Tennis has a few improbable stories — like Richard Williams teaching his daughters Serena and Venus to play on public courts in Compton, California. Or Novak Djokovic dodging bomb-cratered blocks in Belgrade, Serbia in order to get to his practices during the NATO assault on his country in the late 1990s.
Or, consider the saga of the Argentinian player Diego Schwartzman, currently the ninth ranked men’s tennis player in the world, and now playing in the ATP finals in Paris. He’s the great-grandson of a Polish Jew who had been crammed with others into a cattle car en route to a concentration camp during the Second World War. (Luckily, the coupling broke apart, leaving his car behind at a station as the rest of the train rumbled onto to its final destination; he jumped off the train and fled, eventually finding the money to book passage on a ship bound for Argentina with his family.)
Great grandpa – Diego doesn’t know his name, nor any Yiddish, which was his ancestor’s only language when he arrived in Buenos Aires – was part of a wave of European Jews and fleeing Germans who arrived in Latin America between 1933 and 1945. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that approximately 84,000 documented European refugees arrived in Mexico and parts south during those years.
“We know that many more Jewish refugees arrived illegally,” said Adriana M. Brodsky, a history professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. The immigration policies of most Latin American countries, and ofArgentina in particular, were more generous in the years before and during the Second World War than those of Canada, England and the United States, which had adopted severe restrictions on immigration in the 1920s, according to Raanan Rein, professor of Latin American and Spanish History at Tel Aviv University. He added that it also was easier to cross Argentina’s borders illegally than those of the Anglo-Saxon countries. Bribes and forged documents were more readily accepted.
The Jews of Argentina formed a reasonably tight community. The Jewish population in Buenos Aires is the largest in all of Latin America, the third largest in the Americas, and the world’s seventh largest outside Israel. Three generations later, Diego Schwartzman, who was born in 1992, almost 50 years after his great-grandfather’s escape from the Nazis, grew up in what he calls a “big Jewish community in Argentina. My friends, everyone, is from the community of Jewish people. I mean, a lot of my friends and a lot of people that I know since I’m really young.”
In that community were many others whose families had escaped from Europe at the same time as his great-grandfather. “Everyone had a story,” Schwartzman said in a phone interview. “Yeah, many people as well and friends of my mom and my dad, the grandparents of them have a lot of histories.” Also in Buenos Aires and elsewhere in Argentina were the children and grandchildren of Nazi officials and sympathizers who had fled Germany for South America as the war was being lost, but Schwartzman didn’t run across them, or the subject of when and how they came to Argentina didn’t come up.
In time, the Schwartzmans acclimated to their new home. Yiddish disappeared, replaced by Spanish and a prayer or two in Hebrew that his mother and siblings still say on Jewish holidays, which the family continues to observe. Diego and his older siblings, two brothers and a sister, all attended Hebrew school and celebrated their bar and bat mitzvahs. His mother just “understands a few words in Hebrew, because of the traditions and everything, but not more than that,” Schwartzman said. “My brothers as well. They understand a little bit of Hebrew, but just a…