Maimon-Marrans

A Brief History of Jews in Mexico

by Mel Goldberg

Probably arriving with the first Spaniards. Jews have lived in Mexico since the fifteenth century. Their history in Mexico may be divided into three significant time periods: the fifteenth, eighteenth, and twentieth centuries.

THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY

The first Jews arrived about thirty years after the start of the Spanish Inquisition, during which thousands of New Christians, or Conversos (Jews who had converted to Catholicism), were burned at the stake as heretics. Also known as marranos, they often continued practicing Judaism in secret. All practicing Jews were banished from Spain in 1492, many emigrating to Portugal. Historians believe some converted Jews came with Hernán Cortes when he conquered the Aztecs in 1521. In 1531 a group of Spanish Jews and Conversos who had found refuge in Portugal emigrated to Mexico, then called Nueva España, under the rule of Royal Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, where they believed they could retain their historical Spanish identity and continue practicing Judaism. Because Mendoza was a common name among Spanish Jews, some historians suggest the Viceroy had a Jewish or Converso background.

Until 1571, those who had immigrated to the New World were able to practice Judaism openly. But that year marked the beginning of the Mexican Inquisition, an extension of the one in Spain. Again both practicing Jews and Conversos lived in fear. However, the Mexican Inquisition was not as bitterly hostile as the Spanish Inquisition. Records indicate that fewer than one hundred were tortured and executed by burning.

In 1579, King Philip II of Spain established the Kingdom of Nuevo Leon (present day Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, and South Texas) a colony north of Nueva España to be governed by Luis de Carvajal, a Portuguese/Spanish nobleman. To help populate the colony, both Conversos and practicing Jews were welcomed. Within sixty years, according to historical evidence, the descendants of the original settlers moved to what is now New Mexico, Arizona, and California, then still part of Mexico, bringing Judaism with them vestiges of which survive to this day. Tragically, Carvajal died in a Spanish prison as a heretic in 1596. One recent manifestation is that of Father William Sanchez of Alberquerque. As a boy, he never understood why his Catholic family spun tops on Christmas, shunned pork, and spoke in hushed tones about ancestors who left medieval Spain. After watching a genealogical television program, Father Sanchez tracked his DNA and discovered that he and his family were part of New Mexico’s crypto-Jews, descendants who maintain some Jewish traditions of their ancestors while adhering to Catholicism.

THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

Two genealogical studies, Archivo General de la Nacion de Mexico and the Ramo de la Inquisition, suggest that Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the father of Mexican Independence, had a Converso background and that Bartolome de las Casas, a Bishop who fought to free slaves in Nueva España, also had Jewish ancestors. Their families were sincere converts but it is ironic that the expulsion of Jews from Spain ultimately led to Spain’s loss of Mexico.

Many adventurous Jews immigrated to Mexico between 1700 and 1865 to escape the grinding poverty and anti-Jewish attitudes of life in the Old World. While they were not allowed to become citizens, a right granted only to Catholics, many who came during the one hundred sixty-five years became peddlers, similar to those who traveled to the West of the United States. On the backs of burros or mules, they carried housewares, clothing and novelties to remote villages of Mexico. In 1865 Emperor Maximilian I issued an edict of religious tolerance and invited a number of German Jews to settle in Mexico. Yet as of 1867 there were only about twenty Jewish families in Mexico City although there were probably more in the rest of the country.

Following Maximillian’s execution by firing squad in 1867, Benito Juarez, the liberal President of Mexico, enforced the separation of Church and State. Non-Catholics were allowed to establish themselves in Mexico and in 1882, after the assassination of the Russian Tsar, Alexander II, a significant numbers of practicing Jews from Russia entered the country.

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Large numbers of Jews arrived after World War I, fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. Some, descendants from medieval Jewish communities along the Rhine, were called the Ashkenazim, a term associated with northern Europe and Germany. They were fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe.

A larger group, descendants from Jewish communities in the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain, Portugal, and Andorra), were called Sephardic, from sephardit which means Spanish in modern Hebrew. They escaped from the collapsing Ottoman Empire, many also from Turkey and Morocco. Because most of the Sephardic Jews had retained their Spanish heritage, they spoke Ladino, a dialect of Spanish, making life easier than their Ashkenazic counterparts.

All immigrants faced economically difficult lives and Jews faced the same financial problems as all Mexicans. But coming from a primitive part of the world, they had no difficulty in adapting to conditions in Mexican villages. In fact, Mexican Catholics and Jews accepted each other since in both groups, the family was the predominant social group.

