Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “Holocaust”

Lost Samba, Chapter 7/02 -Religious disappointment.


A philosopher once said that big changes enter our lives as pigeons walk into a cathedral. It all began with an innocent football game on a sunny afternoon. Every Tuesday and Thursday the British School took us to train on an official eleven-a-side field in Botafogo. Like the mess that was about to happen, everything in those games was disproportionate: the field was way too large for ten-year-old players and the goal posts were too far away and too huge for the goalkeeper. When we dribbled a ball past an adversary and looked ahead, there still seemed to be miles to go, which made passing complicated and running exhausting. On top of this, the coach took our performance seriously and whistled to mark every petty mistake.

It was a relief to hear the final whistle and I was looking forward to take the shuttle bus to the Paissandú club to play a much more pleasurable game of five-a-side football. However, when I got on the bus the driver told me to get off because my name was not on the list. Someone in the school’s office had cocked up and I was on the list of children going home. I told the teacher, and he said there was nothing he could do. Not wanting to take no for an answer, I asked for a lift from a friend who would be heading to the club with his mum following his after-school judo class. The teacher agreed. We got back to school where I spent a tedious hour and a half watching the judo instructor throwing my friend around the mat. When his mum arrived, it turned out that they were going straight home – she was in a rush and could not take me to the club. However, she acknowledged the confusion and gave me a reluctant ride home, as Copacabana was handier for her.

Meanwhile, when I did not arrive at the club with the school bus, Mum phoned the school to ask what had happened to me and received the unbelievable answer that they did not know. This was a time when urban guerrillas were kidnapping foreigners to exchange them for their imprisoned comrades. Of course, our family did not belong to the target group – mainly diplomats and high ranking executives– but the paranoia made panic set in. When I arrived at home, the maid was hysterical and did not know what to do. Someone came up with the idea of putting me in a taxi to go to the club. As far as I was concerned, this was a thrilling adventure: here I was, ten years old, riding all alone with an unknown driver and ducking whenever we passed a police officer because, in my head, this was illegal.

When Mum found out exactly what had happened, she was furious with the school. Things got worse after she learned that the new headmaster, a disciplinarian, ex-Royal Navy officer, had blamed me for the incident. Notices started to appear saying that everyone could do this and that, except for me because I was not to be trusted and was irresponsible. My parents decided that the headmaster’s targeting of me was completely unacceptable and this was how I left the protective cocoon of the British School for an immersion in the Brazilian World.

In reality, the beginning was not a one hundred percent Brazilian experience. I was plunged into the Eliezer Steinberg, a Jewish school, and a safe bet, at least until my parents could figure out what to do with me. The change was exciting but there were hurdles. The classes had many more students, the lessons were all in Portuguese and there were new subjects to get my head around: Hebrew, Yiddish and Jewish history. As I started to get to grips with what was happening, I found myself being very different from my classmates and with new enemies happy to prey on my fragile position.


My parents – like most other ones in our circles – considered religion an antiquated superstition, but they valued their Jewish heritage and felt that they should use it to give Sarah and I a sense of identity. As time progressed – and the more it looked that the family would stay permanently in Brazil – religious rituals started playing an increased role in our lives. We started lighting Shabbat candles on Friday evenings and regularly going to synagogue.

On the high holidays, we would go to the A.R.I. – the Israelite Religious Association – a nonorthodox congregation for the Zona Sul’s Ashkenazi – or European descended Jews – in Botafogo. I had to dress up in my best clothes and it was embarassing to leave home and make my way through Copacabana’s streets looking like a little gay prince while everybody carried on with their normal lives. The most solemn day of the Jewish calendar was Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – when the community would fast for twenty-four hours and life would orbit around divine forgiveness. While the grownups stayed inside the synagogue feeling increasingly hungry, undergoing a marathon-session of prayers and wrestling with their guilt, my friends and I stayed outside, the whole day long, trying to chase away the boredom.


