Plaza Muril­lo, La Paz, Bolivia between 1908 and 1919, Library of Congress

On an oth­er­wise unevent­ful after­noon in 1975, John Gel­ern­ter was walk­ing through the streets of his home­town of La Paz, Bolivia, when he saw a famil­iar face.

Ter­ri­fy­ing­ly familiar.

That’s Klaus Bar­bie,” he told the French col­league walk­ing with him.

Bar­bie, the for­mer Gestapo chief known in Bolivia as Klaus Alt­mann, was accom­pa­nied by his body­guard. They over­heard Gel­ern­ter. As the two pairs of peo­ple drew clos­er, the body­guard pulled out a gun and pressed it to Gelernter’s ribs. He kicked his ankles and threat­ened to take him to the police station.

That is when Bar­bie told him to let me go,” Gel­ern­ter told me recent­ly. And speak­ing very soft­ly in Ger­man, know­ing exact­ly and sur­pris­ing­ly who I was, said some­thing like this: Herr Gel­ern­ter, there is space for every­body here (in Bolivia), so let me be.’”

Gel­ern­ter didn’t tempt fate. He had already lost too many fam­i­ly mem­bers to the Nazis.

Only when I moved to La Paz in 2012 did I learn that there were between 10,000 and 20,000 Jew­ish refugees in Bolivia dur­ing World War II, many of whom were musi­cians, artists, and per­form­ers. I won­dered what it had been like to have lost home, coun­try, fam­i­ly, and pro­fes­sion­al ambi­tions, and to end up some­where so alien.

I met John Gel­ern­ter in the gar­den of the Span­ish embassy not long after I arrived with my hus­band Tim, who was at that time the head of del­e­ga­tion for the EU in La Paz, and our young daughter.

While Gel­ern­ter is cur­rent­ly the Hon­orary Finnish Con­sul Gen­er­al in Bolivia, he worked most of his life as con­cert­mas­ter and guest con­duc­tor of the Boli­vian Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra. At the same time, he was man­ag­ing direc­tor of Cibo, a large heavy equip­ment and machin­ery sup­pli­er. I stud­ied engi­neer­ing,” he said. My father encour­aged me to be a musi­cian but insist­ed I have anoth­er career.”

With green eyes and red­dish-blond hair, he is still some­times mis­tak­en for a for­eign­er and com­pli­ment­ed on his flu­ent Boli­vian Span­ish. But when John described his encounter with Bar­bie, I won­dered what it must have been like to have fam­i­ly who escaped the Nazis in Europe only to encounter them in Bolivia. The more I learned about the lives of Jew­ish refugees in La Paz, the more I want­ed the world to hear these stories.

I won­dered what it must have been like to have fam­i­ly who escaped the Nazis in Europe only to encounter them in Bolivia.

While John was born in Bolivia, the sis­ter he nev­er knew was born in a part of Poland that was tak­en over by Ukrain­ian forces of the USSR in Sep­tem­ber 1939 and then occu­pied by Ger­mans from June 1941 until July 1944. That part of Poland is now part of the Repub­lic of Ukraine.

Gelernter’s moth­er Matyl­da came from Bolechów. She and her hus­band Chaim lived in Stanis­la­wow until Chaim was con­script­ed into the Russ­ian army. On Novem­ber ninth, 1941, Matyl­da and her infant daugh­ter moved in with her par­ents in Bolechów, where some 3,000 Jews made up about sev­en­ty-five per­cent of the city’s population.

They could not stay for long. In Sep­tem­ber 1942, Ger­mans and Ukraini­ans car­ried out their sec­ond assault on the Jews of Bolechów, tor­tur­ing and mur­der­ing near­ly 700 chil­dren and close to 900 adults in the town square and on the streets. They took the chil­dren by their legs and bashed their heads on the edge of the side­walks, whilst they laughed and tried to kill them with one blow,” said Matyl­da in tes­ti­mo­ny dat­ed August 1946 in Katow­ice, Poland, and now archived in Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem holo­caust muse­um. Oth­ers threw chil­dren from the height of the first floor.” Some 2,000 were tak­en to the Belzec death camps, while Matyl­da and her fam­i­ly hid in her par­ents’ house.

At the end of Novem­ber 1942, Matyl­da and her two-year-old daugh­ter Elu­nia found sanc­tu­ary in a shel­ter in a drugstore’s base­ment. Togeth­er, twen­ty-five or so Jews board­ed the walls, bricked the win­dows, rigged up light­ing, dug a toi­let, stored pota­toes and lard, and installed a stove. All work was done at night, to keep any­one from noticing.

Once they had all squeezed inside the shel­ter they had con­struct­ed, the door was bricked shut, save for a small gap.

At first they didn’t want to let me into the shel­ter,” Matyl­da said. They didn’t want so many peo­ple, besides, they were afraid that my child with its scream­ing or cry­ing would give away the shel­ter.” Only after her broth­er inter­ced­ed was she allowed inside.

They slept dur­ing the days, not dar­ing to stir before eight in the evening. Each fam­i­ly was allowed to cook at spe­cif­ic times. Matyl­da could use the oven only at two in the morn­ing. Occa­sion­al­ly, the phar­ma­cist brought food or news­pa­pers. Often, food ran out. The oven broke down. The toi­let overflowed.

