Post #2 - A project by a Eva Meyer Keller in Chile - Roots from France - Jewish Heritage - Current location: California
October 20, 2020
We don't remember the days, we remember the moments.
- Cesare Pavese
It’s been a while since my first post about Eva Meyer-Keller’s work “Pulling Strings” in the house where I grew up in Chile.
I dove right into memory lane and continued to feed the fantasy that I would eventually have the mental time and energy to focus on my pet project after seeing Eva's work.
Fortunately for this purpose, a pandemic struck the world which left me with nothing but free time at my disposition!
I am aware that it has been a long time from March to now, nevertheless, my attention deficit kicked into full gear when I strolled into my DNA results from 2018.
In retrospect, I probably got sidetracked for a good reason, as those results revealed a few things I didn’t know about my ancestry, on both my father’s and mother’s side.
Life does work in surprising ways. If it hadn’t been for Eva Meyer-Keller, COVID-19, and my Great-grandfather's memories, I would probably not have taken part in this adventure.
Having said that... Here I go:
Over a hundred years ago, this house - built at this corner - added a certain grace and elegance to this old neighborhood in Santiago. As you can see, the house is now covered in graffiti, the earthquakes have had no mercy with it, and it sticks out like a sore thumb.
However, this house is the place where I was raised by my Great-Grandfather until 1983.
If you ever come down to Chile, or if you’re in the neighborhood, next time you drive or walk by this house, I know you’ll see it with a fresh set of eyes.
My intended goal is that through this blog, I can share enough of a story with you, so you can see the house through my memories… And have a brief glimpse of the life it once held.
This is my Great-Grandfather…
Better known as “Tatita”.
It seemed as if, in my childhood, I asked and had no questions about my Great-grandfather or his parents, or the number of siblings he had, where he grew up, or why only he was expected to cook in the house. Where did he learn to cook so well?
I'm 49 years old today and I'm just getting to know him, even though he left this world over 30 years ago...
According to my findings, "Tatita" was the son of a Jewish French immigrant, who went to huge lengths to leave minimal to no trace of his existence in France and in Chile.
*** I have not started yet, and I need to stop for a second.
I had no idea my Tatita's father was a French Jewish immigrant.
I read and re-read the information on my computer screen before I fully grasped what I had just learned.
While the entire world was freaking out over “Mask / No Mask,” “will there be a vaccine?,” “are we all gonna die?,” “How long before we all run out of toilet paper?”.
I sat on my bed blabbering,
“Wait… What?... Jewish!? We are Jewish?
Why didn't I know this!?
How come nobody told me?
I meant it's sort of a big deal.
But wait! They raised me Catholic! ...
So, I'm not Catholic?”
I was so confused!***
I couldn't let this chunk of information slide. I had to learn more about this French man - My Great-Great-Grandfather...
After spending hours and hours going through certificates and information I found online, I soon discovered that certificates from the 1800s and early 1900s were mainly handwritten.
Thus, mistakes were often made. I have literally spent more time checking and re-checking than actually finding what I was looking for.
The documents and information regarding my "Tatita's" dad are so inconsistent - His name alone shows 4 different spellings on many of the documents I came across.
Plus, he purposely added an extra consonant at the end of his last name because he got into some argument with his father.
I do know he was born between 1864 and 1866 in France and migrated to Chile in the 1890s.
He fled when France :
* established the Third Republic
* the world was struggling with the economic recession that lasted for nearly 13 years.
History repeats itself, uh?
* Lived through a sad 10 year period marked by the hostility against Jews that broke out because of the Dreyfuss Affair.
Unfortunately, antisemitism rose significantly during those 10 years.
One of the odd things - about "Tatita's" father - is that many of the older documents I could find, list his profession as a shoemaker. However, some relatives have confirmed that he never worked or had anything to do with shoes!
He knowingly lied about his profession to enjoy the new life he had chosen in Chile.
Since he had nothing to do with shoes, the question was... What did he DO?
The answer to my question led me to the conclusion that you can take the
French out of France, but you cannot take France out of the French.
He owned a bakery in Santiago.
** Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!
That's why Tatita was in charge of the kitchen at home! Kitchen mystery solved!
