Off the Shelf: Tracing his grandparents’ life journey

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“Nuestra América: My Family in the Vertigo of Translation” by Claudio Lomnitz (Other Press) could be called a memoir about his maternal grandparents’ various emigrations: he writes about how they moved from Eastern Europe to Peru, then Colombia and then Paris before returning to Colombia until making aliyah to Israel, only to once again return to Colombia. But calling this complex work a memoir does not do justice to the sheer amount of historical and sociological discussion Lomnitz offers so that readers can understand the world in which his grandparents lived. In order to appreciate their actions and decisions, it’s necessary to know not only the problems Jewish communities faced in Europe and South America, but the political realities of life in Peru and Colombia. 

Misha Adler was born in Romania in the early years of the 20th century, and Lomnitz places Jewish and secular life of that time period in context as it relates to his grandfather’s life. Most people spoke more than one language: Lomnitz notes that in addition to Yiddish and Hebrew, Misha would have known Russian and German, plus the Romanian spoken by the local Christian population. (Lomnitz mentions that both his grandparents ultimately spoke eight languages.) Although Misha’s family was well off, signs were clear that Jews were not welcome in Romania. Few Jews were allowed to obtain Romanian citizenship. (The politics behind this is too complex to explain in a short review, but Lomnitz does an excellent job making clear why this was so.) However, the Romanian government was more than happy to offer its Jews passports so they could emigrate to other countries. Lomnitz sees this as a form of “ethnic cleansing,” as a way for the country to rid itself of its Jewish population. 

One of the few countries that welcomed these Jews was Peru. The reason for their acceptance was not a humanitarian one. Lomnitz notes that Peru “was looking for European workers as a eugenics-inspired counterbalance to the large number of Chinese immigrants that it had previously received.” Jews were seen as vaguely European, meaning not Chinese and not members of the Native American tribes who were poorly treated. 
While Misha came to Peru on his own, his future wife, Noemi Milstein arrived with her parents and most of her siblings. The family’s escape from Ukraine was not a complete success: With pogroms occurring during the Russian Revolution, they planned to illegally cross the border. Unfortunately, the youngest child began to cry and was sent back with her grandmother. The family lost contact with her until after World War II. Noemi’s family settled first in Peru and then Colombia; in both countries, her father managed to run successful businesses. 

Misha flourished at first in Peru. He not only took part in the political and literary movements in the country, but published several issues of a Jewish-themed journal, which included writings by Jews and non-Jews from Peru and other countries. Misha and Noemi were close friends of José Carlos Mariátegui, a major figure in Peruvian life, whose socialistic and Marxist principles aligned with their political thought. Lomnitz called Mariátegui’s life “dazzlingly brilliant, like a bolt of lightning,” and includes a chapter focusing on his life and ideas.

Originally there seemed to be no antisemitism in Peru, but that changed when Jews became connected with communism in the new government’s mind. Both Misha and his future father-in-law were arrested. Misha’s release from prison depended on his leaving the country, while his father-in-law did so voluntarily in order to protect his family. After Misha and Noemi married in Colombia, they spent time in Paris where Misha was enrolled in doctoral studies. During their relatively short time there, Misha visited his relatives in Romania and encouraged them to emigrate. Unfortunately, it was no longer as easy to leave the country. Most died in the Holocaust. One of the most interesting chapters focuses on what occurred in Romania: Lomnitz believes that the Romanians were even more brutal than the Nazis. He notes that the Romanian government’s “extermination policy was systemic. In fact, it preceded the program for the so-called Final Solution agreed upon by the Nazis at the Wannsee conference by around six months.” 

Misha and Noemi were Zionists and, after the declaration of the state of Israel, made aliyah. They were also worried about right-wing movements and the accompanying violence that was occurring in South America. Eventually, they returned to Colombia, partly because of the physical difficulty of living on a kibbutz and partly because Misha had been hoping for greater participation in the intellectual life of the country.

This outline, however, does not do justice to “Nuestra América” because it leaves out the philosophical and historical explanations Lomnitz offers about the movements and politics in which his grandparents were involved. His analysis of the different situations in which they found themselves includes tangents into European and South American history. In his acknowledgments, Lomnitz notes that he rewrote and added material to the English version of his work since he realized that many people are not familiar with the intricacies of Peruvian and Colombian history. He believes his grandparents’ story cannot be understood without knowing the context in which their actions took place. That’s also true for the countries they lived in while in Europe. These sections add depth and meaning to the memoir, and make it of interest for those who are less concerned with the specifics of Misha and Noemi’s lives, but are curious to learn more about Jewish South American life.