Why did Jews choose Mexico as a destination rather than the United States? Mexico was attractive to them. Many had relatives or friends already settled in the country. And in 1921 and 1924, United States enacted laws restricting immigration.

From 1920 to 1930, Jews in Mexico enjoyed a period of stability during which they prospered.

The only recorded incidents of anti-Semitism came in the 1930’s, when neo-Nazi right-wingers, financed from Berlin, staged anti-Jewish demonstrations in Mexico City. The demonstrators gained little support from the Mexican people.

JEWS IN MEXICO TODAY

Today, Mexico has a Jewish community of between 40,00-50,000 with about 37,000 living in Mexico city. The majority of them, Mexican citizens who practice Judaism, are descendants of people who, from 1881 to 1939, found refuge here. Because Mexican economic prosperity allowed religious tolerance, Jews enjoyed the same rights as any other Mexican citizen. In Mexico City there are more than twenty synagogues, several Kosher restaurants and religious schools where many Jewish youth receive their education. Jewish communities can also be found in Guadalajara , Monterrey, Tijuana, Cancun and San Miguel deAllende. In early March, 2000, Pope John Paul II called anti-Semitism “a massive sin against humanity” and the Holocaust “an indelible stain on the history of the last century.” In June 2003, President Vicente Fox passed a law that forbids discrimination, including anti-Semitism, putting into the law what has been practiced for years.

Jews have served in positions in the Federal Government. From 2000 to 2004, Jorge Casteñada Gutman was Foreign Minister. From 2000 to 2005, Santiago Levy Algazi was director of the Social Security Institute. Others are prominent members of the Chambers of Commerce in Monterey, Guadalajara, and Tijuana, whose former president of the City Council was Marcus Levy. David Saul Gaukil, a member of the Tijuana City Council, said, “No one [has ever] commented adversely that I am Jewish.” Although Tijuana has a population of 2,000,000 its Jewish population is only about 2,000. Tijuana also has Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California made up almost entirely of converted Mexican Catholics. Its non-ordained leader, Carlos Salas, conducts spiritual outreach to Mexicans of Jewish ancestry and crypto-Jews practicing in secret.

Jews and descendants of Jews in Mexico have been well-respected journalists and artists. Jacobo Zabludovsky became a much-honored Mexican journalist and the first anchorman in Mexican television with his program 24 Horas. Frida Kahlo, was the daughter of Guillermo Kahlo, born Carl Wilhelm Kahlo in Germany after his parents moved there from Hungary. Emigrating to Mexico in 1891, he changed his name to Guillermo. The lover of Leon Trotsky and flamboyant artist maintained that her father was a Hungarian Jew and never denied her Jewish heritage. In 1935, her husband, Converso descendant muralist Diego Rivera, wrote, “Jewishness is the dominant element in my life. From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work.”

There was even a Jewish bullfighter, Sidney Franklin, born Sidney Frumkin in New York in 1903, who fought bulls in Spain, and Mexico. Hemingway, in Death in the Afternoon, wrote

“Franklin is brave with a cold, serene and intelligent valor.” He died in 1976, after a career fighting bulls and presenting bullfights on American TV.

In addition to Mexico City, substantial Jewish communities exist in Guadalajara and Monterrey. The Chapala/Ajijic area is home to a group of ex-pat American Jews who hold religious services at their own synagogue and occasionally interact with their Mexican Jewish counterparts in Guadalajara.

The combination of tenacity on the part of Jews and tolerance by Mexicans, both official and as individuals, has permitted Judaism to put down deep roots.

Today, Jews have much in common with their fellow Mexicans. Both groups are sincerely religious and family oriented. Both were historically victims of oppression and tyranny. Ultimately, however, like all those who live in Mexico, their future depends on Mexico’s social and economic progress.

 

Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth

Amazing Story of Moe Berg

Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth

When baseball greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig went on tour in baseball-crazy Japan in 1934, some fans wondered why a third-string catcher named Moe Berg was included. Although he played with five major-league teams from 1923 to 1939, he was a very mediocre ball player. But Moe was regarded as the brainiest ballplayer of all time.

 
In fact Casey Stengel once said: “That is the strangest man ever to play baseball.” 
 
When all the baseball stars went to Japan, Moe Berg went with them and many people wondered why he went with “the team”.
 

 

 

Moe Berg

The answer was simple: Moe Berg was a United States spy, working undercover with the CIA. Moe spoke 15 languages – including Japanese. And he had two loves: baseball and spying. In Tokyo, garbed in a kimono, Berg took flowers to the daughter of an American diplomat being treated in St. Luke’s Hospital – the tallest building in the Japanese capital.