One thing cheered us up,” said Matyl­da. We had poi­son from [phar­ma­cist] Feller. Every­one had one lit­tle bot­tle, just in case we would fall alive into the hands of the Ukrain­ian mili­tia.” They feared the tor­ture they would face at the hands of the Ukraini­ans, who ripped off the ears of their coun­try­men, broke their noses, poked out their teeth, or beat them to death.

Even­tu­al­ly Matyl­da and the oth­ers were pres­sured to leave the shel­ter, as friends and rel­a­tives who knew about them came under increas­ing threats.

Matyl­da weighed thir­ty-sev­en kilos when she left for the Jew­ish fac­to­ry work­ers’ bar­racks, the only place Jews were allowed to live, in June 1943. Her hips and shoul­ders were cov­ered with sores from sleep­ing on a bench. Her daugh­ter had devel­oped an eye infec­tion and had gone blind in the dark of their shelter.

I looked like a corpse,” Matyl­da said. Green skin was hang­ing off me, my teeth were most­ly gone too.”

She found work at a labor camp sawmill. Those Jews capa­ble of it had to work, while the rest, includ­ing her par­ents, were sent to a ghet­to in Stryj.

Matyl­da couldn’t take her daugh­ter to work and thus had to leave Elu­nia with her par­ents. Her sec­ond day of work, she was too ill to get out of bed.

And her ill­ness saved her. That day the Gestapo swept in, took all the work­ers to the ceme­tery, and shot them.

On June fifth, Matylda’s par­ents and her daugh­ter were killed in the liq­ui­da­tion of the Stryj ghetto.

There was no time to grieve. Matyl­da crept from yard to yard, seek­ing a new hid­ing place as she won­dered if her hus­band still sur­vived. At last she, her broth­er, and his wife found refuge in a hole behind a Pol­ish man’s stove on the out­skirts of town. The home­own­er became ner­vous and want­ed them to leave, but Matyl­da said if he evict­ed them she would poi­son her­self in his yard and every­one would know he had been shel­ter­ing Jews.

There was no time to grieve. Matyl­da crept from yard to yard, seek­ing a new hid­ing place as she won­dered if her hus­band still survived.

On August 6, 1944, when the Rus­sians arrived, they emerged from the hole. After a few days, they left the house to inspect the ruins of the town, destroyed by retreat­ing Ger­mans. The Russ­ian army gave them canned goods and flour. Some fruit and veg­eta­bles remained in local gardens. 

They lived there until Octo­ber 1945. At the end of Octo­ber 1945, we all packed into a train and for­ev­er left Bolechów, which, after all, to us Jews was no more.”

Mirac­u­lous­ly, Chaim escaped the Russ­ian army at the end of the war and was reunit­ed with his wife. They moved to Katow­ice for a cou­ple years before trav­el­ing to Paris, France, where they spent six months wait­ing for visas to Bolivia. Not only was their home­town now a grave­yard, but it was part of the USSR. They did not want to stay behind the Iron Curtain.

Matylda’s broth­er Jakob had found refuge in Bolivia in 1939. By 1938, Bolivia was one of only three coun­tries still grant­i­ng visas to Jews flee­ing the Nazis.

In 1948, the same year they arrived in La Paz, Bolivia, John Gel­ern­ter was born.

His moth­er nev­er spoke to him about her expe­ri­ences, which he learned about only in adulthood.

Matylda’s broth­er Jakob had found refuge in Bolivia in 1939. By 1938, Bolivia was one of only three coun­tries still grant­i­ng visas to Jews flee­ing the Nazis.

We lived in Bolivia for four years, until 2016. Dur­ing that time and for sev­er­al years after we moved back to Europe, I researched the book that became Exile Music, my new nov­el about a fam­i­ly of Vien­nese musi­cians who sought refuge in Bolivia. I inter­viewed sur­vivors, read first-per­son accounts, trav­eled to Vien­na and Genoa, vis­it­ed syn­a­gogues, stud­ied the his­to­ry of the Vien­na Phil­har­mon­ic, lis­tened to music of the era, vis­it­ed archives, libraries, and muse­ums, talked with Holo­caust experts, and read about Klaus Bar­bie and the chil­dren of Izieu he ordered massacred.

All of this research sift­ed through me as I wrote, sat­u­rat­ing me with the world of my char­ac­ters. Many of John’s sto­ries found their way into Exile Music. Like John, my char­ac­ters are musi­cians. And they too have encoun­ters with Nazis on the streets of their refuge.

Exile Music is a work of fic­tion, but it is my hope that the sto­ry I have craft­ed from research and imag­i­na­tion will allow read­ers a glimpse of a Jew­ish dias­po­ra that has been too long over­looked. I owe it to John Gel­ern­ter and his fam­i­ly to keep them alive.

Jen­nifer Steil is the award-win­ning author of the nov­els Exile Music (Viking, May 5), The Ambas­sador’s Wife (Dou­ble­day, 2015), and the mem­oir The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (Broad­way Books, 2010) about her tenure as edi­tor of a news­pa­per in Yemen. She cur­rent­ly lives between Uzbek­istan and France.