Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “London”

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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Lost Samba, a first person history of the birth of modern Brazil

As London  passes the Olympic flame to Rio de Janeiro, English-Brazilian author Richard Klein launches ‘Lost Samba’, an account of Rio’s bitter-sweet ‘golden days’ in the sixties and the subsequent roller-coaster ride from the military sponsored Brazilian “Economic Miracle” to the depths of the 1980s Brazilian economic catastrophe, all seen through the eyes of the author, a European who grew up as a citizen of Brazil’s legendary Copacabana and Ipanema.

Klein was born to an ex-pat British mother and a holocaust-survivor father in the iconic year (1962) which also gave birth to the Beatles as a recording band, the ‘Girl from Ipanema’ and Brazil’s second World Cup victory. His book describes the Brazilian 1970 World Cup triumph, seen through the eyes of an eight year old boy living in Rio, in the era of Pele, and the subsequent football fever that engulfed the country. As a musician, Klein also gives a personal insight into the evolution of Brazilian music from the Bossa Nova of the sixties to the rock scene in the eighties.

The author says: “With the world’s eyes turning once more to Brazil – hosting the soccer World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 – Lost Samba peers through the clichés to give a true, first person guide to the country’s recent history and its colourful and vibrant lifestyle.

“Lost Samba describes my personal contact with a wide range of Rio de Janeiro society, from the elite in the American School to Favela drug dealers. It takes the reader on an eventful hitch-hiking journey in the heat of the Brazilian summer, through the hippy-style culture and intense carnivals of Brazil’s north-eastern region, and describes my interaction with the heads of the quiet revolution that overthrew the military dictatorship and with the people who would tackle the hyperinflation that devastated the country until only 20 years ago.”

Klein’s Jewish background and humour, as well as his closeness to Britain, where he now lives, make Lost Samba an accessible and catchy read for people who want to understand and get closer to this emerging country that will be so prominent on the world’s stage over the next four years.

Queen Elizabeth II in Rio

As I saw her pass in her beautiful boat in the Diamond Jubilee pageant under the London rain I could not help to remember her visit of  to my school, the British School of Rio de Janeiro, in 1968.  The picture above is of her with the head master, I am the third one above his head. Bellow is the description of the day in my book Lost Samba:

There were no classes and excitement filled the air; the school had been covered with Union Jack and Brazilian flags and after they had cleaned up the leaves and rotting fruit the patio looked immaculate. We settled in and waited for the other classes to leave for the assembly hall across the crowded playground. Mrs. Feitosa, our teacher, was a strong blond in her mid forties from Manchester and married to a Brazilian. Her make-up and her fancy dress did not take away her authority as she closed the door and stood in front of the blackboard.

“I want everyone to sit down and listen carefully.”

We stopped whatever we were doing, fell silent, and she continued.

“Good… Can you all hear me? Today everybody must be on their best behavior, was I clear?”

 She gave us “the look” from behind her glasses and twisted her thin lips. As by magic, each one of us thought that she was addressing it to him and we were relieved when someone opened the door to say that it was our turn.

“Now I want all of you to hold hands and come with me.”

 The grown-ups outside were dressed in their best clothes and were proud of us as we passed. They waved and smiled but at the same time they kept turning their heads around to see if the distinguished guest had already arrived.

When we were about to reach the Hall’s entrance, we heard sirens and Mrs Feitosa stopped to look back. We followed her gaze and saw it happen: no one less than Queen Elizabeth the second, her Majesty, head of the British Crown, was entering the British School of Rio de Janeiro accompanied by her entourage.

She was standing in the open Rolls Royce in a white dress, waving and smiling at the crowd under the rows of palm trees that went from the entrance gate to the playground. Her car was escorted by the most impressive motorbikes that any of us had ever seen. They were huge and loud; enormous radio antennae swayed behind their riders in leather jackets and with dark glasses protected by transparent shields with the emblem of the military police.

Mrs. Feitosa took us out of our trance and told us to get into the hall and climb onto the stage before the grown-ups came in. We were lucky to have the best spot in the hall. When the Queen came in silence fell and the place assumed a dimension that we had never realized it could have. Prince Phillip followed right behind and stopped to talk, out of all people to Sarah, my sister, who was standing in the ex-students’ section. She was amazing: confident and polite.

The pupils selected to perform the leading acts were part of the English thoroughbred clique. The main couple was dressed up in traditional costumes. The boy walked up to Her Majesty and threw his cape on the floor in a chivalrous fashion, then bowed down and shouted out something that I didn’t get but that sounded very appropriate. After the royal approval, she turned to us.

Mrs Feitosa lifted her hand and we sang our part; it was well rehearsed and sounded good to every one’s relief. After the applause there were other presentations and speeches and in the end royal tea cups were handed out. The festivities continued long after she had left. If there ever was a golden day for the British community in Rio, that was it.

The pomp and the festivities were a bit out of tone with what was happening in the country. Political unrest was at its peak, violent confrontations between the police and students escalated to a point where the regime resorted to a massive clamp down imprisoning hundreds of opposition people who would be tortured and killed. In a way the dictatorship used the British royalty’s presence to mask the situation internally and to appear credible externally. It may be no coincidence that a few months later a British company was awarded the contract to construct the Rio-Niteroi bridge across the Guanabara Bay

The video bellow shows the varnished and somewhat uncomfortable stay:

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