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Into the Fire

In David Unger’s novel The Price of Escape, a refugee from Nazi Germany arrives in a Guatemalan port town only to find himself in a new kind of hell

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Guatemala's Central Railroad, circa 1920. (Library of Congress)

In the early 1900s, Puerto Barrios, in Guatemala, was on the cusp of becoming a thriving Caribbean port town. It was the bustling terminus for trains hauling produce for the United Fruit Company. From there, bananas were shipped north to the port of New Orleans and, thereafter, to destinations all over the United States.

By the late 1930s, things had changed dramatically. Puerto Barrios’ indigenous charms had been all but eradicated, replaced by filth and destitution. It was inhabited mostly by Afro-Guatemalans and West Indians who worked on the docks for pitiful wages; those with means were advised to get out of town as fast as they could.

It is here that we meet Samuel Berkow, the well-to-do German Jewish bachelor at the center of The Price of Escape, a new novel by David Unger. Berkow arrives in Guatemala from Hamburg, where the Nazi noose had begun to tighten around him. Berkow expects his arrival to mark the beginning of a new and exciting life. Instead, in just three days, Puerto Barrios—with its demons, drunks, and thugs—nearly finishes him off.

Unger, a Guatemala-born, Brooklyn-based writer, speaks with Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry about the relationship of Samuel Berkow’s history to his own, about the appeal of creating only semi-sympathetic protagonists, and about why most of his relatives refuse to read his work. [Running time: 15:16] 

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This is a powerful novel — I am reading it now. This book has just swept me in. Kudos to David Unger!!

Rebecca says:

Fantastic interview, wish I could hear more about Unger. As a Latin American Jew, refugees from the Nazi’s to Argentina, I can’t wait to read his first book. It’s so refreshing to finally hear non-Yiddish – Ellis Island shtetl stories. Not all American Jews came through Ellis Island!!

tineke sjenitzer-sanders says:

i’m doing research about jews who came during the second world war to cuba, especially diamond workers from antwerp and amsterdam.can someone help me? Sarah Ivry you mention you know stories about people who fled the nazi’s to south america.can you help me?
thanks,
tineke, petach tikwa, israel

GSK says:

Tineke -

Go to the website of the Latin American Jewish Studies Association. Lots of information there.

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Into the Fire

In David Unger’s novel The Price of Escape, a refugee from Nazi Germany arrives in a Guatemalan port town only to find himself in a new kind of hell

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