The A.R.I. Synagogue

Yom Kippur was not the only the holiday that we observed. Earlier in the year, there was the much more fun Passover dinner. We would receive guests in our home, or would be invited to spend the evening with friends. In that ceremonial evening, among prayers, we shared the table eating ritual food, drinking wine, and reminding ourselves of all the miracles that God had performed when he helped Moses to take us out of evil “Pharaoh-land”. For the next ten days, we could not eat leavened bread, but only matzos – slightly annoying perhaps, but we saw it as a heavenly chore and felt guilty if we did not follow it.

In reality, the only miracle that observing those holidays ever achieved was the one of making us feel Jewish. Religious rituals, however, were not the only aspect linking us to the rest of the nation – there was also our proximity to the State of Israel, and of course our support to the people who had settled there. The world had taught Dad’s generation that whatever you personally believed in, or whatever you were like as an individual, was irrelevant when people hated you for the mark of your heritage and then, with the blessing of the state, threw you and your family into a gas chamber. For that generation, a Jewish homeland was the only way to guarantee the nation’s survival and the fact the Jews had returned to the Biblical lands was nothing short of a miracle.

After the horrors of the Holocaust and the initial anguished possibility that Israel’s neighbours would throw the Jewish population into the sea in the war that followed the United Nations acceptance of Israel as an independent state came the military triumphs. The transformation from victims to victors swept across the entire Jewish world like a fever. Our home was no exception. Our circles considered even the very mention of the Palestinians as a form of treason. Although most people in our closest circles encouraged me to take part in that Jewish nationalist carnival, there was a part of me which did not buy that enthusiasm. Throughout the Holy Land’s history, there were few people involved in its numerous conflicts who understood that stability and security required mutual understanding and that the impossible idea of complete possession of that land implied often-monstrous solutions. As the situation became unbearable for the Palestinians, they resorted to desperate actions that only confirmed the prejudices against them. There was something missing in the way both sides approached the Middle East conflict: no one spoke of peace and reconciliation, but only about survival and revenge, and with this kind of mind-set, those animosities would surely never end.

Because of one my best friends, Uri, I had a clear view of what Israel was about. He had moved there from Rio de Janeiro at the age of ten. We were like family. Uri’s dad, Ossi, was Paulo’s brother-in-law and worked with my dad. He had served the Israeli army in the war of independence and had a charismatic Humphrey Bogart-like character, with a French edge to him, as France was the place where he grew up. His relaxed airs, his strong build and his dry sense of humour made him a great success with women. He had split up with his Israeli wife, a beautiful former actress, and she returned to Israel with the kids.

Uri and his younger brother did not want to go. I also did not want them to leave but at least our friendship survived, as they would spend every summer in Rio to stay with their Dad. They opened my eyes to how stifling and tough life was in the “Promised Land” and to how lucky I was for growing up in Copacabana. The interesting thing about the way these two – now Israeli – friends saw the ever-present conflict was that they actually viewed the Palestinians as human beings. In contrast, Dad’s friends – who would never need to face an armed enemy in a battlefield – held much more prejudiced and hawkish opinions. I saw in Uri and his brother a healthier way of being Jewish, free from the worries about what the claustrophobic and neurotic Jewish community of Rio de Janeiro expected of me, and not allowing anti-Semitism to mold my character.


As is the case with any Jewish boy, when I reached thirteen the time for Bar Mitzvah arrived and with this the necessity to find me a teacher. The first choice was our synagogue’s main singer, the chasan Aaronson, an imposing man with a powerful voice. When he flowed out loud the prayers in his strong Yiddish accent, Aaronson was feverish, swaying his body and contorting his mouth. Somehow, the spit that sprayed out of him managed to wet his thick glasses and to make his act seem even more impressive. The problem was that Aaronson’s classes were too expensive so we opted for our second choice: a short and plump cantor in his sixties who also wore thick glasses but who had less dramatic garments, a meeker style and who brought disapproval upon himself for his habit of dozing-off in front of the congregation at major events.

