Rootless Nostalgia: Vienna in la Paz, la Paz in Elsewhere

By Spitzer, Leo | Shofar, April 30, 2001 | Go to article overview

Rootless Nostalgia: Vienna in la Paz, la Paz in Elsewhere


Spitzer, Leo, Shofar


Rootless Nostalgia: Vienna in La Paz, La Paz in Elsewhere

Starting in the mid-1930s, and up until the end of the first year of World War II, thousands of refugees from Nazi-dominated Central Europe, the majority of them Jews, fled to Bolivia to escape an increasingly vehement persecution. Indeed, in the panic months following the German Anschluss of Austria, Bolivia was one of very few remaining places in the entire world to accept Jewish refugees. But today, few Jews still reside in that country. From the very start of their large-scale inflow in the 1930s, many of the refugees had considered Bolivia only a temporary haven -- "Hotel Bolivia," as they described it. The majority emigrated in the years after the war: some back to Austria or Germany, others to the U.S., Israel, or to "less exotic" Latin American countries.

Examining the refugees' recollections of Europe (specifically of Austria) in Bolivia, as well as their recollections of the "Bolivia experience" in the U.S. (some fifty years later), this essay engages in an act of witnessing (in retrospect) and reflects on the interrelations of place, memory, and nostalgia. In particular, it explores and begins to theorize "rootless nostalgia" specific to the postmemory of the second generation -- to the children of exiles or refugees who have inherited ambivalent memories and a condition of homelessness from their parents. Such nostalgia, the author argues, is not "homesickness" or longing for return to a lost origin, or a yearning for a better time. Instead, it reflects a desire to establish a connection, or reconnection, between a past known only secondhand and a lived present. It represents a need to repair the ruptured fabric of a painfully discontinuous, fragmentary history, even as it acknowledges the impossibility of such reparation.

1. A gathering at Rosie's place:

A few months before my mother died she invited us for dinner in her apartment in Queens, New York, together with Liesl and Heini Lipczenko, her old friends from Vienna and La Paz. My two aunts, Regi and Frieda, as well as my uncle Julius, were also going to be there. In her desire to entice us to undertake the lengthy drive from Vermont to New York, Rose unabashedly used her insider's, motherly, knowledge of my culinary appetites. "I'm cooking one of your favorite meals, Leo," she announced, "picante de pollo with white corn and potatoes." As for dessert, she revealed the pièce de resistance: "Apfelstrudel, which I'm baking myself." It would be, she assured Marianne and me, "absolutely delicious."

And the meal was indeed absolutely delicious. In her small apartment, which had no formal dining space, we all sat in the living room where my mother had opened her teak-veneer extender-table and marked the "specialness" of the occasion by setting it with her finest tablecloth and cloth napkins, which she had acquired in Bolivia, and her best dishes and dinnerware, bought at a nearby Bloomingdale's department store. Our dinner conversation with the Lipczenkos and my relatives, spoken in a blend of English and German, with an occasional Spanish word or phrase mixed in, was animated and wide ranging. At some point in the evening it came around to Vienna, and then to Bolivia. Together, we all looked at one of my mother's photo albums from what we called the "Bolivia years." Those of us in the group who had been there reminisced and recounted anecdotes. Through our experiences, we felt connected among ourselves and to the place. My mother and her brother Julius, both with angina-weakened hearts, expressed frustration about their inability to visit La Paz and see the Andes again. A nostalgic tone infused the conversational air. Liesl Lipczenko, recalling that evening some months later, told me: "Even though I left La Paz so long ago, I feel a strong connection -- everything seems familiar...I have such good memories of those years. I wish I was younger and could go there again. I have a real Sehnsucht [longing] for the place. …

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