Behind the Headlines the Jews in Nicaragua

A former secretary of the Jewish community in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, reported that the 60 Jewish men, women and children remaining in that besieged Latin American country had no immediate plans to emigrate but admitted that if President Anastasia Somoza Debayle was defeated, problems for the remaining Jews, might be severe.

But Leonardo Hellenberg told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview that the Somoza regime was friendly to the remaining Nicaraguan Jews and pro-United States and that conditions for the Jews were stable under Somoza’s rule. Hellenberg gave the interview during a brief visit to this city, where he has relatives. He plans to return to Granada, Nicaragua, by the end of this month. He is now a stare manager in Granada, the country’s third largest city. He said there were some 10 Jews left in Granada and 50 in Managua.

Hellenberg said that more than 100 Jewish families had lived in Nicaragua in the 1950s, most of them having migrated from Europe after the Nazi regime was smashed, because Nicaragua was one of the few nations which had no quotas against Jewish refugees. He said one of the few grievances Sandanista rebels had against Nicaraguan Jews was the fact that Israel sold weapons to the Somoza regime. He said there is one synagogue in Nicaragua, Beth EI, in Managua, which has a guard during its use for Friday evening and High Holy Day services.

Hellenberg said that a couple of months ago, two of the Sandanista rebels came to the synagogue and placed a bomb there. The guard said they told him they had no grievance against him, only against the Jews and only because Israel sold weapons to the Somoza regime. He said loca police defused the bomb.

He said that after the aborted bomb attack on the synagogue, the Torah Scroll and Ark were removed to the home of one of the congregants and are kept there because they are not needed for Friday night services and there are no Saturday morning services. He said he expected the Scroll and Ark would be brought to the synagogue for the High Holy Days next fall but indicated that Nicaragua Jews were not certain of the future but remained hopeful.

Hellenberg said that most of the 50 remaining Jews in Managua had sent their wives and children to the United States and that many had purchased condominiums in south Florida. He said most of the children are now enrolled in American colleges and universities. Hellenberg stated that the wives regularly shuttled between Florida and Nicaragua and the husbands left their businesses in the hands of trusted non-Jews to visit their families in Florida.

ANTI-JEWISH INCIDENTS

He noted that the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Sandanistas had signed a mutual aid pact in Mexico City last September but that such incidents against Jews as have occurred came from the Sandanistas. In another incident, he said a textile factory belonging to a Jew was partly burned about two months ago in Managua. Hellenberg said the arson was committed by a dozen men who identified themselves as Sandanistas. He reported that the factory had not been repaired but that enough of the structure remained to allow the Jewish owner to continue to produce textiles.

He said those rebels also said they had set fire to the factory because of Israeli sales of weapons to the Somoza regime. About half of all textile factories in Nicaragua are owned by Jews and many of the textile stores in Granada are owned by Jews, Hellenberg said. In recent years, Chinese and Arab settlers had opened textile stores.

Hellenberg said that Nicaragua had not only opened its doors to Jews fleeing from Europe in the 1950s but that Somoza’s father, Anastasia Somoza Garcia, had arranged to make it possible for arms bought quietly in the United States to be transshipped to Palestine to enable the pre-State Jews to arm themselves for the War of Independence. He said this was a factor in Israeli weapons sales currently to Somoza. He added that it was widely known in Latin America that Brazil and Argentina also were selling weapons to the Somoza regime.

The 33-year-old Hellenberg said he was single and suggested this might be one of the reasons he found time to serve as a lay reader at the Beth EI Synagogue and to organize a non-Jewish boys baseball team which is affiliated with a league in Granada. He said enough Jews drove the 25 miles from Granada to make up a minyan for the Friday evening services. He said Nicaragua had never had a rabbi.

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