arms to Somoza, they could deal directly with Somoza.
In the 1980s, a number of articles were published by Jews in Israel and in the Americas,
documenting and criticizing Israel’s sales of arms to right-wing dictatorships in Latin America,
including those in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Judith Laikin Elkin wrote in an article (Fernandez)
that the Jewish populations of these countries were marginalized by Israel’s policies, and faced a
backlash in their own countries. Laikin wrote, “Complaints by Jews that Israeli arms sales in
Latin America were provoking anti-Semitism were countered by officials of the Israeli Foreign
Affairs Ministry with the argument that they were merely proving the Zionist thesis: life is
ultimately untenable in the Diaspora.”
There is another twist to the story of Israeli arms. The Reagan Administration’s
Iran/Contra Affair involved money from secret arms sales to Iran, which was channelled to the
Contras to purchase arms for their fight against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Lt.
Colonel Oliver North, a military aide to President Reagan’s National Security Council, sold $30
million worth of arms to Iran and diverted the profits to the Contras. The Contras used the money
to buy arms from the Israelis, who sold them at a good price because these were not exactly new
weapons they were selling. They were weapons that Israel had captured from the PLO during the
5
invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982. The Sandinista government was using Soviet-supplied
arms to fight the Contras, who were also using Soviet-made arms, which had come to them via
the PLO and Israel. The Contra war is estimated to have killed at least 30,000 people in
Nicaragua.
Until the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Nicaragua had maintained diplomatic
relations, albeit strained, with Israel. That invasion aroused disapproval and condemnation among
many of the less developed countries of the world, and during that furor Nicaragua broke off
relations with Israel. This had nothing to do with selling arms to the Contras; the Sandinistas
were expressing solidarity with the Palestinians and other Arab countries.
The Synagogue
The synagogue in Managua was central to the life of the Nicaraguan Jewish community
before the revolution. When Edith Cohen said there were 36 Jewish families in Nicaragua in
1979, she meant members of the synagogue. There were no other Jewish institutions, and as far as
the synagogue members were concerned, there were no other Jews. The congregation was tightly
knit, uniformly Ashkenazic, and politically conservative.
Bernardo Sehtman-Gorn, 68 years old, lives in a large, new house in a fashionable
suburban development of Managua. The house is tastefully decorated with modern art and family
pictures. Also living in the house are Bernardo’s wife, his grown daughter Katia and her husband
Arnoldo, and their two sons, aged 15 and 7. Bernardo Sehtman-Gorn’s grandparents emigrated
from Bessarabia to Nicaragua, to escape pogroms. He runs Radio Centro, the biggest electronics
store in Nicaragua. He gave me a long and rambling interview in Spanish, telling me about the
history of several Jewish families in Nicaragua, with particular emphasis on how each individual
had died. He insisted on driving me home after the interview.
Mr. Sehtman-Gorn told me the history of the synagogue in Managua. “… The first
synagogue in Managua was built on land donated by a man named Fidelio Kellerman, he had a
brother Alberto Kellerman. There were 5 brothers. The last brother, named Luis, a baker, was
from Czechoslovakia. They spoke Hungarian…” That first synagogue was in the center of town,
which was destroyed by the earthquake of 1972. After the earthquake the Somoza government
confiscated all the land in the city center, so the Jews lost not only their building but the land.
Mr. Sehtman-Gorn went on to talk about the new synagogue, which was built after the
earthquake out near the edge of the city: “There was a man who was dedicated to urbanizing
areas, building houses. He was Jewish, he lived in Israel, but he was here in Nicaragua, he built a
lot of houses, here and also in Costa Rica. His name was Eliezar Globerman. So Don Eliezar
gave us a piece of land, it was donated by him, and with the support of all of us, we built a
synagogue…”
He said the synagogue functioned as a social club in the evening, where people came to
play cards, ping pong, and billiards. For the high holidays, they sometimes brought in a rabbi
from the United States or Argentina. “The Sandinistas confiscated the synagogue,” he said, “and
made it into an association for Sandinista children.”
Although the old synagogue had been destroyed in 1972, the year 1979 marked a major
catastrophe for the Nicaraguan Jews. The Sandinista rebels overthrew the dictatorship of
Anastasio Somoza Debayle and installed a communist government. Almost all of the Jews fled
the country. About a year before that, in 1978 while Somoza was still in power, an incident
occurred that is prominent in the consciousness of the Nicaraguan Jews. The synagogue was
attacked and fire bombed during shabbat services on a Friday night. The perpetrators of the attack
were never identified, and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) denied having
anything to do with it. At that time, the FSLN was an illegal underground organization that was
carrying out guerilla actions and had not yet begun a full-scale military campaign against the
6
government. The FSLN and the Palestinian Liberation Organization had publicly expressed
mutual solidarity, and there were PLO people in Managua in 1978, working with the FSLN.
Oscar Kellerman, a holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia, was in the synagogue
during the attack . His vivid account of the incident has been published several times in
periodicals because he was one of the most vocal Nicaraguan Jews in the United States during the
Sandinista period. He said several of the people inside the synagogue were holocaust survivors.
Several men drove up to the synagogue in Jeeps while services were going on. The synagogue
had wooden doors with a Star of David, and the men threw Molotov cocktails at the doors. Mr.
Kellerman said he and some others tried to escape through a back door, but they were confronted
by masked men with automatic weapons who identified themselves as Sandinistas and the PLO
and said “If you don’t go back we will kill you. What Hitler started, we will finish.” The Jews
went back into the building. The fire was not serious and there were no injuries. According to
Mr. Kellerman, this was part of a systematic campaign of terror against Jews, which included
threatening graffiti on their houses and businesses, death threats, vandalism, and attempts to burn
their cars.