His cooking skills must have come from watching his dad. ***
A bakery wasn't his only gig, this French man was one of the first to own a Cinema in Santiago...
According to Wikipedia:
"On 17 February 1895 entrepreneur Francisco de Paola presented the first Kinetoscope, an early motion picture exhibition device, in Santiago. Next year, on 25 August 1896, the first Cinématographe reels were shown to an astounded audience in Santiago. These were the same movies that only eight months earlier, the Lumiere Brothers had shown in Paris."
Cinemas in the early 1900s were nothing like the cinema theaters we have today. Yes, we all understand that old movies were in black and white and that the audience had to read short dialog lines, but the music was not part of the film, cinema owners actually hired a man to play the piano to match the scenes throughout the film.
Anyway, "Tatita's" dad devoted the last years of his life to owning and operating his own Vineyard; his passion and main occupation was viticulture.
On December 3, 1930, at 5:15 am - He died from chronic Nephritis at the age of 66.
When he passed, for the very first time in his adult life, he was no longer in control of any fictitious information on a certificate. His death certificate is one of the few legal documents that shows something real about him.
It reads: “Profession: viticulturist”.
No one is aware of the exact reason he left France, but whatever it was, he invested a great deal of caution to make sure that there were no clues left behind telling his whereabouts. H e refrained from being photographed and didn't even register at the Embassy in Santiago to document his legal residency in the country. The man truly wanted absolutely no official presence in Chile.
I have been persistently striving to trace his story, existence, and events that took place after he left France... It has been quite challenging to find and confirm information about things that happened over 120 years ago.
After many many months of research, all I can say is,
“Well done! You left hardly any sign of your life in France and Chile. Well done, sir!”
Like my Great-great-grandfather I am also an immigrant. I have lived and know how difficult it is to adapt your life to a new country. The simplest action of leaving your house can be an intimidating adventure since you must remember all the turns and Street names - which are usually words that are difficult to pronounce - in order to find your way back.
Being a foreigner means that for a while you will communicate only by making sounds, mispronouncing words, and a lot of sign language. Unlike him, I came to the US when I was 15 years old, and at that age, it's a lot easier to acclimate to a new culture and learn a foreign language.
He left his country of origin when he was in his 20s, which must have been very challenging since Chile is a particularly remote country, and I doubt many Chileans spoke French in the late 1800s... So, I started wondering,
How on earth was he able to manage and own so many businesses, support his 15 children, his wife and himself?
I am not saying it is not possible; you hear such stories like this all the time, but I've lived in the US for 34 years, and not once I've been financially smart to build a wealth like him. I wanted to know how he did it... I wanted to get some ideas to imitate his ways.
So... I searched... and researched more information... and found out that he arrived in Chile with bars of gold in his possession.
Where did that gold come from? - Your guess is just as good as mine...
When Tatita's dad settled and became comfortable in Chile, fell in love with a 17-year-old girl, disowned by her parents for marrying a much older French man no one knew anything about, and to make it worse... He wasn't a Catholic man!
Her family put a lot of pressure on her to have him baptized as a Catholic - He finally agreed to do so, as a gesture intended to make the relationship an acceptable one. He was baptized at the Saint Saturnino Church, which is only one block away from the Big House.
The couple got married on January 8, 1894, and had 15 children - One of whom was born out of wedlock.
On December 19, 1905, at 2:45 am, "Tatita" came to this world. He was the fifth child in the family, and was brought up to help with taking care of his 10 younger siblings.
***DING! DING! DING! Another mystery solved!
This is the reason he was great at taking care of people, running a household like a boss, cooking, keeping everything spotless, making it seem almost effortless.
Since he was one of the eldest brothers growing up, they raised him to look after his family... And he was the best at it! ***
They were a household of 17, and just like us today, they went through a pandemic that lasted 2 years without cell phones, landlines, TVs, computers, tablets, social media, news networks or Zoom... They only had a radio to stay informed.
Death Patterns during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Chile
We found evidence that during 1918–1921, a total of 4 pandemic waves of varying timing and intensity occurred; in most areas of Chile, the highest rates of pandemic-related excess deaths were for July 1919–February 1920. Santiago was by far the hardest hit in terms of cumulative mortality burden.
by G Chowell
The lady next to "Tatita" is my Great-grandmother.
