February 27, 2006

Jerochim, the Jewish German shoecleaner from Buenos Aires downtown is given back his homeland.


A character from downtown Buenos Aires

Bernardo Jerochim He has lived in Argentina since 1938. The Nazis declared him stateless in 1941. After several unfruitful attempts, Bernardo Jerochim will get his German passport back, sixty four years after losing it. The Germans of Jewish origin lost their citizenship even if they resided abroad by a Nazi law of November 25th, 1941. Inhabitant of the Buenos Aires’ downtown business district, known as the ”City”, where he has polished shoes for decades, Bernardo has been invited on several occasions by the Berlin city hall, but he could not travel because of the intricate re-naturalization paperwork. This time he will obtain his passport in express time. His biography reflects an epic of the humble.

Everyday Jerochim sits to clean shoes in the bar ”The City”, in 25 de Mayo street; in the evening he cleans in diverse financial organizations. Tall and perky, he still retains the somehow arrogant silence of the German immigrant. He says he never wanted any citizenship other than the one that was snatched from him, on grounds of principle or perhaps because his father, Michaelis Gerson, fought in the World War I and was decorated. Bernardo was born in the Andreasstrasse street of Berlin, in the Jewish district of Friedrichshain, and studied Hebrew but could never speak Idisch. When he arrived in the country, in 1938, he learned Spanish in one week and continued speaking German with his mother in spite of ”having second thoughts” over his maternal language because of the insults he suffered in school. ”Verfluchte Schwein, der verfluchte Jude”, damn Jewish pig. Today he thinks it was the public insults of an older brother against Hitler which saved the whole family from a sure end at a concentration camp. His father took the advice of a Police Commissioner: ”Go away, this is going to become more and more difficult.” Michaelis left with his wife and their ten children.

Bernardo recalls that when he was ten years old – maybe because he had lost an eye ”playing with arrows” – he thought he would find indians in Buenos Aires, which he only knew as an unknown dot in globes, but when the boat approached the port and he saw the city emerging from the water, his deception was greater: ”I thought that we were back in Europe.” First they lived two years in the province of Entre Ríos and were local farmers, ‘Jewish gauchos’ styled after Gerchunoff´s stories. Bernardo hardly did a year of primary school in the country and he soon began to clean shoes. He is not in the least troubled to admit that he has few occasions to practice his handwriting, only once ”per month, when I sign the receipt of my pension money ”. The family was transferred to a plate house in Lanús. From the 40s are the stories in which he and his mother make Buenos Aires theirs in tramways, as well as the undertakings that allowed Lotti Lewin to sell pieces of cloth and finally install a grocery shop. And those minor episodes are in fact the everyday conquests of the stateless in the unknown city.

The legislation that left the Jerochim without a mother country nor civil rights programmed the Nazi escalade against the Jews. The laws of Nüremberg, effective September 15th 1935, generalized that legal defenselessness. The dates indicate that the Jerochim escaped by a hair from the legal bolts that would have prevented them from emigrating to Argentina. On July 5th, 1938 they arrived in the steamship ”Formosa”: hardly one week later the secret executive order 11 (Circular 11) was signed in Argentina, repealed only last year, that tacitly denied the residence to citizens of Jewish origin. On 23 July a new law by the Reich forced the obligatory registry of all Jews. This is, by the end of July the family could not have embarked. Finally, the mentioned law from 1941 revoked citizenship to all Jews residing abroad: it was calculated to leave deported emigrants without the protection of what philosopher Hanna Arendt called ”the State-people-territory trinity”.

In the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, that along with lawyer Alejandro Candioti headed the claim, his founder, Baruch Tenembaum, wonders why ”the German Jews could not recover their nationality automatically at the end of the war. For he who faces the troublesome paperwork an inertia of the Third Reich legislation is still at work; as if they had not been countermanded ”. German consul Pit Köhler said to Clarín that after the end of the war, ”Germany could not suppose that with the persecutions suffered, the Jews would want again to be called German. The automatic re-naturalization would have obliged them to a long process to reject it ”.

The rest of the history of the Jerochim looks much like a novel by Joseph Roth, with characters paralysed by the surplus of bad luck. The brothers disbanded in the enormous country, others emigrated. ”The truth is that when father died, in 1942, we lost sight ”, says Bernardo and adds that they also gave up the religious traditions. Of the ten brothers live Werner, who was located last week in a Berlin hospital, Herta, Helga and Erwin, who lives in Israel. Of Achi he does not even know if he is alive. Perhaps the dramatic quality of which was lost is best expressed by the fact that not even a bunch of letters among brothers remains, little more than a dozen photos. Jerochim had as only compensation from Germany ten thousand marks on account of the ”loss of his studies”. He has a retirement pension of 380 pesos and survives thanks to some Jewish organizations, like Tzedaká. He has three children, he never separated from his wife and he hardly dares to enjoy the vindication. He expects to meet again with Werner and Helga and to watch the windows at 38 Andreasstrasse.

Translated by Patricio Cavalli