After the Sandinista victory, almost all of the remaining Jews left Nicaragua, and the
Sandinista government converted the synagogue building into a recreation center for children.
There is disagreement over whether the building was abandoned or the government confiscated
it. Every Jew I talked to insisted that the Sandinistas confiscated the synagogue, but according to
the Sandinista government and articles in the U. S. press, the synagogue was abandoned when
nearly all the Jews left the country, the building was occupied by squatters, and so the
government took it over and used it.
Asked whether the Jews abandoned the synagogue or the Sandinistas confiscated it,
Bernardo Sehtman-Gorn said emphatically: “Everyone left because they confiscated it! They
confiscated it! But there was a [Sandinista] minister of Tourism whose father was a Jew, Herty
Lewites. Herty helped a little and he had influence, from time to time they preserved the
synagogue, from time to time they gave some money.”
The Sandinistas claimed that in response to pressure from the Jewish community in the
United States, they offered to return the synagogue to the Jews in 1983, but the Jews did not
accept ownership of it at that time. Every Jew I talked to was adamant that the Sandinista
government made no effort to return the synagogue to to the Jews. Bernardo Sehtman-Gorn said
that after Violeta Chamorro won the election in 1990, she returned the synagogue to the Jews, and
there was a Jewish man named Kurt Preiss in Granada, who donated money for the restoration of
the building. But by then, said Mr. Sehtman-Gorn, “there wasn’t anybody who wanted it.”
There was a Jew in Nicaragua who was an active member of the synagogue before the
revolution and also coexisted with the Sandinistas. Jaime Levy emigrated from France to
Nicaragua in 1934. He was possibly the only member of the synagogue who was not from
Eastern Europe. Jaime Levy was in the synagogue when it was fire bombed in 1978. Mr. Levy
stayed in Nicaragua during the Sandinista reign with his non-Jewish wife and ran his clothing
import business, although his grown children all left the country. When I talked to him he was 84
years old and still running a business that sold construction materials. On August 3, 1983, Jaime
Levy sent a telegram from Managua to Rabbi Morton Rosenthal of the Anti-Defamation League
in New York, saying that the Sandinista government had recognized that the synagogue building
and land were the property of the Nicaraguan Jewish community, but that there was no torah, no
minyan, and only three members of the congregation remained to maintain the building. Mr. Levy
asked for assistance from the group in New York, because the three Jews in Nicaragua did not
have the resources to maintain the building and pay property taxes. Rabbi Rosenthal replied that
he would discuss the matter with the Nicaraguan ambassador in the United States and the
Nicaraguan Jews living in the United States. According to newspaper articles, the Nicaraguan
Jews in the United States wanted the Nicaraguan government to restore the building to its original
condition; they did not want to bear the cost of restoring it themselves. In that same telegram, Mr.
7
Levy mentioned that after the revolution, the synagogue building had remained abandoned
because there was no one to take care of it, and so the building was occupied by the government
as a recreation center for children.
Edith Cohen told me about meeting with Ed Koch, then the mayor of New York, on the
steps of the synagogue, after Violeta Chamorro was elected, and deciding that it would not be a
synagogue anymore because it had been “desecrated,” and because there was no community to
maintain it. The building was in terrible condition, the government would not restore and repair it,
and so it was sold and became a privately owned funeral home called El Monte de los Olivos
(Mount of Olives), and remains so today.
The former synagogue is not a particularly large or imposing building, having served a
congregation of fewer than fifty families. It is a single-story white building with green trim in a
suburban setting. There is a parking lot and landscaping of tropical shrubs and trees. From Edith
Cohen’s story of herself and Ed Koch standing on the steps of the synagogue, I had a mental
picture of the two of them standing on stone steps before the portal of a large church-like
building, rather than this place that could be a suburban dentist’s office if it weren’t a mortuary.
There is an epilogue to this story of the synagogue. After the synagogue was returned to
the Jews, the building was sold. Three separate people independently repeated to me a
controversy among the Jews themselves concerning the selling of the synagogue. They
volunteered the details of this dispute to a total stranger who they knew planned to write about it.
They all agreed on the amount of money involved. I felt right at home. The Jewish community
of Nicaragua, minimal at its peak, has disappeared, but the last few holdouts continue to
demonstrate the qualities of Jewish communities everywhere.
How do you count Jews?
How does one count the Jews in a country? Who is qualified to determine who is and
who is not a Jew? According to a report published by the Sandinista government of Nicaragua in
1983 and other published articles, there were 150 Jews in Nicaragua in 1972, of whom 100 left
the country after the 1972 earthquake, leaving a Jewish population of 50. Almost all of the
remaining Jews left the country after the revolution in 1979.
Several published accounts say that after the earthquake of 1972, about two thirds of the
Jewish community left Nicaragua, but everyone that I interviewed disagreed. I was told that
some people left before the earthquake and some left after it, but by and large the community was
intact until the Sandinista victory in 1979. Bernardo Sehtman-Gorn told me there were about 60
Jewish families in the 1960s, and they died off or moved away little by little (he supplied quite a
bit of detail on how some of them died off, including one man who was electrocuted by a
telephone). Edith Cohen told me that there were 36 Jewish families remaining at the beginning of
1979, before the Sandinista victory. By all accounts of Jews currently in Nicaragua, there was no
major exodus around 1972.
