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Starting in the mid-1930s, and up until the end of the first year of World War II, thousands of refugees from Nazi-dominated Central Europe, the majority of them Jews, fled to Bolivia to escape an increasingly vehement persecution. Indeed, in the panic months following the German Anschluss of Austria, Bolivia was one of very few remaining places in the entire world to accept Jewish refugees. But today, few Jews still reside in that country. From the very start of their large-scale inflow in the 1930s, many of the refugees had considered Bolivia only a temporary haven--"Hotel Bolivia," as they described it. The majority emigrated in the years after the war: some back to Austria or Germany, others to the U.S., Israel, or to "less exotic" Latin American countries.
Examining the refugees' recollections of Europe (specifically of Austria) in Bolivia, as well as their recollections of the "Bolivia experience" in the U.S. (some fifty years later), this essay engages in an act of witnessing (in retrospect) and reflects on the interrelations of place, memory, and nostalgia. In particular, it explores and begins to theorize "rootless nostalgia" specific to the postmemory of the second generation--to the children of exiles or refugees who have inherited ambivalent memories and a condition of homelessness from their parents. Such nostalgia, the author argues, is not "homesickness" or longing for return to a lost origin, or a yearning for a better time. Instead, it reflects a desire to establish a connection, or reconnection, between a past known only secondhand and a lived present. It represents a need to repair the ruptured fabric of a painfully discontinuous, fragmentary history, even as it acknowledges the impossibility of such reparation.