 
He never delivered the flowers. The ball-player ascended to the hospital roof and filmed key features: the harbour, military installations, railway yards, etc. Eight years later, General Jimmy Doolittle studied Berg’s films in planning his spectacular raid on Tokyo. 
 
His father disapproved of his baseball career and never once watched his son play. In Barringer High School, Moe learned Latin, Greek and French. Moe read at least 10 newspapers every day.
 
He graduated magna cum laude from Princeton – having added Spanish, Italian, German and Sanskrit to his linguistic quiver. During further studies at the Sorbonne, in Paris, and Columbia Law School, he picked up Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Arabic, Portuguese and Hungarian – 15 languages in all, plus some regional dialects.
 
While playing baseball for Princeton University, Moe Berg would describe plays in Latin or Sanskrit.
Tito’s partisans
 

Tito`s Partisans

During World War II, Moe was parachuted into Yugoslavia to assess the value to the war effort of the two groups of partisans there.

He reported back that Marshall Tito’s forces were widely supported by the people and Winston Churchill ordered all-out support for the Yugoslav underground fighter, rather than Mihajlovic’s Serbians.
 
The parachute jump at age 41 undoubtedly was a challenge. But there was more to come in that same year.
Berg penetrated German-held Norway, met with members of the underground and located a secret heavy-water plant – part of the Nazis’ effort to build an atomic bomb.
 

The R.A.F. destroys the Norwegian heavy water plant targeted by Moe Berg.

 

 

His information guided the Royal Air Force in a bombing raid to destroy that plant.

There still remained the question of how far had the Nazis progressed in the race to build the first Atomic bomb. 
 
If the Nazis were successful, they would win the war. Berg (under the code name “Remus”) was sent to Switzerland to hear leading German physicist Werner Heisenberg, a Nobel Laureate, lecture and determine if the Nazis were close to building an A-bomb. Moe managed to slip past the SS guards at the auditorium, posing as a Swiss graduate student. 
 
The spy carried in his pocket a pistol and a cyanide pill.
.
 
 
 
129336283172915501_773233dc-afbf-470e-8583-10331b70309e_224203_273

Remembering Anita Brenner

Culture Feature

Remembering Anita Brenner, The Revolutionary Mexican-Born, Jewish-American Woman Who Exposed Rivera, Kahlo, and Siqueros to the World

In 1916, as war raged in the city of Aguascalientes, eleven-year-old Anita Brenner and her family got into a car and sped towards the train station. They had escaped Mexico before, but this time it was for good: Anita’s father had sold all of their belongings, including the furniture, to pay for the train ticket.

The family settled in San Antonio, except Anita, who grew up feeling out of place. San Antonio was her first encounter with practicing Jews, but they were nothing like the kings and queens that she had read about. She soon became aware of the profound differences between American Jews, and herself. As a Mexican-born American Jew, she was in a murky area: shunned as a Mexican by the American Jews, and discriminated against, as a Jew, by many American gentiles.

During her first year at the University of Texas, things got so bad that she couldn’t find appropriate student housing because of her Jewish identity. She finally made up her mind, and, much to her father’s disapproval, decided to return to the country that had been recently ravaged by the Mexican Revolution.

When she arrived in Mexico City in 1923, she found herself in the midst of a group of intellectuals and artists who have since become myths in Mexican history. In cafes and parties with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and José Clemente Orozco she found her true calling as a bridge-builder, and established the basis of an international reputation that would follow her throughout her life.

David Alfaro Siqueiros, Peasants,ca. 1913 - MUSEO NACIONAL DE ARTE, INBA

As a journalist, an anthropologist, a cultural promoter and a traveler, Anita helped position the cultural movement called the Mexican Renaissance in the United States. Her hybrid identity allowed her to crisscross national boundaries, earning an important role as a type of cultural diplomat.

Her influence is still relevant. This September, the Skirball Center in Los Angeles will inaugurate the exhibition “Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico.” The show, featuring works by Diego Rivera, José Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Frida Kahlo, Mathias Goeritz and dozen more artists, attests to her impact.

Anita’s father, Isidore Brenner, was an American-nationalized entrepreneur from Latvia who traveled on bicycle across the US before settling in the Mexican state of Aguascalientes at the end of the 19th century. Porfirio Diaz, the President of Mexico at that time, promoted foreign investment across the country and turned Aguascalientes into the headquarters of American companies like the Smelting Company, owned by the Guggenheim brothers.