The Sandinista government published a report on anti-Semitism in1983, which we will
discuss later. The report identified approximately ten individuals who it said were Jewish and
who continued to run businesses undisturbed under the Sandinista reign, and cited these
individuals as evidence that the regime was not anti-Semitic. The report did not mention members
of the Sandinista government itself who were arguably Jewish, such as Carlos Tunnerman and
Herty Lewites, but focused on owners of businesses in order to make the point that Jews were not
persecuted under the Sandinistas.
Judith Elkin compiled a chart of the estimated Jewish populations of the Latin American
countries in 1994 (Elkin), showing that there were 208,000 Jews in Argentina at that time, more
than all the rest of Latin America combined. There were 100,000 in Brazil, 40,800 in Mexico,
and the numbers drop off after that. Near the bottom of the list are El Salvador and the
Dominican Republic with 100 each. Honduras and Nicaragua do not show up on her list at all.
These numbers, by the way, show a substantial decline in Jewish populations since 1980.
8
Elkin said that the Cuban Jewish community of about 12,000 people was decimated when
most of its members left the country after the revolution in 1959, leaving only about 2,400 Jews
in Cuba by 1965. That’s still a large community compared with some.
Did the Sandinistas persecute the Jews?
Shortly after the Sandinista victory, the new government arrested and detained two Jews,
Abraham Gorn and his nephew, Bernardo Sehtman-Gorn. Abraham Gorn, 75 years old at the
time, was the president of the synagogue, and was one of the men that Bernardo told me had
earlier influenced the Old Somoza to send arms to the Haganah. The two arrested men were not
formally charged with a crime, and were released after a few weeks. Bernardo Sehtman-Gorn
told me, “In the year ’79 I was detained 40 days… and I was not treated badly physically, but
psychologically yes. And mentally …” The Sandinistas accused Bernardo of tax evasion and
offered to free him if he payed $20,000 in alleged back taxes and left the country. He paid the
money and left the country, but after two and a half years in Miami he returned. His business,
Radio Centro, the electronics store, was not confiscated; it remained in business through the
Sandinista period and he still runs it.
Abraham Gorn was freed after about two weeks of detention, but a month later, police
officers raided his house at 11 p. m. and told him that his property was being confiscated.
Abraham Gorn took refuge in the Costa Rican embassy and then left the country. A government
report later accused Abraham Gorn of being involved in shipping goods to Somoza’s National
Guard during the war, of tax evasion, and of using the National Guard to put down a strike by his
workers. Abraham Gorn’s son, Isaac Stavisky, was accused of similar violations and his property
was confiscated but he was not arrested. Most of the other Jews left the country on their own,
and the government confiscated their property in their absence.
In 1983, Rabbi Morton Rosenthal of the Anti-Defamation League in New York
responded to the complaints of Nicaraguan Jews in exile in the United States, and published a
report asserting that the Sandinista government of Nicaragua had persecuted the Jews and
confiscated their property. The Reagan administration, which was trying to get congressional
funding for the Contras, jumped on the story for their own purposes. Several independent
organizations did their own investigations and rebutted the accusations that the Sandinistas were
anti-Semitic. There were investigations by the Central American Historical Institute of
Georgetown University, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, Pax Christi,
America’s Watch, the U. S. State Department’s Bureau of Human Rights, and the New Jewish
Agenda, an American leftist Jewish group. Almost all of these organizations reported that they
found no evidence of anti-Semitism. The Sandinista government of Nicaragua appointed a
commission of its own, which published a report that, not surprisingly, exonerated the
government of anti-Semitism. There was an outpouring of news articles in the United States,
arguing both sides of the issue. Fifteen years later, what is striking about these reports and
articles is that everyone on both sides of the issue was more interested in promoting a political
agenda than in uncovering the truth. The human rights organizations, the Nicaraguan
government, the reporters – none of them were exactly lying, they were just selecting the part of
the truth that suited them.
Abraham Gorn and Bernardo Sehtman-Gorn were arrested in the chaos following the
revolution, at a time when the country was governed by a junta consisting of three Sandinistas
and two anti-Sandinistas, maneuvering for power against each other. The report commissioned by
the government (which has no date on it), specifically cites Bernardo Sehtman-Gorn as an
example to refute the report by the Anti-Defamation League: “He is the proprietor of ‘Radio
9
Centro,’ the biggest dealer of electronic parts in the country. He is considered one of the men
with the greatest net income in Nicaragua. He lived freely in Miami and returned to the country
without any problem. Nothing was confiscated. He was briefly detained subject to an
investigation, and was freed when he clarified his position, without any intervention at any time
in his property.” Several interpretations are possible, besides the benign interpretation of this
report. On the one hand, the detention of two Jews could have been part of a plan to intimidate
Jews in general and encourage them to leave the country, in order to confiscate their property.
On the other hand, some individuals within the government may have acted without any central
coordination and decisions may have been reversed on the fly. To interpret the political and
social forces acting in a place like Nicaragua is tricky.
Jaime Levy, the French immigrant who was in the synagogue when it was bombed, and
who sent the telegram about the synagogue to Rabbi Rosenthal, was quoted in The New York
Times on April 20, 1986 as saying that the Sandinistas had never bothered him, and that those
who fled had been “very good friends of the former regime. I have seen persecution of Jews in
Europe and to be honest, I haven’t seen that happening.” The same New York Times article told
of an interview with Jaime Levy’s son Gabriel, who was in Houston at the time and said that his
father was being used by the government. “The truth is that we all left because we were Jews,”
he said, and went on to say that his father remained because he did not have enough money to
leave and was too old to resettle elsewhere. Gabriel Levy said that in 1979, he and his father
were denounced as “Jewish exploiters” during a large demonstration called to protest the death of
a Sandinista who, he said, had been shot by a private guard while trying to rob the Levys’
clothing import business. In 1998, Jaime Levy told me that the communist government wasn’t
good to the Jews. “ …but I am a French citizen, they didn’t do anything to me. I stayed here
through the revolution. The Sandinistas were bad to the Jews, they burned the synagogue.”
