A few days ago in Santa Cruz in eastern Bolivia:
The Orient Express on which I had come from San José de Chiquitos, even further in the east of the country, was delayed by an hour, so I had to hurry to get to the airport to catch a flight back home to Cochabamba. In the city center I looked and asked around for bus no. 135, but to no avail. I had to bite the bullet and hail an expensive cab. Luckily, there are always plenty of them cruising around.
One of the first questions of every cab driver is of course: “Where are you from?”
“From Germany,” I still reply, although I haven’t lived there for seven years. But in first or passing conversations, simplicity prevails.
“Oh, my father was from Germany,” the driver says, as excited as me about this coincidence. “But he was no Nazi!!” he adds, waving his right index finger and looking at me in the rear-view mirror to make sure I got this very important clarification.
I express my retroactive admiration for the taxi driver’s father’s opposition to the National-Socialist regime, but he already continues telling me the story of his father: a German Jew, from the area around Frankfurt, who had gone through several concentration camps, lost his whole family, was the only one to survive, emigrated to Bolivia, married a Bolivian woman and had a family here.
“That was a huge massacre that this guy Hitler made,” the taxi driver remarks, still visibly agitated by his father’s fate. As far as is possible in the brevity of time, in the morning rush-hour and with my limited Spanish skills, I try to point out that one would do injustice to the tens of thousands of abettors and the millions of followers of the Nazis if one were to forget their role in the holocaust. It’s not like one man could organize and carry out a genocide on an industrial scale for twelve years by acting alone.
Although I already have more than enough work of this kind, I spontaneously launch my own offensive of reparation: “Did your father still hold German citizenship when you were born? Because then you would have German citizenship, too.” After all, this is one of my areas of specialization. And if the case was that simple, we wouldn’t even need to invoke Art. 116 II of the German Constitution which mandates the restitution of German citizenship to the victims of Nazi persecution and to their descendants.
Carlos, that is the name of the potential German, doesn’t really want to travel to Germany, but is nonetheless excited by the prospect of a German passport: “Then I can finally visit my children in the US without having to apply for a visa.” We agree to remain in contact, that he will e-mail me more details of his family’s history and that I will see what is possible in his case. He doesn’t offer to reduce the fare of 70 bolivianos, though.
Of particular interest is the town Chulumani, hidden in the almost impenetrable Yungas forests. Some of the Jews from Germany fled here because they thought they’d be safe in those remote mountains. For the same reason, a different group of Germans fled to Chulumani after World War II: high-ranking Nazis were hiding from prosecution there. For a time, Klaus Barbie (who advised Bolivian dictators, whose families had also come from Germany, coincidentally) and allegedly Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele lived in the same town as the Jews who had fled from them. For the Bolivians, it was hard to comprehend why these immigrants didn’t get along with each other, for they were all Germans in their eyes.