Aguascalientes, Mexico, circa 1890`s "Portales of the market of San Marcos." Glass negative by William Henry Jackson, Detroit Publishing Co.

At first, Isidore worked as a waiter in the city, but he eventually scaled up. Over the years he established his own business, bought a big terrain in which he built a stable and planted fruit trees, established a Rotary Club and became a prominent public figure in town.

Despite the rapid industrialization of the country, many indigenous communities resented Diaz’s economic policies: most suffered under an oppressive land-owning scheme that excluded them from the profits. This created an unstable, explosive, social situation with anger against the foreign landowners accumulating.

When Anita, born in 1905, was five-years-old, her indigenous caretaker, Nana Serpia, pointed to the Halley comet and said it was a bad omen. She was right: that same year, a revolution to overthrow Diaz saw the light.

Keeping American investors’ interests in mind, the US intervened in favor of Diaz, and portrayed the revolutionaries – and Mexico – as a chaotic country that was falling apart. The invasive actions by the US sparked strong anti-American sentiments in Mexico: American flags were burned, consulates and American businesses attacked, and white-skinned foreigners were subject to harassment. Fearing for their lives as American-born property-owners, the Brenner family fled the country. On the train ride to the border, they passed as Germans by carrying a German flag.

Anita Brenner

When 18 year-old Anita came back, Mexico was healing from the wounds of war and going through an incredibly creative phase. The Mexican Revolution, despite the horrible violence, had brought changes in the national narrative and a favorable evaluation of Mexico’s indigenous roots. There was a profound questioning of the Eurocentric narrative brought on by the Conquest, and a belief that the Revolution was meant to serve the underdogs.

Anita soaked it all up. She was convinced that art had a major role to play in the self-fashioning of this new Mexico. Driven by this belief, she became friends with American liberal journalists and writers who were covering the social transformation, like John Dos Passos, as well as forming relationships with the like-minded-muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Diego Rivera, History of Mexico: From Conquest to the Future, 1929-30.

Her previous experience with the Jewish community of San Antonio had shaped her understanding of herself and the role of Jews in Mexico. She became conscious of how Mexico was portrayed negatively in the American media, and read stories published in the United States about the unfavorable situation for Jews south of the border. Anita, who played an active role welcoming new immigrant Jews into the port of Veracruz, was a fervent defender of her birth country: her first journalism pieces in The Nation and Jewish Telegraphic Agency were explicitly written to paint a positive picture of Mexico as a safe-haven for Jews.

These articles were the beginning of a lifelong quest to promote Mexican culture to an American audience. Anita, ever the migrant, moved to New York in 1925 and published, in English, her most famous book to this date, “Idols behind the Altars,” an eclectic view of Mexico’s indigenous traditions and contemporary artists. The book, which positioned the work of Rivera and Orozco as a continuation of Mexican popular culture, was an instant hit: she received praise letters from Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno and British writer Richard Hughes. She was only 24 years old.

Part of Diego Rivera`s "History of Mexico."

Despite her early fame, her intellectual production never waned. In 1929, under the tutorship of Frank Boaz, she graduated with a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia University and won a Guggenheim fellowship, which she used as a honeymoon fund to travel to Europe and the Mexican state of Guerrero. She got involved in liberal circles and, as a journalist for The New York Times, was active in defending those who had been jailed during the Spanish Civil War.

She interviewed Trotsky for The Nation in 1933 and a couple of years after, when he had fled to Norway, she contacted Diego Rivera and told him that getting Trotsky out of Europe was a matter of life or death. Rivera, in turn, lobbied for Trotsky with Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas, who granted him asylum. Anita helped organize Trotsky’s acquittal trail in Mexico, in which famed philosopher John Dewey also participated. At the same time, she grew increasingly concerned about anti-Semitic attacks in Mexico City: as fascism raged in Europe, she wrote about groups who were organizing mass violence against immigrants.

"Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States" (1932) by Frida Kahlo. Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Collection of Maria and Manuel Reyero; Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Musems Trust Artists Rights Society

Overall, she wrote more than 400 articles for different publications and published dozens of books, including The Wind that Swept Mexico, the first account of the Mexican Revolution in English. She was, above all a connector. Her parties and gatherings were legendary, and she was personally responsible for organizing the shows of many of her artist friends across the border.

Ten years after she moved back to Mexico, in 1955, she established the magazine “Mexico This Month,” which quickly turned into a Who’s Who of emerging artists, and featured names like Pedro Friedberg and Mathias Goeritz. In the sixties, she returned to her family’s plot of land in Aguascalientes and started growing all types of fruits and vegetables. She died in a car accident, on her way to her ranch.