Roberto Teran is a Nicaraguan businessman who acknowledges Jewish ancestry, but
prides himself on his identity as a Nicaraguan and a Catholic. Mr. Teran told me in 1997 that the
Sandinistas “did a terrible job with the Jewish people, they confiscated their property.” Then he
seemed to think the better of that statement, and said, “It was the same with all Nicaraguans, not
just the Jews, if they like it they steal it.”
The Sandinistas insisted that that they were anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic. The various
liberal investigative groups, which published reports saying they found no evidence of antisemitism,
acknowledged that the Sandinistas were anti-Zionist, and accepted a distinction
between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism. Is it possible to make a distinction between a strong
government policy of anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism?
For anti-Semites, the Sandinistas had a lot of Jews in their government. Among the
members of the government with Jewish roots were Ambassador to the United States Carlos
Tunnerman, Minister or Tourism Herty Lewites, Minister of Immigration Michele Najlis,
Minister of Telecommunications Enrique Schmidt, and Reynaldo Tefel. Even the famous
Sandinista Catholic priest, Fernando Cardenal, claims Jewish roots, as does Arturo Cruz, who ran
for president against the Sandinistas. On July 16, 1983, the Reuters news service quoted Foreign
Minister Miguel D’Escoto as saying to reporters: “It would seem you have to have Jewish blood
to qualify for a cabinet post.”
This issue of persecution returns us again to the question: Who exactly is a Jew? This is
not pedantic nit-picking. The arguments of the various parties hinge on this question. The New
Jewish Agenda and the Sandinista government’s investigative commission made the claim that a
part of the Jewish community remained in Nicaragua and was not persecuted, and that those Jews
who went into exile were Somocistas. These investigators gave the names of purported Jews who
remained in Nicaragua. On the other hand, the exiled Jews defined the Jewish community of
Nicaragua as being precisely themselves. These people had a vested interest in denying the
existence of any other Jews in Nicaragua besides themselves.
10
I found no humble Jews who had not gone into exile in Miami. I wanted disaffected
Sephardic rug dealers, shopkeepers, and maybe a crypto-Jew wouldn’t hurt. Their absence was
eerie. Or maybe there are some and I didn’t find them.
The search for other Jews
I went looking for Jewish merchants in a neighborhood called Cuidad Jardin, where the
fabric stores are. In the first fabric store I came to, a place called Telas Shihab, I went up to the
counter and asked the man whether the owner was a Jew. He asked me why I wanted to know. I
explained that I was interested in the history of Jews in Nicaragua. He asked me if I was a Jew
and I said yes. He looked me in the eye and said he was Palestinian. We stared at each other for
a second, as I pondered whether I had gotten in over my head. I said I was sympathetic to the
Palestinians, and hoped for peace between Jews and Palestinians. I offered him my hand, and we
shook hands. He said he thought a store across the street was owned by Jews. I tried another
place, where another Palestinian man engaged me in conversation. He asked me who I thought
would replace Netanyahu in Israel. Now I knew I was in over my head. I couldn’t discuss Israeli
politics in English, let alone Spanish. I uttered some platitudes about peace, shook his hand, and
skulked away.
A store called “Judah” looked promising. The friendly Nicaraguan woman behind the
counter told me that the store’s current owner was not Jewish, but Palestinian. However, she
mentioned that she had seen a synagogue in a neighborhood called Las Robles , during the Santa
Semana (the week before Easter, when Passover occurs). How did she know it was a synagogue?
She explained that she had heard people singing in Hebrew in a house. But the synagogue no
longer exists, she said, it was only there for the Santa Semana. She actually gave me the
directions to the house.
My doubts overcame the impulse to ask her to take me there. I was shy about asking her,
in my inept Spanish, to do something for me, or to offer her money. And if she did take me there,
then what would I do? Knock on the door and ask if they had been singing in Hebrew there? I
settled for a little jewel of information: a Nicaraguan woman in a Palestinian shop called “Judah”
said she had heard Hebrew song coming from a synagogue. You don’t learn anything if you’re
not willing to make a fool of yourself, but I decided to quit while I was ahead, and returned home.
Later on, I was talking with Max Najman. Max and his wife and son are Nicaragua’s
only Lubavitchers, but that’s another story. I asked Max if there could have been a Passover seder
in Las Robles, and he said it was impossible. Max’s explanation was that the Catholics have
started singing in Hebrew. He said he had recently passed by a Catholic church and heard them
singing “Avenu Shalom Aleichem”. Each explanation is more unlikely than the last. Could there
be Jews in Managua that the mainstream Ashkenazim will not acknowledge? Marranos?
Pesachdik Catholics? At least I found out that there is a Palestinian diaspora in Nicaragua.
Oscar Kellerman
Oscar Kellerman Waiman lives in the town of Granada, Nicaragua. When I asked him
for an interview, unannounced and a total stranger, he immediately invited me to have lunch at
his house with his family the next day. He came to pick me up at my hotel. Oscar Kellerman
was a friendly, outgoing man, 66 years old. He took me in a taxi to his house, where his wife
served us a huge meal of fried fish.