In the beginning, I was fascinated. The part of the Torah I was going to recite was about the sabbatical year, something I have always regarded as a brilliant utopic idea which, if adopted, would reset the world on a correct course. It stated that every seventh year, all Israelites – as well as their land and their servants – were to rest for an entire year. At the end of 49 years (that is following seven sabbaticals), whoever had bought land in that period should return the property to the original holders so that, in the end, no one got disproportionately rich or poor.

My teacher’s mission was to show me how to sing in Hebrew the part destiny had assigned me in front of the congregation. He gave classes in a stuffy, old-smelling room in his far-away flat. During the lessons, we went over and over the chosen text, sitting on uncomfortable chairs while leaning on an old wooden table that supported piles of religious books. After one month, the classes started to get boring and I struggled to stay awake every time those pages in Hebrew were in front of me. One day, completely out of the blue, I felt, – and then saw – my mentor’s fat hand creeping up my thigh and landing on my thirteen year old “shlong”. He continued reading the book and acting as if nothing was happening. Although it was only a squeeze, I was shocked beyond words.

When I told my parents what had happened at the rabbi’s house and asked not to have classes with him anymore, they took my “story” as being just another excuse. Anyway as we were close to completing my preparation, according to the way the synagogue had designed the course, the lessons at the rabbi’s home ceased and the next stage were the final rehearsals at the shul. With this, in one go, I was rid of the excruciatingly boring classes and of the fiddling. Nevertheless, my respect for organized religion had been shattered.

Something else helped to lead my heart astray. On the day before my Bar Mitzvah, I received a surprise call. Ruth, a girl who I had met in a Machaneh in São Paulo phoned to say that she was in Rio especially for the occasion. Overwhelmed by the news, I invited her out to play mini-golf by the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon and then to see a movie – the Day of the Jackal – in a nearby cinema. She was pretty and we fancied each other but there was too much shyness in the air for anything to happen. Nevertheless, I was over the moon for coming so close to having a girlfriend.

When I got back home, instead of Mum congratulating me for my first romantic exploit, she fired a hysterical battery of screams at me for being late and for not taking the Bar Mitzvah seriously. Furious, I replied that I did not give a damn about that circus. Nonetheless, as tradition demands, we went to the synagogue for the Friday night service and the next morning I was there for the big day. The synagogue was full of familiar faces, and I was so nervous that I developed an eye twitch that lasted for weeks. When the big moment came, the young rabbi from New York, with red hair, a moustache and round glasses – very similar to Ned Flanders in The Simpsons – called me to read the Holy Book and to hear a sermon in which, among other superfluous things, he said that I liked rock ‘n’ roll and surfing.

Had I been an orthodox Jew, from that moment on I would be responsible for my acts in terms of divine punishments and rewards, and my Bar Mitzvah would have been a rite of passage. Instead, the whole event ended up being about performing an irrational duty and an excuse to receive expensive presents. After everything was over, I had passed into a new stage in life but not as expected: my hair was growing long, my body and my voice were changing and my hormones were kicking in.

My initiation into manhood had happened at the beach catching big waves and at the Machanehs where I proved that I could be tough. To me, synagogue represented an old folks’ social gathering designed to forge business contacts under the pretence of being pious while listening to prayers in an incomprehensible language. As far as I was concerned, that theater and teachers pinching my penis did not represent a path to a higher truth.

If the adopted norm for modern Jews was to be atheists, why should I waste my valuable time going to synagogue? If they wanted to use Eastern European traditions and fear to keep me inside a fence, this would not work in the Rio de Janeiro of the 1970s. In addition, employing Zionism to keep the community connected seemed plain ridiculous: if our parents – like most of their friends – had chosen to emigrate to far-off Brazil and hadn’t the guts to fight for Israel, what commitment could they demand of us? With a room full of expensive presents and a new status, I was ready to discover the real world and not the wonders of the Holy Scriptures.

