In a legendary hotel in the wilds of Chile, I discovered an amazing story.
A Czech Jewish couple who marry in a church. A legendary hotel in the wilds of Chile. A Magen Dovid pendant deposited with the mayor’s wife as its owner is taken off to Auschwitz. This story has all the components of an adventure novel. Except that it’s true.
My husband Leib Yaacov and I were invited to Chile, for Leib to give a concert and me to give workshops and lectures to the Jewish community of Santiago. As long as we were travelling to the other side of the world from our home in Israel, we decided to extend our trip by a few days to see the natural beauty of Chile.
We wrote to Galia, the secretary at Aish Chile, who was arranging our trip, and asked her for suggestions of beautiful sites. She replied with three possibilities: one in the north of Chile and two in the south. Leib researched all three places on the Internet and chose Pucón, an area of lakes and lush greenery in the shadow of a volcano in the foothills of the Andes, 789 kilometers south of Santiago. Exquisitely remote, Pucon could be reached only by a small plane to Temuco and then an hour and a half’s car ride to Pucon.
Looking further for where we should stay in Pucon, Leib discovered Antumalal, a boutique hotel set in acres of private gardens, perched on the edge of Lake Villarrica. The photos on their website of scenic vistas, charming rooms, each with a fireplace, flowers and small waterfalls in abundance, and a terrace that overhung the lake made both of us pine to stay there. Leib made a reservation for Wednesday and Thursday nights. We would bring our own kosher food, of course, and have to return to Santiago for Shabbos, since we couldn’t stay in an unkosher hotel for Shabbos.
Antumalal, with only fifteen rooms, was a legendary hotel.
The very next day we received an email from Galia. It had totally slipped her mind, but there was a kosher place to stay near Pucon. Roberto and Sonia Neiman, Orthodox Jews from Santiago, had built their dream home in a beautiful natural setting. On the second floor, they had made two suites for guests. We could stay there, at “Kosher Lodge,” for Wednesday, Thursday, and also Shabbos, with food cooked by Sonia.
Leib and I were thrilled, but also disappointed. We were enchanted by Antumalal and had already made reservations to stay there. We decided to spend one night at Antumalal, then move to Kosher Lodge that Thursday.
After a week in Santiago fulfilling what we thought was the main purpose of our visit to Chile, we embarked on our sightseeing trip to Pucon. Soon we would realize that Santiago was just the prelude to the real reason God had brought us to Chile.
Antumalal, with only fifteen rooms, was a legendary hotel. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip of England had stayed there, as had the Queen of Belgium, the astronaut Neil Armstrong, and the actor Jimmy Stewart. The entrance area displayed enlarged black and white photographs of these celebrities during their stays at Antumalal.
When we arrived, Sonia and Roberto met us with a basket of kosher food to last us for the next twenty-four hours. The Neimans knew the owners. In fact, they startled us by disclosing that the owners of Antumalal were Jews.
Sonia proceeded to fill us in on their history. Guillermo and Catalina Pollak were Czech Jews who, in the late 1930s, converted to Catholicism. They were married in a church. Soon afterwards they emigrated to South America. In 1938, after a brief stay in Argentina, they arrived in Chile. They soon fell in love with the natural paradise of Pucon, far from civilization. Though they no doubt did not care, it was hundreds of kilometers distant from any Jews. They built their boutique hotel, considered an architectural jewel in the Bauhaus style, in the early 1950s.
“They are lining up the students according to religion. Which religion are we?”
The Pollaks had four children—three sons and a daughter. They raised them with no religion whatsoever. When their daughter Rony (short for Veronica) began prep school in Santiago, she called her parents on the first Sunday morning, and asked, “They are lining up the students according to religion. One line for Catholics, one line for Protestants. Which religion are we?”
Her father responded, “This is a Catholic country. Get into the Catholic line.”
Not surprisingly, all four children married non-Jews.
Shortly after our arrival at Antumalal, Sonia introduced us to Rony Pollak. Rony, now divorced, had inherited the hotel, which was being run by her only son, Andrew. Rony, a beautiful woman with short gray hair, greeted us warmly. Because we were friends of the Neimans, she gave us a free upgrade to a two-room suite.
Leib and I settled in, gazing every couple minutes at the view out our picture window—the lake surrounded by mountains. We felt like we had happened into a magical domain, suspended in time, shimmering with natural beauty.
A short time later, we were standing in the entranceway looking at the photographs of the visiting celebrities interspersed with family photos of Guillermo and Catalina Pollak with their four children. I was wondering how Jews could so divorce themselves from Judaism as to convert to Christianity when we were greeted by a handsome young man. He introduced himself as Andrew, our host. This was Rony’s son. As the son of a Jewish mother, he was the only Jew among his generation of the Pollak family, the last strand of a rope that had survived a hundred generations since our forefather Abraham, now frayed and at the breaking point.
Yet, when I looked at him, I was surprised by his visage. A purity and light emanated from his face. We started to converse with him. We told him we were from Israel, that we had come to Chile to teach about Judaism. I asked him if he realized that he was Jewish.