Oscar was born in Czechoslovakia in 1932, near the border with Germany. His family
spoke German. They lived in a small village with just a few Jews, where Oscar’s father was a
11
baker. (This is the same Luis Kellerman mentioned by Bernardo Sehtman-Gorn, whose brother
built the synagogue). There were three children in the family. In 1940, when Oscar was eight
years old, the Gestapo came to take the Kellerman family away. They were forced onto a truck,
and when the truck went to pick up another Jew in this small town, there was a delay because the
person had to get ready to go. The mayor of the town was a friend of Oscar’s father, and Oscar
said the mayor rushed over to the truck and persuaded the Gestapo to let Oscar’s family go
because they needed a baker in that town. According to a version of this story in a newspaper
article, the mayor bought their freedom. The Kellerman family left by train the same day for
Budapest, and went from there to Italy and finally to Nicaragua. Oscar’s father had two older
brothers who were already in Nicaragua.
In 1948, 16-year-old Oscar was sent to Loyola University in Los Angeles. After
attending the university, he joined the U. S. Air Force. When China invaded South Korea, the
United States airlifted the American dependents out of Pusan on an emergency basis, and Oscar
was a pilot in the Pusan airlift. While he was in the air force he became a United States citizen.
Oscar moved back to Nicaragua in 1958, to get married, he said. His first wife was a Nicaraguan
Jew. Oscar later remarried a Nicaraguan woman who is not Jewish. Her name is Sarita
Kellerman and they are still married. Oscar and Sarita have a daughter named Gabrielita who is
10. She attends a Catholic private school.
In Nicaragua, Oscar Kellerman built up an electronics factory and a chain of eight retail
stores that sold fabric and clothing. The Kellermans had a house in the elegant residential
neighborhood of Las Colinas in Managua. The earthquake of 1972 destroyed all of Kellerman’s
businesses. He said he was insured, but only collected about half the value of the losses. He
started over and built the businesses up again, only to lose them again in the 1979 revolution.
Oscar Kellerman was one of the people inside the synagogue in Managua when it was
fire-bombed in 1978. According to Oscar, this was part of a systematic Sandinista campaign of
terror against Jews, which included threatening graffiti on their houses and businesses, death
threats, vandalism, and attempts to burn their cars. In 1979, after the Sandinista victory, Oscar
said the United States embassy called him up (as he was a U. S. citizen) and advised him to leave
the country. The Kellermans were flown to Panama in a U. S. military transport plane, with only
what they could carry in their suitcases. They lived in exile in the U. S. and in Honduras and
Costa Rica for 11 years. In his absence, the Sandinistas confiscated their property. When the
Sandinista government fell in 1990 the Kellerman family returned to Nicaragua in order to
reclaim their property. The factory and stores were gone, but Oscar recovered the house in Las
Colinas and another house.
Today Oscar Kellerman lives with Sarita and Gabrielita in the town of Granada. He’s an
outgoing man who spoke to me in English. He pressed copies of old newspaper clippings on me,
despite my protestations that I am not an investigative reporter, articles asserting that the
Sandinistas persecuted the Jews. I wondered why he was so intent on making his case to me, as
though he thought I would make a case for him in the United States, as though I am someone with
influence, as though people would pay attention to me. Nicaraguans, even Nicaraguan Jews who
have lived in the United States, have a love-hate relationship with the United States. We are the
cause of their problems and their misery but we are also all-powerful. As a visitor from the
United States, I was treated wherever I went as though I were a representative of the empire, as
though I might have power or influence.
From Oscar’s point of view, he escaped the Nazis, and then escaped the persecution of
the Sandinistas also, only to be betrayed by the American Jews, who believed the Sandinistas’
side of the story. He is filled with indignation but he is not a bitter or a dour man. He has a lot of
energy, and if you’re ever in Granada he’ll be glad to tell you all about it.
Hints and Rumors
12
Carlos Tunnerman Bernheim may be the most famous Jew in Nicaragua. Back in
Portland, when I had asked a Costa Rican Jew if he knew the names of any Nicaraguan Jews, the
first person he mentioned was Carlos Tunnerman. In Managua, I met a Catholic nun who said I
should talk to Carlos Tunnerman. So did Herty Lewites. Carlos Tunnerman Bernheim is a
prominent educator, Nicaragua’s Minister of Education, formerly a university dean and formerly
the Sandinista’s Ambassador to the United States. He is the single person most responsible for
creating Nicaragua’s public universities. When Tunnerman was growing up, Nicaragua was a
country of illiterate peasants. Tunnerman crusaded for his vision of the public university, not just
as a place for professional training, and not just as a social equalizer, but as the soul of the
country, the instrument for the raising of public consciousness. During the Sandinista period, he
built an extensive system of public universities which still exists. Tunnerman is the most
prominent and accomplished Jew in Nicaragua and apparently the best known. Except that he’s
not a Jew.
I telephoned Tunnerman’s house. A child answered and, hearing my Spanish, spoke to
me in fluent English with a perfect United States accent. Carlos Tunnerman himself came to the
phone and said in Spanish that his grandfather was an Alsatian Jew, named Tunnerman
Bernheim. The grandfather married a Nicaraguan, his family gave him a lot of trouble for
marrying outside the faith, and he broke off relations with the family. He and his descendents
have been practicing Catholics ever since. The family is no longer Jewish, they are Catholic.