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If you have the patience, check out our views on the Jewish/Zionist issue:


Lost Samba – Chapter 7/1 – A Jewish boy in Rio

Part_11I was proud to be one of the chosen for the commando troop to capture the enemy’s flag. Our madrich’s, or instructor’s, plan was to cut through the bush and make a surprise raid to capture the blue team’s flag which stayed under a canopy in the centre of the football field down at the foot of the hill. This would be our tactic to win the simulated war and claim the trophy. To help us, another team would divert our enemy’s attention by staging an attack on the main road. Our group stealthily progressed, weaving our way through enemy lines. Whether through lack of commitment or carelessness, one by one my comrades fell prey to the blue team’s scouts, who “killed” them as they read out the numbers on their arm-tags. This ended up leaving me as the sole survivor. Now alone, I managed to hide and stayed waiting for the right opportunity to advance.

They were worried. “There is still one hidden in the bush,” shouted an enemy. “He’s there! I can see him!”

But he could not: as a decoy, I was throwing stones, just as I had seen in my favourite war television series, Combat. At one point, their feet passed a few centimetres from my eyes but I managed to creep silently away to the edge of the field, only a short run from the enemy’s flag.

As I waited, one of their number returned from our camp telling everyone that their attack was succeeding. The premature celebration was my opportunity and I went for it. When they noticed what was happening, a mob came running and caught up with me as I was a couple of meters away from the base. As soon as they could touch me, a storm of anonymous arms tried to throw me down and to “kill” me by taking my right hand off the tag around my left arm and reading my number out loud, but I only had two steps to pull them along with my weight and I made it.

I was such an oddball, half a gringo – unknown to most parents, from a different school and from the rich part of town – that no one knew how to react to such an unlikely victor. As for me, I felt as if there was no one to celebrate with.

The exercise was the closing event to a ten-day seminar-cum-holiday camp, or Machaneh, in a countryside resort with the Yiddish name “Kinderland”, organized by the Ichud Habonim, the Zionist organization to which I belonged. To be honest, the ultimate goal of this and the several other available “movements”, as the Jewish community called them, was to convince us that as adults we should move to Israel and serve its army. To do this, they tried to inject us with a strong dose of Jewish nationalism by lecturing on how the Jews – like any other nation – had the right to live in their own land without fearing pogroms, inquisitions, expulsions or holocausts. However, the success rate was low as most parents saw them just as a way of preserving their children’s Jewish identity and dreaded us leaving them, not least because of the possibility of being involved in a war. For us it was just about having fun and making friends, none of us saw the Machanehs as being part of a wider political project. Although no madrich ever brought up basic questions regarding the legitimacy of an exclusive Jewish state in that piece of land or of the fate of the Palestinian people, hate or racism were never on the agenda.


Combat TV series

Yes, I am a Jew, and all of my life I have felt in the flesh the contradictions, unexplained myths and pre-conceptions attached to perhaps the strangest people on Earth. It is still not clear if being Jewish means belonging to a nation or belonging to a religion. Regardless of the answer, the induction was a painful one: when I was ten days old, a bearded man in black clothes approached me with a sharp blade, sang something strange and then proceeded to cut off my foreskin without any anaesthetic. The rabbi blessed that snip which was to be my passport into an extended family that, according to the Bible, began some 4,000 years ago with someone called Abraham. The acceptance ceremony also meant that my penis was to look different to the ones of my football mates, that I was obliged to sit through religious services in a language that few in the congregation understood and that I was to observe holidays that none of my school friends observed while pretending to ignore their own holidays.

At home, my parents considered being Jewish good; their family and their friends too – after all, that is what we were. However, in the wider world, not everyone seemed to agree. When I was about five, I accidentally opened a big book about the Holocaust. I could not read but I could understand the pictures of religious Jews crying moments before the Nazis murdered them, of soldiers threatening children with machine guns, of skeletal people with expressionless faces in striped pyjamas behind barbed wire, and of piles of corps in mass graves. Their only crime was to have been as Jewish as I was. In the community, the experience was a recent wound, and it lived on in locked up internal repositories of pain. The grown-ups seldom spoke about their ordeals, we only knew about them by hear say though we could sense something deep and heavy through their unspoken fears and their mistrust of non-Jews.