According to her daughter, locals in the area often approach her talking about sightings of Anita Brenner’s ghost. She appears as a blonde woman, floating over her plot of land, and tells children to plant trees in her honor. “I tell them that they should treat me right, or my mother would come back in revenge. They don’t find it funny.”

With increasing xenophobia against Mexican and Latino immigrants in the wake of Trump, and the need to establish bridges between the United States and Mexico, Brenner’s life seems more relevant than ever. Los Angeles, with a sizable Jewish community and the biggest Mexican population outside of Mexico City, is a right setting to commemorate Brenner’s legacy. Particularly important, says Laura Mart, co-curator of the exhibition at Skirball, is expanding the idea of Mexico as a place of immigration.

Despite the important, lifelong role that Anita played in building bridges between countries, she never ceased to be a stranger in her land. When the Mexican government awarded her the Aztec Eagle, the highest honor given to a foreigner, Brenner declined it because she had been born in Mexico. This life-long conflict is summarized in the line of a poem that she wrote in her early twenties: “Daughter of two countries, citizen of none.”

.

This article reprinted with permission from the author.

ernest leica

Leica and the Jews

The Leica is the pioneer 35mm camera. It is a German product – precise, minimalist, and utterly efficient.

Behind its worldwide acceptance as a creative tool was a family-owned, socially oriented firm that, during the Nazi era, acted with uncommon grace, generosity and modesty. E. Leitz Inc., designer and manufacturer of Germany’s most famous photographic product, saved its Jews.

And Ernst Leitz II, the steely-eyed Protestant patriarch who headed the closely held firm as the Holocaust loomed across Europe, acted in such a way as to earn the title, “the photography industry’s Schindler.”

As soon as Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in 1933, Ernst Leitz II began receiving frantic calls from Jewish associates, asking for his help in getting them and their families out of the country. As Christians, Leitz and his family were immune to Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg laws, which restricted the movement of Jews and limited their professional activities.

To help his Jewish workers and colleagues, Leitz quietly established what has become known among historians of the Holocaust as “the Leica Freedom Train,” a covert means of allowing Jews to leave Germany in the guise of Leitz employees being assigned overseas.

Employees, retailers, family members, even friends of family members were “assigned” to Leitz sales offices in France, Britain, Hong Kong and the United States, Leitz’s activities intensified after the Kristallnacht of November 1938, during which synagogues and Jewish shops were burned across Germany.

Before long, German “employees” were disembarking from the ocean liner, Bremen, at a New York pier and making their way to the Manhattan office of Leitz Inc., where executives quickly found them jobs in the photographic industry.

Each new arrival had around his or her neck the symbol of freedom – a new Leica camera.

The refugees were paid a stipend until they could find work. Out of this migration came designers, repair technicians, salespeople, marketers and writers for the photographic press.

Keeping the story quiet The “Leica Freedom Train” was at its height in 1938 and early 1939, delivering groups of refugees to New York every few weeks. Then, with the invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Germany closed its borders.

By that time, hundreds of endangered Jews had escaped to America, thanks to the Leitzes’ efforts. How did Ernst Leitz II and his staff get away with it?

Leitz, Inc. was an internationally recognized brand that reflected credit on the newly resurgent Reich. The company produced cameras, range-finders and other optical systems for the German military. Also, the Nazi government desperately needed hard currency from abroad, and Leitz’s single biggest market for optical goods was the United States.

Even so, members of the Leitz family and firm suffered for their good works. A top executive, Alfred Turk, was jailed for working to help Jews and freed only after the payment of a large bribe.

Leitz’s daughter, Elsie Kuhn-Leitz, was imprisoned by the Gestapo after she was caught at the border, helping Jewish women cross into Switzerland . She eventually was freed but endured rough treatment in the course of questioning. She also fell under suspicion when she attempted to improve the living conditions of 700 to 800 Ukrainian slave laborers, all of them women, who had been assigned to work in the plant during the 1940s. (After the war, Kuhn-Leitz received numerous honors for her humanitarian efforts, among them the Officier d’honneur des Palms Academic from France in 1965 and the Aristide Briand Medal from the European Academy in the 1970s.)

Why has no one told this story until now? According to the late Norman Lipton, a freelance writer and editor, the Leitz family wanted no publicity for its heroic efforts. Only after the last member of the Leitz family was dead did the “Leica Freedom Train” finally come to light.

It is now the subject of a book, The Greatest Invention of the Leitz Family: The Leica Freedom Train,” by Frank Dabba Smith, a California-born Rabbi currently living in England.