There is nothing of Jewish culture remaining in their family. At that point, I was approaching the
end of my second stay in Nicaragua. I had talked to several prominent movers and shakers who
said they were not Jewish, and I felt that I didn’t know anymore what to ask them. At that
moment I felt that he had work to do that was more important than mine. I said I would not take
up any more of his time and thanked him.
Herty Lewites
In Managua in February, 1998, walls and power poles were still spray-painted with signs
that said “Herty ’96,” remnants of the campaign of Herty Lewites for mayor of Managua. Herty
Lewites is the son of a Polish Jew who settled in Nicaragua, married a Nicaraguan woman, and
became wealthy. Other signs said, “Moises ’96,” indicating that Moises Hassan had also run for
mayor in that election. Moises Hassan, the son of Jordanian parents, is a professor of
Mathematics who was a member of the original Sandinista junta that ran the country after the
revolution. In how many Latin American capitals can you find a Jew and an Arab running
against each other for mayor?
I arranged to interview Herty in his office at Hertylandia, an amusement park outside the
small town of of Jinotepe. I got off the bus a kilometer outside of Jinotepe, along a country road
passing through banana farms, and confronted a white stucco wall with the parapets and towers of
a castle. Painted on the white wall in bright colors was a clown on one side of a wide gate, and a
colorful parrot on the other side. A guard allowed me to enter the park. Inside, there was a huge
swimming pool, water slides, a botanical garden, a zoo, and electronic slot machines. The
architectural motif is a sort of fantasy castle, with a lot of palm trees. Herty Lewites is friendly
and outgoing, while at the same time he has an aura of reserve and refinement. He looks just like
a sixtyish Polish Jew. Strangely, he reminded me of Ken Kesey. His office is plain and
unpretentious. He opened an exterior door for ventilation, as there was no air conditioning. As
soon as he heard my Spanish, he switched to English.
Herman Lewites, nicknamed Herty, joined the Sandinista Liberation Front early on, along
with his brother Israel. Israel Lewites was killed at Masaya during the revolution. A public
market in Managua was named in his memory. Herty put his life on the line by running arms to
the Sandinista guerrillas, obtaining weapons in the United States and smuggling them in a truck
13
into Nicaragua. After the revolution, Herty Lewites became the Sandinista government’s Minister
of Tourism. As a cabinet member he worked with Daniel Ortega and the other top guys. As the
Sandinistas imposed strict controls on the economy and all commodities became scarce, a black
market developed with dollars as the default currency. Herty Lewites recognized that the way to
control the black market was not to suppress it but rather to co-opt it, and he created Dollar
Stores, government-run stores that sold imported goods for dollars. In time, Herty Lewites, on
behalf of the Sandinista Communist government, became Nicaragua’s biggest retailer and
restauranteur. He never split with the Sandinistas, he stayed with them until they lost the 1990
election.
Herty’s father was named Israel Saul Lewites. He emigrated from Poland to France, to
New York, Panama, and finally to Nicaragua in 1930. Why Nicaragua? Herty shrugged and said
“Aventura.” His father lived in Jinotepe, where Hertylandia is now, an area where there were no
other Jews. The older Lewites had five children: Sonya, Herty, Salka, Saul, and Israel.
I told Herty I knew he wasn’t religious, but was there any Jewish culture in his life? The
first thing he came up with was matzo ball soup. He said his father sometimes took him to
synagogues when they traveled to Mexico, Panama, and the U. S. He didn’t mention going to
the synagogue in Managua. He has one child, a boy of 17, also named Herty. Asked whether his
son has any connection with Jewish culture, he said his son goes to the United States and Panama,
where he has Jewish friends and mixes with Jews, and they like to eat Jewish food.
Herty explained that he had a privileged childhood and he knew it. He had lots of nice
clothes and traveled a lot, and he saw the poverty around him and was aware of the inequality.
His father taught him from early childhood to be a businessman. He joined the Sandinistas out of
a belief in their cause, and within the Sandinistas he looked for the area where he could
contribute, which was business.
Herty repeated the story that was familiar to me, that in Nicaragua the Jews were close to
Somoza after 1941, when Somoza declared war on Germany. They were not Somocistas, he said,
they just didn’t want trouble and wanted protection from the Nazis. He said the Jews had not
fared well under the Sandinistas. He said that in 1980 he was in New York with Daniel [Ortega],
talking to Bronfman, who complained to them about discrimination against the Jews and the
confiscation of the synagogue. Herty said that that Daniel turned to him and said, “Herty, take
care of that.” He said that eventually he cleaned up the synagogue and fixed it up, and wanted to
give it back to Stavisky and Gorn, the guys who had built it.
Finally, Herty offered me a story. When he was the Minister of Tourism and Michele
Najlis was the Minister of Immigration, they got a message one day that Yasser Arafat was
coming to Managua and would arrive at the airport at a certain time. The Sandinistas and the
PLO had strong diplomatic relations. They sent emissaries to visit each other, although neither
had the resources to really do much for the other besides making symbolic political statements. A
visit by Arafat to Nicaragua at that time was an important state visit.
Herty told me that the Sandinista cabinet ministers went to the airport to meet Arafat, the
airplane landed, but Arafat was not on it. The same thing happened the next day. For four days,
they all went to the airport – no Arafat. Finally on the fifth day, the telephone woke Herty up in
the middle of the night. Yasser Arafat was at the airport. Several of the ministers rushed to the
airport to meet him. When Arafat saw Herty Lewites and Michele Najlis, he said, “How do you
like that? I come all the way to Managua and who comes out to meet me but two Jews?”