Indeed he did. In the summer season, when Pucon is crowded with tourists, a Chabad center opens in town. He has a Chabad friend who gave him a book. Every day he reads from it.
“That’s wonderful,” we told him. “We’re spending this Shabbos with Roberto and Sonia Neiman. Would you like to join us?”
Andrew shook his head. Weekends are their busiest time. He has a big group coming on Friday night. It’s impossible. Andrew excused himself and went back to work.
Thursday morning I prayed the morning service in the living room of our suite. Leib, wearing his tallis and tefillin, went outside to pray on a grassy patch overlooking the lake. At some point it occurred to me: Andrew can’t do Shabbos, but he could do the mitzvah of tefillin. When Leib returned, I told him my idea, that he could teach Andrew how to lay tefillin.
Minutes later we ran into Andrew in the hall. Leib asked him if he would like to put on tefillin. He replied, “That’s strange. A short while ago I was driving our electric cart on the grounds and I saw you wearing your tefillin, and I thought, I would like to put on tefillin.”
Leib told him he would have to cover his head to say the blessings. Having no kippa, Andrew ran to his car to get a baseball cap. Then Leib led him into our living room, and as he showed him how to wrap the tefillin on his arm and his head, he explained to him the spiritual power of tefillin, how it connects the wearer to God. Andrew imbibed every word, like a famished soul who has not eaten in three generations.
That afternoon, Roberto and Sonia picked us up and took us to their Kosher Lodge. On Friday morning, Sonia mentioned that Rony’s brother and sister-in-law Enrique and Alicia, who lived nearby, would be joining us for Shabbos dinner. The Neimans had bought their property from them, and enjoyed a warm relationship with them. I asked, “Why don’t you invite Rony, too?”
“It’s already Friday,” Sonia demurred. “It’s late to invite her.”
I asked her to try. She did, and a half hour later let me know that Rony would be coming with her boyfriend, the first Jewish boyfriend she’d ever had.
That night, sitting around the Shabbos table, I was surprised to notice a Magen David hanging from Rony’s neck. I commented on it. Rony and her brother exchanged glances. She nodded at him, and he began to narrate a story.
“If we don’t come back, promise me you will get this Jewish star to my son in South America.”
Their father’s parents had lived in Mcely, a small town northeast of Prague. Their grandmother Berta Cohen Pollak was a good friend of the wife of the town’s mayor. When the Nazis took over and started rounding up the Jews to deport them to Auschwitz, Berta took this Magen David to the mayor’s wife and beseeched her, “If we don’t come back, promise me you will get this Jewish star to my son in South America.”
The mayor’s wife accepted the charge. Her friend never returned, but how was she to find Pollak in South America? The post-war years were chaotic. So much destruction, so many displaced persons. Years passed. Before the mayor’s wife died, she passed on the Jewish star and the mission to find “Pollak in South America” to her daughter.
Decades later the Czech ambassador to Chile decided to vacation in the fabled hotel Antumalal. Guillermo and Catalina Pollak happily shared with him that they were originally from Czechoslovakia, from Mcely. When the ambassador returned home for a routine visit, he mentioned to a friend from Mcely that he had stayed in a legendary hotel in southern Chile owned by a Czech family named Pollak from Mcely. His friend, who was none other than the former mayor’s daughter, froze. A few questions proved that this Pollak was the son of her mother’s Jewish friend Berta, who had died in the Holocaust. When the ambassador returned to Chile, he carried with him the Mogen David.
As soon as he reached Santiago, he called Enrique Pollak and told him about the precious object he had brought him. Enrique and Alicia, who lived in Santiago, had just returned from Pucon the day before. They usually made the long trip only once every couple months, but both Enrique and Alicia considered the Jewish star from his grandmother to be something so significant, so precious, that they decided to fly back to Temuco and travel from there to Pucon that very day in order to deliver the heirloom to Guillermo.
At that point in the story, Alicia, a non-practicing Catholic, interjected. “My parents lived in Temuco. The day we brought the star back to my in-laws, my father had a heart attack. Since I was in Pucon, I was able to reach the hospital in Temuco in time to see my father before he died. That only happened because of the Jewish star.”
I gazed at the Magen David. A Jewish woman whose son had defected from Judaism was on her way to Auschwitz, and left, as a final message to her only child who would survive, this Magen David, this symbol of Judaism. Decades later, it miraculously found its way to the Pollaks in Pucon. Now, against all odds, her great-grandson Andrew was starting to study Judaism, and yesterday he had put on tefillin. What was the power behind this Magen David?
When we returned to Jerusalem, I connected Andrew to a rabbi in Santiago who helped him buy his own tefillin. Recently, I received this email from Andrew:
I am doing very well, thank God. My spiritual journey has been wonderful, and my day to day is blessed each morning with tallis, tefilin, and shacharit. I am very interested in going to a yeshiva at some point.
Thinking of Andrew, I wonder: Had we gone nine thousand miles to Chile and had God led us to the remote Antumalal for the sake of this one precious Jewish soul?