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About, Part 5: Uruguay, Haven of Refuge

Customs Building, Montevideo

Customs Building Montevideo, approx. 1950

They could hardly have come to a better place: Uruguay has a long history of European immigration and was, at this time already, a relatively stable country with an advanced political and educational system. The country’s immigration laws have traditionally been very generous, allowing “every honest foreigner apt to work”[1] to come and settle in the country. These laws became more restrictive in the 1930s as the result of a severe economic crisis and the imposition of a dictatorship under Gabriel Terra in 1933. However, at the end of the 1930s, under the relatively democratic regime of Alfredo Baldomir, a new wave of immigrants, mainly composed of European Jews and Spanish Republicans, managed to receive visas for Uruguay – mainly thanks to the help of numerous Uruguayan consuls abroad –, a country which remained more accessible than many others. Upon arrival, the DGM (Dirección General de Migración, i.e. the Migration Department of the Interior Ministry) immediately validated each immigrant’s entry by establishing disembarkation permits and the “cedula de identitad uruguaya”, i.e. a Uruguayan ID card. In the 1940s, Jeanne even acquired the Uruguayan nationality.

Beach of Atlantida, Uruguay

Beach of Atlantida, Uruguay, approx. 1950

Uruguay, South America’s smallest “melting pot” took in approximately 10,000 German-speaking émigrés during the National Socialist regime, the overwhelming majority of them Jewish.[2] In South America, only Argentina, Brazil and Chile welcomed more. Most of them were from middle-class backgrounds, well educated and brought with them advanced education and skills to their new countries. Some, such as Jeanne, belonged to the cultural or scientific elite of their countries of origin. According to the historian Peter Gay, “the exiles Hitler made were the greatest collection of transplanted intellect, talent and scholarship the world has ever seen.”

Many of these exiles quickly managed to embrace the culture of their newly adopted countries and to integrate the native culture or to create a new hybrid culture. In the case of visual artists, this was facilitated by the fact that their work did not necessarily require the use of their mother tongue.

[1] Quoted in Silvia Facal Santiago, “Emigrantes y exiliados judíos en Uruguay”, in: Historia Actual On Line, Nr. 2 (Autumn 2003), p. 46

[2] Sonja Wegner, Zuflucht in einem fremden Land. Exil in Uruguay 1933-1945, Hamburg and Berlin, 2013.