How could it be, after everything that Nicaragua has been through, the ruthlessness and
corruption of the Somoza regime, the revolution, the years of brutal bloodshed of the Contra war,
the demolished economy, that here I was sitting with Herty Lewites in this bizarre theme park,
listening to him telling me, a Gringo and a Jew, a funny story about Yasser Arafat?
Herty’s father set him on a path to be a businessman, and he honored that path while
transforming it into something that defies all conventional expectations. First he became one of
the most successful businessmen in Nicaragua, generating profits in the Communist cause of the
14
Sandinistas. Then he created Hertylandia, performing the remarkable feat of meeting parental
expectations while expressing himself in a personal and unique way. It was a bit disorienting to
go from Hertylandia, a wonderland within a wonderland, back to Managua.
Efforts to form a Jewish Community Today
If there is a country in the hemisphere with insufficient Jews to sustain a community, it is
Nicaragua. Yet, remarkably, people persist in their efforts not only to keep Jewish observance
alive in the household, but to create congregations, communities.
Oscar Kellerman wants to create a Reform Jewish congregation in Nicaragua, in
association with Congregacion B’nai Israel, the reform congregation in San Jose, Costa Rica.
B’nai Israel in the past helped a congregation get started in Honduras, and now it is doing the
same for Nicaragua. It is to be called Congregacion Israelita de Nicaragua. Today, the
congregation has letterhead stationery, at least. Oscar Kellerman, Elena Pataky, and their
daughters have attended conferences at B’nai Israel in Costa Rica, and B’nai Israel has given
them their old prayer books.
Edith Cohen told me I should go see Max Najman (pronounced Nachman). She said he
is the last orthodox Jew in Nicaragua. Max Najman granted me an interview in his office at his
plastics factory. He told me about his parents, who came from Bialystock in 1926, his children,
his eleven years of exile during the Sandinista period, and his practice of Judaism. Max and his
wife Sara have five children, of whom only the oldest son, Chaim (Jimmy), 43, is still in
Nicaragua. Jimmy is unmarried, and is an observant Jew. The Najmans keep kosher by not
eating meat. They receive commentaries on the parshat of the week over the internet, from
Argentina. Max told me that he and Sara went to Miami after the revolution, where they had a
hard life as hourly workers. In their absence, he said, the Sandinistas took over their factory and
mismanaged it. The Najmans returned in 1990 and reclaimed the factory, which was nearly in
ruins, and restored it. At the end of the interview, Max invited me into the house for dinner with
him and Sara. Their house is modest but comfortable, inside the factory gates, just across the
parking area from Max’s office. Max and Sara Najman are a charming and friendly
grandparently couple and I had a pleasant dinner of leftover tuna casserole with them in their
kitchen.
Sara Najman, who wears a Star of David pendant, told me her grandparents came from
Spain and were Jewish. Two other people in Managua told me Sara was a Nicaraguan who
picked up Judaism from her husband. I never got to the bottom of this story. Could Sara be
descended from Conversos?
Max and Sara Najman host a Shabbat dinner every Friday night, open to whoever shows
up, without invitation. They hold a brief Shabbat service before dinner. Jimmy usually joins
them for Shabbat, but when I returned that Friday night, he was away at a Lubavitcher Shabbaton
in Costa Rica. Max and Sara Najman said that when they go to Costa Rica, they go to the
Lubavitchers. When Edith Cohen said “the last orthodox Jew in Nicaragua,” I pictured a Russian
immigrant with a white beard, among his stacks of dusty Hebrew books. Little did I imagine that
in Nicaragua, of all places, there would be Lubavitchers. Go figure. I was surprised to see two
braided challahs, and asked if they were home-made. They were custom made by a bakery, to
Sara Najman’s specifications.
That night, the only guests besides myself were Katya Sehtman-Gorn, the daughter of
Bernardo Sehtman-Gorn, and her husband Arnoldo. I thought Katya looks around thirty years old,
but her oldest son is 15 so she must be older. She is a bank executive. She is thin and attractive
and dresses well. In Managua, with its brutal tropical sun and polluted air, most of us look a little
bit disheveled and smudged, but Katya always seems to look perfectly groomed and well dressed.
15
She talks rapidly and with great energy. Arnoldo is Guatemalan and not Jewish. He and Katya
met in Costa Rica as students and got married there. They moved to Nicaragua in 1990, after the
Sandinista government fell. I was told that Katya is trying to raise her children as Jews.
I showed up for shabbat dinner again the following week. Jimmy Najman was there. He
conducted the service with a stern demeanor, a couple of books by the Lubavitcher Rebbe close
at hand. When he’s not actually leading a service his manner is affable and friendly. The
Najmans hold a brief service. They chant the blessings for the candles, the wine and the bread;
and they sing “Shalom Aleichem.” After that there is a reading from a Spanish language bible,
and then it’s time to eat and talk.
Other guests were Kurt and Thelma Preiss, who drove in from Granada for the service.
Kurt is a big, heavy, talkative, outgoing guy with a grey beard and a lot of hair that looks like it
was once blond. He was born in Colombia to Jewish parents. Kurt was sent to a Yeshiva in
New York for 3 years when he was 13. He moved to Nicaragua in 1967. He runs tanneries and
leather goods factories in Nicaragua and Honduras. Bernardo Sehtman-Gorn had told me that
Kurt Preiss was one of the contributors who built the new synagogue after the earthquake. When
he spoke to me, it was in English. Although he doesn’t actually speak Yiddish, he likes to
sprinkle his talk with Yiddish words. The other person there was named Martin, an immigrant
from Argentina who had lived in Managua for two years and ran a chain of retail stores called
Dollar Stores – everything is under a dollar.
