2016-11-23 / Local News

Jews who found refuge in Ecuador focus of program at Temple Sinai


Delanco resident and guest speaker Ruth Feeley (left) is welcomed by Becky Siman of Mount Laurel, the Sisterhood president at Temple Sinai in Cinnaminson. Delanco resident and guest speaker Ruth Feeley (left) is welcomed by Becky Siman of Mount Laurel, the Sisterhood president at Temple Sinai in Cinnaminson. Holocaust history is full of stories of those who helped Jews escape Nazi horrors and those who hindered them, from the heroism of diplomats such as Raoul Wallenberg and Chiune Sugihara to the shameful story of the passenger ship St. Louis, whose Jewish refugees on board were not allowed to disembark in Miami, Cuba or Canada, forcing them to return to Europe.

One little-known but still powerful example of how Jews found safe harbor during the Holocaust is the small country of Ecuador on the Northwest coast of South America, which took in thousands of Jews who could help develop the nation’s industry and agriculture. Among the European Jews who made their way there, settling in the mountains or on the coast, were the parents and grandparents of Ruth Feeley, a longtime Cinnaminson resident who now lives in Delanco.

Feeley, a retired English and Spanish teacher, returned to Cinnaminson recently with a timely film to show at a Temple Sinai brunch co-sponsored by its Sisterhood and Men’s Club to commemorate Kristallnacht, the destruction of synagogues, Jewish homes and businesses on Nov. 9, 1938.

The film, “An Unknown Country,” was directed and executive-produced by Eva Zelig, a member of Ecuador’s Jewish community who now lives in Brooklyn. Zelig, whose family originated in then- Czechoslovakia, filmed a reunion of descendants who had left the community as children and were returning to Ecuador with their own children. Her documentary was released two years ago.

“Of those 4,000 Jews who made up the community at its peak, only 750 remain,” said Feeley, 71, who had every intention of returning to the country of her birth when she arrived here at age 17 to attend the State University of New York- Fredonia. Her plans changed when she met her American husband to-be.

“But the reason why the Jewish community has done so well is that they are truly a family,” said Feeley, who grew up in Quito and attended private school there, citing the country’s “primitive” lifestyle. After the war, many youth left to attend college and took up new lives abroad. Others stayed but intermarried, accounting for today’s small Jewish numbers.

Feeley returns on such occasions as her 50-year high school reunion in 2013, to visit her family’s graves and to see her remaining relatives, including cousin Alberto Dorfzaun, who owns the Panama hat factory highlighted in the film and heads the remaining Jewish community.

Feeley’s father, Gunter Engel, whose family owned a drapery business in Dortmund, Germany, fled to Czechoslovakia after Hitler’s rise. Her mother Hannah’s family, from Cologne, made its way to Holland and then England. Both families found passage to Ecuador, which provided visas to Jews who could work in industry and agriculture. The couple met and married in Quito, where Gunter Engel pumped gas and sold auto parts. Hannah, a nurse in Europe, helped her family manufacture metal milk cans.

“An Unknown Country” is chock-full of stories like that of Feeley, whose aunt, Anne Anker, was among those interviewed for the film. Anker passed away last year, adding a personal poignancy to the film, which acknowledges this great example of the human spirit, with the Holocaust survivors grateful for the life they’d made so far away while mourning the life that was displaced.

The documentary details how the refugees banded together to support one another in such a different and complex culture, a land with a tropical climate, exotic fruit—one descendant says he must have eaten “30,000 bananas” while growing up there—and no rabbi. Among the Jews profiled are artists, scientists and industrialists, including one man who introduced the first raincoats in Ecuador and another who pioneered X-rays there.

While most who watched the film at Temple Sinai were amazed to learn about another Jewish community that sprang up because of the Holocaust, it had special meaning for Al Finkelstein of Medford and his mother, Ruth Langel of Marlton. Like Feeley, Langel was born in Ecuador and left to attend college. Langel never returned, but spoke to her son often about growing up in Quito.

Finkelstein visited Ecuador 15 years ago, staying six months at his grandmother’s house there. It made a lasting impression on him, as do his mother’s stories. “She has memories of the Jewish people there, and how they lived,” he said.

For others, the film cast a new, revealing light on history. Said Becky Siman of Mount Laurel, president of Temple Sinai’s Sisterhood, “I thought this was so interesting— the photographs, the memories.” s

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