Her mother's family moved to Chile from England... And...Wait for it... They were also Jewish and converted to Catholicism.
**This piece of information also caught me by surprise. I read it a few times to think about it.
Sat on the edge of the bed. Closed my computer. I honestly did not know how to react to it.
I was gradually becoming JewishER with every new piece of information that landed on my computer screen.***
My great-grandmother or “Nona” (that is how we called her) was the first person I feared growing up. She may well have had good qualities, but I don't recall any of them, and since she is no longer with us... In all fairness, I still wish to treat her with respect.
On that point, I can only say that she scared the bejesus out of me.
Fortunately, this house's story and blog are not about her... Let us move on!
"Tatita" and "Nona" had four children, and one of them was this handsome man, my grandfather.
In his late teens, he dated a pretty blonde girl.
She was the daughter of a Jewish French ballerina who had migrated to Chile
and the popular Chilean film actor - at the time - Enrique Barrenechea.
And Julio Barrenechea's nice.
*** Let me pause for a second.
Having read and re-read it a few times, I found myself once again picking my jaw up off the floor as I tried to complete a coherent, well-thought-out thought. I kept rambling out loud; I wanted to hear my own words...
“Wow! The more I research, the more I find out that I know very little about my roots.
I need a Rabbi.
Where do I find one? How do I pour this story on a Rabbi?
This is a little too much...
Would a Rabbi listen to me?
Life changes fast. Earlier in the year I would have never believed that:
A) I'd be chatting with a Rabbi a few times per week and via Zoom once a week.
B) In just six months time, I'd be celebrating my first Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur***
Back to the story...
My grandparents were teenagers when they married and had two daughters before age 20, my mother was their youngest.
Since both love birds were practically children, my Great-grandparents took over the parenting and raised the two grand-daughters themselves.
Time passed, and both girls married men who were considerably older than themselves. The youngest one, my mother, fell in love with a man who had been married once before already.
In a nutshell, that previous marriage - within a Catholic community - was frowned upon.
*** Another thing to mention about this older man - my father - is that he is also a Jewish descendent... Must I say that this was also new information to me?***
Obviously, my mom's grandparents disapproved of the relationship with my dad and told her,
"If you leave this house to marry your boyfriend, you are
never coming back!"
Yes, the ultimatum may seem dramatic, however, she only did the logical thing that most twenty-year-olds would do... She packed her bags, left the house, got married, I was conceived right around Christmas time in 1970, and came to this world on September 25, 1971.
Their marriage got off to a rocky start even before I was a year old. Though I am not familiar with their arguments, I do recall staying with different relatives... A few days would pass, they would reconcile, we'd return to the house only for them to fight again...
Luckily for my mom, I was unusually quiet as a child–I literally did not speak until I was 2 years old - which made moving from place to place a lesser inconvenience for those relatives giving us temporary shelter. Besides, if I had access to a TV to watch Sesame Street episodes back to back, people wouldn't even know there was a child around.
Very soon, it became clear that my parent's marriage was going awry - at a very fast speed - draining everyone involved.
My mother, a woman in her mid-twenties without a job, had no other choice but to brace herself and find a way to talk to her grandparents about moving back into the house ... but way before she could do so, there were a few details to be dealt with... First she needed an action plan to coordinate a meeting with Tatita and Nona ... And secondly, she needed to find a loving, reliable relative who would be willing to help to set it all up.
As these plans began to quickly unfold, to reach out to the grandparents, out of no-freaking-where I unexpectedly spoke for the very first time. I don't mean just single words, I started chatting away with rather full-formed sentences.
Needless to say, I shocked everybody in the room when I started talking.
Here's what happened... While all of my family members had been busy in finding a solution to my mom's problem, none of them noticed that I had learned some basic literacy skills from watching Sesame Street ... The TV Show also taught me to read and write by age 2 .
And, just like that, a two-year-old who could read and write became the perfect excuse to get the conversation started about being allowed to go back to the Big old house.
... Shortly after that, I was on my way to meet Tatita for the very first time...