The conversation was spirited and enjoyable. They talked about Jews they know in other
Central American countries and where they are now, their businesses, and anti-semitism under
the Sandinistas. Jimmy, by way of offering me a drink, asked me what I was drinking. I said I
was drinking soda water, and Kurt said “shpritzvasser.” Jimmy and Martin were drinking
whisky. I had three dinners with the Najmans. Each time, I left with the pleasant feeling of
having been with people who took good care of me. They do not speak English, despite their 11
years in Miami, but speaking Spanish with them was easy; they have a gift for communication.
It’s almost enough to make one join the Lubavitchers.
And so, in this country with nowhere near enough Jews to sustain real Jewish institutions,
the impulse exists to try, against all odds, to create two very different Jewish communities:
Reform and Lubavitcher. In both cases, they lean on the Costa Rican Jewish community for
support. Costa Rica, after all, is said to have 2500 Jews, by far the most of any Central American
country.
So, is there something to be said for the Nicaraguan Jews?
I interviewed the Jews of Nicaragua with trepidation. I am a software engineer, not an
anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or journalist. In place of expertise in any of these fields, I
substituted chutzpah.
I write about these people with greater trepidation than that with which I interviewed
them. These people not only granted me interviews without question, they invited me over to the
house to have lunch with the family. They extended hospitality to a total stranger and asked for
no proof of competence. I have described the harshness of Managua, but there is another side to
Nicaragua, a gentleness and a sweetness. Wherever I went, strangers struck up conversations with
me. People gave me their time and answered my questions, for no reason other than that I asked.
They took me places, to see a cemetery or a synagogue. While they were with me, nothing was
more important than me; if someone else was waiting, it didn’t matter.
If my subjects ever read this, they will feel betrayed no matter what I say. Everyone has a
self-image that is bound to clash with the reality of a photograph or a videotape, and more so with
the subjective perceptions of a written description. How can I write anything about these Jews
that does not clash with their own self-images? If I only wanted to defend and vindicate their
points of view, then they would excuse me as an eccentric foreigner. If I wanted to defend the
Sandinistas and make villains of the Jews, then it wouldn’t matter. What if I just tell my
16
perceptions from my own point of view? Will I ever be able to face these people again? I don’t
want to exploit people to make a good story, and I don’t want to hold back what might offend
them. I want to write about them respectfully and be true to my perceptions.
Historians of Judaism write off Nicaragua as an insignificant backwater and a dead end in
terms of the continuity of Judaism. Can I write off the Nicaraguan Jews themselves as a bunch of
cranky reactionaries? I can’t exactly defend them, as they are so adamant in defending
themselves, as innocent victims of anti-Semitism. I find myself feeling indignant, rhetorically
asking myself how they could be so blind to the precariousness and the fragility of their position
in Somoza’s Nicaragua? Privilege and power are addictive, and addiction leads to delusion. The
Nicaraguan Jews were addicted to their privilege and their comfort. They could not see the
writing on the wall for a minority like themselves in a country that was ripe for revolution.
On the other hand, can we condemn the Nicaraguan Jews? I was struck by what I had in
common with them. Many of these people talked to me in my language rather than their
own, because they had been educated in the United States. They knew more about
relating to me than I to them, because they had lived in my country. What we had in
common was privilege. As a rich visitor in Nicaragua, I experienced their condition first
hand. For me, Nicaragua was a fantasy world, not part of the world I have to deal with in
real life. And in that fantasy world, I was living approximately the life of the Nicaraguan
Jews in the Somoza days.
So Nu?
Did I find what I was looking for in Nicaragua? This story is filled with dead ends and
blind alleys. I never saw Roberto Pataky again after our first brief meeting. I never found out
whether Sara Najman is really a descendent of Spanish Jews. I didn’t find any Jewish
shopkeepers. I didn’t find any Sephardic Jews, poor Jews, crypto-Jews, or even any German Jews
who still identify themselves as Jews. I never found out whether people were really singing in
Hebrew in that house in Las Colinas, and if so, whether it was a Passover Seder, or, as I was told,
Catholics have started using Hebrew. I didn’t interview Margarita Czukerberg, Francisco
Mayorga, or Carlos Tunnerman. I was Nicaragua twice, for only two weeks each time. Some of
these questions might be answered with more time and better skills. Maybe I went there and just
didn’t get the story. Maybe the story is there for someone else to find.
17
Bibliography
Elkin, Judith Laikin. The Jews of Latin America, Holmes & Meier, New
York/London, 1998. (The definitive history of Jews in Latin America.)
Fernandez, Damian J. Central America and the Middle East, Florida
International University Press, Miami, 1990. (A collection of articles including some
criticism of Israel’s foreign policy.)
Hodges, Donald C. Intellectual Foundations of the Nicaraguan
Revolution, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1986. (A long, dry book that includes a
discussion of the formative influences on Sandino’s spiritualistic beliefs.)
Kinzer, Stephen. Blood of Brothers – Life and War in Nicaragua, G. P.
Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1991. (Memoirs of a New York Times correspondent in
Nicaragua during the Contra war.)
Selva, Salomon de la, Mi Primer Judio, ed. Manuel Rodriquez Vizcarra,
Jr., Poesia en el mundo 70. Sierra Madre, Monterrey, Mexico, 1969. (A fascinating
poem in Spanish concerning anti-Semitism in Nicaragua, by one of Nicaragua’s greatest
poets.)

Advertisements