Knocking on Doors

How five young Polish immigrants founded Costa Rica's Jewish community some 70 years ago, helped transform the economy there and added a new word to the local lexicon

SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA - In Costa Rican Spanish there is a verb, polaquear, which is not used anywhere else in Latin America. It translates as "to do in a Polish way." What it really means is "sell from door to door on the installment plan."

San Jose- Shlomo Papirblat
Shlomo Papirblat

Five young Jews from Poland were responsible for this linguistic innovation - Shlomo Goldberg, Avraham Feingezicht, Asher Weisleder, Loser Feinzilber and Dov Rochwerger. In 1930 they reached Central America almost by chance, and launched a remarkable project: to bring the life of the shtetl to the paradise they found in Costa Rica - just a few years, it turned out, before their homeland became an inferno for the Jews.

Luckily, they found themselves in a good land, ever green, whose residents live in harmony with nature and human beings, as well. A state that has no army. Indeed, one statue in the capital's main square today carries an inscription that is sure to move every Israeli who sees it - to the effect that the Costa Rican mother feels joy at the birth of a son because she knows he will never be a soldier.

As for Jews in high positions in the country, former banker Luis Liberman is now second vice president, deputy to President Laura Chinchilla. In last February's elections, Congressman Luis Fishman was a candidate for the presidency. The state comptroller is Ofelia Taitelbaum. Two Jewish ministers serve in the cabinet: Sandra Piszk, minister of labor, and Laura Alfaro is the minister of planning. Several Costa Rican ambassadors are members of the Jewish community. All this when Jews number only about 3,000, in a population of 4.5 million.

Back in the 1920s, economic conditions were hard in Zelechow, a town in eastern Poland 85 kilometers from Warsaw; many families lived in dire poverty. Five young local men, a few already married with children, dreamed of America and a better future. At a travel agency in Warsaw, they heard the United States' gates were closed and that Argentina no longer issued visas. But a state they had not heard of before, "Tsostaritsa," was willing to issue entry and work permits to farmers.

"We are farmers," they announced immediately, and used all their savings to buy tickets for the trip. They took a train to the port of Le Havre, France, where the steamship Orinoco was waiting to take them on the biggest adventure of their lives. For four weeks they tossed on the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, until they reached Puerto Limon on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. It was December 1930.

At the port, they encountered their first obstacle: The authorities demanded that the men prove they each had the equivalent of at least $20. Only if they pooled all their resources could they amass this sum. They ended up with a solitary banknote, which passed from hand to hand as each entered the immigration office, showed it, went out and passed it on to another.

Culture shock

The capital of San Jose awaited the men, in the heartland, among volcanoes and rain forests. It was a shock. For pennies, they rented a room together in the town center and began to take stock of their surroundings. They went out to find other Jews but found only a few. One of them, named Feigenblatt, was a tailor from London. He offered them merchandise: cloth, sheets, bed covers, socks, underwear and scarves - but demanded payment in cash. The innovative solution they found makes Shapsa Feingezicht, Avraham Feingezicht's youngest son, smile broadly today.

"They had a nice big samovar [for boiling water] that they brought with them all the way from Zelechow," he explains. "In the mornings they would use it to make tea, and then take it to the pawnshop as collateral. With the money they would buy goods, go peddling from door to door, sell whatever they could and in the evening redeem the samovar from the pawnshop and return home to make tea for supper. This went on day after day, until their profits were sufficient."

Shapsa, 60, who owns a plastics factory near San Jose, recounts some of the stories from those days. For example, most Costa Ricans lived then in villages and worked in agriculture. When they needed something, they would go to the big city and pay cash for their purchases. The five entrepreneurs from Zelechow took their wares to the towns and villages, went from house to house, knocked on doors and sold goods for payment in installments; the "Klappers" - those who knock on doors - they called themselves, in Yiddish. They told the farmers: Don't pay today, give us something on account and something more when we return in a couple of weeks, and then some more, until you pay it all.

One day, Avraham Feingezicht went to the village of Palmares, in the heart of the coffee country in the north. A storm erupted and he found shelter at the home of a local family, the Monges, who were extremely poor. They gave him hot soup and a place to rest. Some time later, one of the sons of the family, Luis Alberto, began working as Avraham's assistant, carrying the sacks of merchandise and hearing stories about the life of the Jews in Poland.