On the other hand, in a Latin American country ruled by a dictatorship, Roman Catholicism was a strong presence in everyday life. Even in the sport so dear to my identity, the heroes of my team and of the national squad made the sign of the cross every time they scored while my favourite football commentators used a lot of religious exclamations. Apart from this, in every day life, Christian imagery and expressions came out in most conversations. At the British School, due to the Church of England link, things were slightly different. My friends both at school and at the club were mostly Protestant and, as the only Jewish boy who played with them, they considered me as somehow different from the stereotype Jew. This made them feel comfortable to tell me strange things they had learned at home about my people, comments that I could not agree with. Based on my personal experiences, I knew that we were neither stingy nor evil plotters bent on world dominance and I had never come across anyone drinking the blood of Christian children during Passover or, for that matter, at any other time of the year.

As boys do, I wanted to be part of the group, and although I pretended to accept what my friends said, in my heart I knew that there was something fundamentally wrong in my being forced to be a closet Jew. Living amongst the “goyim”, I felt an affinity with Moses growing up in the Pharaoh’s court and sometimes wondered where this was going to end. One issue that intrigued me was that my Christian friends had a human respect and a sense of brotherhood that I never found with my Jewish ones. It never crossed my mind that this goodwill derived from their religious commandment to love one another, neither did I know that this love could be selective and that one or two generations back this duty would never have encompassed “non-believers” such as me.

The one thing that I knew for sure, was that belonging to God’s “Chosen People” was strange. Membership of this select group had nothing to do with personal choice and being Jewish had too much weight in every aspect related to it. The very word “Jewish” would turn people away or produce smiles without any logical reason, depending on who heard it and who spoke it.


Vintage book about the Jews in Brazil

Jewish culture had flourished during the Muslim rule of the Iberian Peninsula. The Portuguese had only recently reclaimed their country to Christianity when they landed in the New World, which in many ways made Brazil have close connections with my tribe. The Portuguese kings adopted a brand of Catholicism emphasising the Holy Spirit, preaching paradise on Earth through the universal understanding among men, they saw people beyond their beliefs and therefore turned a blind eye towards infidels. Their system of belief was far less dogmatic than the one of their Spanish rivals, and ended up producing a more accepting and a far less ruthless spirit, at least in relation to Jews. When the Vatican tightened its control over the Christian world and forced the Portuguese monarchy to fall in line and to turn up the pressure, they went to great pains to convince Jews to convert. Many of them did, but maintained Jewish rituals in private while outwardly accepting Catholicism. A large number of these “New Christians” found refuge in the tropics. Many of today’s most common Brazilian surnames referring to trees, metals and animals, such as “Silva”, “Leitão” (piglet), “Figueiredo” (fig orchard), “Pereira” (pear tree), “Nogueira” (walnut tree) and so many others descend from them.

Dad and his friends were part of the most recent wave of immigrants of the Jewish faith to arrive in Brazil. They came because of the war and most considered themselves as temporary residents who were waiting for a United States residency permit. The ones who decided to remain in Brazil were part of just another group of people flocking in. Japanese, Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, Germans and Lebanese also arrived seeking a share of Brazil’s newfound prosperity. The long haired, reinforced concrete Jew blessing Rio from a vantage point in the Tijuca forest welcomed his patricians and all the other foreigners with open arms.

For most cariocas, our people were a welcome novelty. Behind the wall of prejudice, they discovered thinkers who carried with them sophisticated and cosmopolitan European cultural baggages. In business, most people recognized Jews – or the majority of them – for their strong working ethos and high moral standards. In general, they passed unnoticed in a society defined by its ethnic and racial diversity and many rose to positions of prominence. This was to be the case for my cousin, Bibi Vogel, for the Israeli born actress, Dina Sfat, for the writer, Clarisse Lispector, for the mega-popular television presenter and media mogul, Silvio Santos, for the tropicalista poet, thinker and composer, Jorge Mautner, and for the humorist, Bussunda, to name but a few.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 02 – Escaping the Nazis


I was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1962 when Dad was the ripe old age of sixty-two. To reach Brazil, he had travelled a convoluted road. Two-thirds of his Jewish family from Poland – mother and father included – were victims of Adolf Hitler’s “final solution” for my tribe. The funny thing was that although he had already gone completely grey by the time I was born, he had blue eyes and was blonde when he was young.

