Bolivia admitted approximately 10,000 Holocaust era Jewish refugees, many of them artists and musicians who settled in of La Paz, the capital city situated 12,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains. Jennifer Steil discovered their largely untold story in 2012, when her husband, a U.S. diplomat was posted there.
In researching the subject of her novel, Exile Music (Viking), Steil drew on interviews with survivors and their descendants. The story is narrated by Orly Zingel, who, at age 11, journeys with her parents from Vienna to Genoa to Chile and finally to La Paz, leaving behind her older brother, Willi.
Exhausted from their long journey, these grieving Jewish refugees faced illness from the high altitude. They had to adapt to a foreign language and culture, and they missed the Austrian foods, art, and music to which they were accustomed.
So much of being in this new place was observation. I didn’t know how anything in this world worked; I had to watch how Bolivians moved and talked and played, so I could relearn everything. My mother and father and I were like children again, not understanding how to buy food, what it should cost, how to greet a stranger, or where to find soap. Here, all my Austrian impulses were wrong. Every day I found myself in a culturally coded world without the key.
As the novel’s title suggests, music plays a major role in the story.