Books by Leo Spitzer

Released: June 1, 1998

An evocative, thoughtful, and otherwise impressive combination of memoir, oral history, and reflection on the nature of memory by a child of Viennese Jews who immigrated in 1939 to the exotic, landlocked South American country. Spitzer (History/Dartmouth) was born in La Paz in the year his parents arrived, making him in a sense both a participant in and an observer of the central European Jewish refugee experience. In preparation for this book, he engaged in 150 hours of interviews with Austrian and German immigrants to Bolivia. His work is in large part a collective history, enlivened with a series of portraits of individual refugees. Spitzer is particularly interesting on the encounters marked by mutual fascination, estrangement, and stereotyping between previously upper-middle-class central European Jews and Bolivia's chacos (urban, sometimes illiterate mestizos). Beyond this, he engages in a series of reflections on "the contextualization of memory and the interdependence—and tension—between memory and history." For example, after looking at his own wartime family photographs and listening to immigrants' recollections of life in Bolivia, he observes that "groups recall, recognize, and distort their present memory to represent the past," quoting Joan W. Smith's observation that one historian's or layperson's rendering of a group's "collective" experience "is at once already an interpretation and something that needs to be interpreted." Spitzer's prose occasionally bogs down, particularly in a far too detailed chapter on "Buena Tierra," an ultimately failed attempt to establish a refugee rural collective. Nonetheless, his work does serve to vividly introduce readers to a little-known aspect of refugee history during the Holocaust, while impelling them to think deeply about the nature of personal adaptation, and of individual and group efforts to capture, preserve, and transmit a knowledge of what they have endured. (60 b&w photos, not seen) Read full book review >