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Uruguay’s Bygone Jewish History

Remnants of Colonia del Sacremento reveal city’s Jewish history

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Jewish life may not be the first thing to come to mind when you think about Uruguay. Some estimate the Jewish population sits at around 20,000, although the numbers weren’t always that big. Samuel G. Freedman wrote about the history of the community while researching a book about his mother’s life (we interviewed him about it back in 2005), but in the domain of Jewish history, Uruguay may be better known by some for hosting Nazis who fled Europe than for having a robust Jewish population.

Despite this, various rabbis and tourists recently visiting the town of Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay have pointed to a mikveh dating back as far as the early 1700s as proof of an old Jewish community there. From the Times of Israel:

Although the Jewish roots of Colonia have not been explored as thoroughly as those of other South American or Caribbean cities, Dolores Sloan, President of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, acknowledges that the findings make sense considering the history of Sefardi Port Jews in the Atlantic world.

“When ruins are unearthed, the presence of what could be a mikveh often identifies the site as having been a synagogue,” says Sloan.

From various accounts it seems that the community in Colonia had two waves of Jewish immigration, one likely stemming from the Spanish Inquisition, which led many of the Jewish inhabitants to live as either New Christians or Crypto-Jews practicing in secret, and a second wave that followed after more lax laws were established in the 1800s.

As a testament to the wave of immigrants, one quiet block boasts a synagogue whose property deed dates back to 1880.

But the vacant building whispers the latest chapter in the long coming-and-going narrative of Colonia´s Jews. Despite the second influx of immigrants, there hardly seems to be a trace of Jewish life in the city. The synagogue doors remain locked and a bakery, clothing store and bar named Exotica have all occupied the space in the last few decades.

Related: Fierce Detachment [Tablet Magazine]
Uruguay Profile [JAFI]
UNESCO site in Uruguay points to a forgotten Jewish past [Times of Israel]

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Iggy RYKKARD says:

“Uruguay may be better known by some for hosting Nazis who fled Europe” Please check your files. You have a confussion between Uruguay and Paraguay. For your guidance, Uruguay supported the Allies since the beginning of the war, several Uruguayan ships were attacked by the Nazis, Uruguayan citizens died in Treblinka and the famous Nazi battle ship Graff Spee was detained in Uruguay since Dec 1939. Actually, Uruguay joined the Allies and declared war to Nazi Germany. In addition, Uruguay was one of few countries in the Americas that voted in favour of the creation of the State of Israel. At that time, more than 2% of Uruguayan were Jewish people. The 2nd Israeli embassy in the Western Hemisphere was open in Uruguayan Capital in 1948. Nazis detested Uruguay. It is known that some Nazis illegally entered in Uruguay in their way to Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, but Uruguay never hosted Nazis.

” in the domain of Jewish history, Uruguay may be better known by some for hosting Nazis who fled Europe than for having a robust Jewish population”

by who? by you? did you even bother to do some basic research before writing such an inflammatory and accusive statement?

sir, you have just insulted a whole country, not just the jewish community in it.

i am from uruguay, and consider myself to be well versed in world
history, oh and have jewish cousins. and this is the first time i have
heard of ANY reference to uruguay ‘hosting nazis’. i would entreat the
writer of this piece to do some fact checking. i would also like to
know why the link for “hosting nazis who fled europe’ goes to an
article that does not involve uruguay. at all.
again, i am stunned by what i have just read here.

it is very possible that a nazi or two might have ended up in uruguay
(we don’t really know) i can guarantee you it was in no way ‘hosting
again, i must remind you that MANY countries officialy hosted nazis during and after the war. this is well known.
but you know what? uruguay was not one of them. look it up, do some research.
then write.

PhillipNagle says:

I thought Uraguay was known for the fine reasonably priced Kosher brisket.

You blew it on this one. They always hated the Nazis–the Germans sank their battleship because they knew the Uruguayans would let the Allies get them. It was the most secular country in South America–to this day you don’t get Christmas off, you get ‘family day’. They were one of the few Latin American countries to vote for the establishment of Israel.

I was actually *in* Uruguay once, and took in a local production of Candide, where the trip to El Dorado involved a detour through South America. We’re told that when the Paraguayans heard a protagonist was German, ‘they welcomed them with open arms’. The audience tittered.


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Uruguay’s Bygone Jewish History

Remnants of Colonia del Sacremento reveal city’s Jewish history

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