Eventually, this young man became a diplomat. In 1963, he presented his credentials to Israel's then-president Zalman Shazar as Costa Rica's first ambassador to Israel. In the 1980s, Luis Alberto Monge was elected president of Costa Rica.

"My father was in touch with him until the day he died," says Shapsa.

"The Klappers were very successful," recalls Eva Goldberg, Shlomo Goldberg's daughter. They quickly learned the main Spanish words they needed and established ties with local suppliers. Her father soon bought a horse, wore a sombrero to protect himself from the tropical sun, and went out to the villages with sackfuls of goods tied to the saddle. "So he increased the number of his clients and his shoes did not wear out so quickly," she says. "He was a good man, and the villagers liked him. Sometimes, when he went to collect debts, children emerged from the hut skinny and pale because of hunger and he would drive on and give up."

Shlomo Goldberg's grandson, Leonel Baruch Goldberg, eventually became Costa Rica's finance minister and led its economy into the 21st century.

A growing community

From the day they arrived in the new country, the Zelechow men saw it as their duty to bring their families over. They used most of their profits to that end, sending money, steamship tickets, permits from the immigration department and so on. Wives and children came first, then parents, brothers and sisters and their families, then brothers- and sisters-in-law, and finally friends and neighbors from their town.

"I was two years old when my father, Shlomo, left my mother, Sara, my sister Ethel and me in Zelechow and set off," recalls Eva Goldberg. "After six years he managed to save enough money to bring the three of us. We went to France and then sailed on to Venezuela. When we entered Puerto Limon, I remember holding a picture of my father, which he sent to us in Poland, so that we could identify him among the people waiting on the shore."

By the end of the 1930s, there were some 1,000 Jews in Costa Rica, most of them from Zelechow. They used to meet in the evenings in San Jose over a glass of tea and latkes; on the Sabbath, the scent of cholent wafted through the air. Every new arrival from the old country would tell the latest vitz, jokes from Poland. Over time, the peddlers made enough money to open shops and businesses. The western side of Avenida Central, the city's main thoroughfare, was almost all Jewish, and a synagogue was established there.

Then a problem emerged, according to Jaime Tischler, an artistic photographer, who cites an aspect of local history most people prefer not to recall. "Some of the non-Jewish merchants began to complain that the Jews were taking away their clients and hurting their businesses. They launched a countrywide campaign to expel their competitors from the land."

Pressure that began at the grassroots level, he says, "reached the government. It began compiling lists of the Jews in the state and appointed a committee that studied the matter, determined the Jews had come illegally and recommended the Congress send them back to Europe."

The debate in Congress was stormy. Then World War II broke out, and it decided to postpone the discussion.

In the 1930s, Zelechow had a population of about 8,000, a quarter of whom were Jews. The war cut off the flow of town residents to Costa Rica. Those left behind were arrested. Hundreds were murdered in the Nazi death camps; others became refugees or managed to hide in the forests and with neighboring farmers. After the war, many survivors joined their townsfolk in Costa Rica. They were called grinen, green ones. The community organized itself and established aid institutions. In 1960, a Jewish school was opened, named after Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann. It exists to this day and offers classes from kindergarten through high school.

The Jewish community currently has its offices in a new and impressive complex in the Rohrmoser neighborhood, one of San Jose's most prestigious areas. That is where one finds the synagogue, the kosher restaurant Ta'am Shel Pa'am ("taste of long ago" ), as well as the community's historical museum, founded and run by the energetic Wilma Reifer.

Reifer says the first Jews arrived in Costa Rica following Columbus' trips to the area; they were Marranos, Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity, who wanted to avoid the evil edicts of the Spanish Inquisition. There are apparently Catholic families in remote villages in Costa Rica who, according to stories, have for generations been holding ceremonies that resemble Jewish rituals - such as lighting candles on Fridays. In the 19th century, Jewish families from Curacao and Panama came to Costa Rica and did not establish their own communities, but assimilated into society. Many just retained their Jewish names, like Sasson, Moreh and Fischel.

"Our museum is devoted to the history of the Jews here that began in 1930," says Reifer, who is proud of the fact that during the six years the museum has been operating, it has hosted thousands of students from non-Jewish schools in Costa Rica, who come to learn about the community's history.

"It is very important to us because these kids consider the Jews as rich, and socially and politically powerful. Here they learn that our parents and grandparents came to Costa Rica as desperately poor people, penniless, started from scratch and advanced slowly, slowly, with hard work," she declares. "It is an important lesson for every young person."