Half of Venezuela’s Jewish community fled under Hugo Chávez, who died this week. Will the other half follow?
Ostfeld’s business card identifies him as the president of “Corporación H-F-18, C.A.” and I had been introduced to him at Brenner’s 80th birthday party as a former, four-term president of the CAIV and a Holocaust survivor. He sat behind a mattress-sized, leather-topped, tropical hardwood desk set in a cavernous room with a spacious sitting area and a gold-plated standing ring sculpture. An imposing man with deep-set blue eyes in the middle of a round, stout, bald head, he had a practiced, deliberate manner that was betrayed only by some pilling and fraying around his shirt collar: a man who had survived it all and lived to tell the tale, who needed a new shirt and nothing else. A triangular wall of glass framed the full breadth of the green slopes of the Ávila. From the window I could just make out the graffiti I’d noticed on the way in to the subterranean parking lot: “FUERA”—out with—“EL CASTRO-COMUNISMO DE VENEZUELA.”
Like Trudy Spira, a close friend of his, Ostfeld had lived several lives, starting with a Romanian boyhood, then the war, Israel, and eventually South America. He had published his memoir in Spanish in 2009 and titled it “Sin Tregua,” which translates best to “without mercy” but could also be “relentless” or “implacable,” all of which defined Ostfeld’s self-regard—and helped explain the size of his office. The book was written with his daughter, a Jungian analyst with a degree from the University of Essex. As the book recounts—“After rolling for many a time over the intricate sinuosities of the fertile mountains”—Caracas turned out to be the last port for Ostfeld and his wife, Klara, save for repeated trips to Israel, Romania, and a holiday home in Stowe, Vt. (“I like the cold,” Ostfeld said. “I am from Romania.”) And the Ostfelds, like so many of the Venezuelan immigrants I met during my stay, had three to five generations of family fanning out after them, many of them now gone to Miami, Madrid, and elsewhere. As we talked, Ostfeld periodically yelled out to his secretary, who was seated at a tiny desk in the hallway, for the apparent purpose of completing Google searches—including one for video of Ostfeld’s television appearance in the immediate aftermath of one of the community’s worst scares.
On the night of Jan. 31, 2009, a Friday, a dozen unidentified men broke into the Gran Sinagoga Tiféret Israel, the oldest standing synagogue in Caracas, in the tiny central neighborhood of Mariperez, not far from the city’s largest mosque and a major cathedral. The assailants bound and gagged security guards, entered the sanctuary, ripped open the ark, and splayed its silver-tinged contents out across the floor like leftovers from a bad night drinking. Then they rifled through administrative files, apparently stealing nothing, and spray-painted “DEATH NOW,” “OUT, OUT,” “ISRAEL MALDITOS,” and a horned devil with 666 in red on the walls. Before dawn, word had spread through the community that a terrible profanation had taken place, and by first light a significant portion of the Venezuelan Jewish community was gathered in the courtyard, clamoring against the act. No one had been hurt.
Norman Eisen, an old friend of Obama’s from Harvard Law School, is bolstering the forces of liberalism as ambassador to the Czech Republic