Why is Holocaust Remembrance Relevant in Chile Today?

September 2, 2020


By Marjorie Steinmann (Director, Fundacion Memoria Viva)

You might have heard about Chile’s famous wine, or that it has the driest desert in the world, but perhaps you didn’t know that Chile has the largest Palestinian population outside the Middle East or that it was one important destination for the Nazis after the Holocaust.

Located in the southernmost part of Latin America, Chile, a beautiful country with less than 20 million inhabitants, has a Jewish population of an estimated 15,000 people. Despite the small number of Jews, our local community is well organized and very active.

After the Shoah, Chile became the new homeland for hundreds of Jews who manage to survive and/or escape the war, but whose lives were deeply impacted by it. To maintain and spread their legacy, Memoria Viva, our Chilean based non-profit organization, has been working on the development of the largest local archive of audio-visual testimonies of Shoah survivors,  as well as on the development of educational and editorial material, workshops, and publishing testimonial books, among other initiatives.

We share this country with approximately 350,000 Palestinians, and although its majority professes the Catholic religion (and not Muslim), they feel a very strong connection with their ancestors and defending the Palestinian nationalist cause.

Represented in all spectrums of society and with major influence in politics, economy, and the media, Palestinians in Chile have been able to spread strong propaganda against Israel in the country through an aggressive discourse.

There is currently growing support for the BDS movement in universities and regional administrations, while in social media there are thousands of voices constantly demonizing the state of Israel and the Jews as whole. As a result, the current conflict in the Middle East has been imported to Chile.

In 2014, during “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, a new kind of anti-Semitism arose in Chile. They called it “anti-Zionism”, yet it appeared as nothing other than old anti-Semitism with a new mask. Accusations towards Jews surfaced frequently, and suddenly we felt threatened in our own streets, being called “oppressors.” After the conflict in Gaza cooled down, so did overt anti-Semitism in Chile, but an undercurrent of hatred towards Jews prevailed.

A prominent Chilean-Palestinian leader, Daniel Jadue, current mayor of the Municipality of Recoleta (within the city of Santiago) and member of the communist party, had the highest rating on the latest presidential preferences poll. Regarding the annexation plan, in July of 2020 he stated:

Chile finances the Israeli occupation, finances bullets that kill Palestinians, finances torture and the construction of settlements, through agreements that generate income for the occupying power”.

The recent annexation announcement was a trigger for the Chilean-Palestinians. They launched a massive campaign on social media, which showed a video of local celebrities condemning Israel. The campaign included a full-page ad on the main newspaper with an open letter to the Chilean President, signed by a large group of well-known influencers, calling upon him to condemn Israel’s actions.

The local Palestinian community sadly have successfully installed a message in the media that Jews deserve to be hated.

To fight anti-Semitism, we need to address both internal and external elements. Within the Jewish community, we must know the facts and be educated about history. We must nourish our Jewish identity and learn from our heritage, not only from our victories but also from our darkest times, to stand up for Israel and for the Jewish people wherever we are.

Regarding the external elements, we must show to Chilean society what the risks of normalizing hate speech are, and how it can easily turn an entire country to justify discrimination, persecution, racism, and violence.

It is in this context, that the mission of keeping the Shoah’s legacy alive becomes more relevant than ever. Through holocaust education we can eliminate tags and prejudice, teaching about the Jewish people and its heritage.

In a country like Chile, were most of the population has never even met a Jew, bills like adding two academic hours to discuss the Holocaust on the national curriculum of High School education, becomes absolutely relevant, but are not enough. We are the ones who also need to learn in order to empower ourselves. We need to be aware the our generation may be the last one to be able to listen testimonies of Shoah survivors firsthand. We have listened and have become witnesses, and as such we´ve acquired an inalienable responsibility. We must make sure their voices won’t be silenced, so that we will be their voice and carry their message onward for future generations.

This year, with Claims Conference and Keren Hayesod’s support, the “Abro Memoria” project was launched by Memoria Viva and the Archivo Judío de Chile. This initiative invites 2nd, 3rd and even 4th generation family members of survivors that arrived to Chile to search for documents, recordings, letters and general material which will be digitalized and incorporated to the archive to be preserved for future generations. 

As Gunter Demnig, the German artist behind the “Stolpersteine” project (Stumbling blocks) explains “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten” (Talmud). We cannot witness that forgetfulness. We have the duty of remembrance and registry, so the next generations will not miss information about who they are or where they come from. Only that way, they will know where to go.

Please visit www.mviva.org to learn more about the important work of Marjorie Steinmann and Fundacion Memoria Viva as they seek to preserve the memory of Holocaust survivors and fight anti-Semitism in Chile. 

Category: Contributor Op-Eds