In the 1920s and the 1930s, Dad had lived in Germany. Following Hitler’s rise to power, as the situation became unbearable, Dad and his two brothers moved to neighbouring Holland. There, Dad became the working piglet of the three, with his older brother, Ziesch, marrying into a wealthy family and the younger one, Heimish, indulging in a bohemian lifestyle. In May 1940, when they realized that neutral Holland was about to be conquered by Hitler’s armies, the brothers decided that they would have to escape. Dad was aware that the Nazi thugs meant business. One year earlier, when the Nazis invaded his country, he had gone through the traumatizing experience of crossing Europe to see his parents for the last time at the Polish frontier without even being able to approach them to say goodbye. A few weeks after that final hand wave, they were to be deported to a ghetto and later on, to a concentration camp, Auschwitz.

Amidst mounting chaos around him, Dad managed to buy tickets for passage on a ship that was heading for safety in Britain. At the crucial moment of rushing to the harbour, Heimish was nowhere to be found. Dad and Ziesch set out on a frantic search and, by the time they realized that there was no way of finding him, the ship had already sailed.
In despair, Dad somehow managed to buy a small fishing boat. In that precarious wooden craft, Dad and Ziesch’s family rowed out to sea, expecting that a larger vessel bound for England would pick them up. This never happened: ten long days and nights went by with no food or water aboard, and no other boat or sign of life in the open North Sea. Dad carved his name into the wood, resigned to the fact that he and his companions would not survive.

The awareness of their location and the course to take depended on the ability of Dad’s fourteen-year-old nephew, Eli, to read the stars, something he had learned in the boy scouts. One morning, a military plane flew over them and Eli had the idea of using a mirror to reflect the sun into the pilot’s eyes. This worked, and luckily the plane was British.

The pilot must have radioed his command because the Royal Navy sent a ship to the rescue. The crew had to move fast as they were close to a minefield – a delay of a couple of hours would have meant death, either by explosion in the middle of the sea or by starvation. During the operation, German planes attacked the rescue ship and several men perished. My sympathy and admiration goes to the anonymous heroes who put their lives on the line so that my dad could continue living and that these words could be written.

Life changed for the better after their arrival in England. Later on, the family would love to boast that, as they were among the first refugees to arrive from Holland after the German invasion, the story made the headlines. My dad also liked to tell us how his dramatic escape brought him and his brother’s family momentary fame, with members of London’s Jewish community holding dinner parties in their honour. At one of those events, Dad met a Jewish “princess” half his age and almost twice his height; my mum. She was from Golders Green, a well-to-do London suburb where aspirational British Jews had established their “headquarters” and where many of the more prosperous Jewish refugees were living.

The news of the refugees from Holland traveled across the Atlantic. Eleanor Roosevelt heard the story and decided to adopt my cousins, Eli and Josephine, and take them to the United States. The First Lady’s wish came to nothing as my uncle had second thoughts after the Germans torpedoed the merchant ship that was going to transport them back to America. Instead, my cousins went to school in London where they excelled, Eli even being awarded a national prize for being the best pupil in England.

As the allied forces prepared to liberate German-occupied Europe, the Dutch authorities in exile forced Eli to enlist into their army. In 1944 he fought at Arnhem, a battle memorably depicted in the movie “A Bridge Too Far”. Legend has it that he was one of the sole four survivors in his division. It took years for Eli to get over the trauma. He would never talk about it. When, years later, I visited Eli in London, I tried to bring up his wartime experiences, but he was quick to change the subject. My other cousin, Josephine, continued her studies in her new country where she would eventually become a noted sociologist.

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