Before moving to Brazil, Raphael and Renée met Paulo through a mutual friend in their house in north London. Paulo lived in far-off place that everybody had heard about, to which many were attracted, but where few had actually been: Rio de Janeiro. He had moved there from Germany before the war and the colourful stories that he told about his new country, its people, its beauty and its customs convinced my parents to come over for a visit. When they did in 1955, it was love at first sight and they decided to make the move. Brazil was an uncommon destination for a young Jewish couple: after the war they were supposed to move to Israel by ideology, or to North America, South Africa or Australia, which were more familiar in terms of culture and as promising in terms of opportunities.
Apart from his exotic address, Paulo had another peculiarity: he was a member of the Communist Party, a huge statement at the height of the Cold War. After my father came over to live in Brazil, they became best friends. Dad was far from being left-wing but their long conversations reignited memories of the political discussions in Yiddish that had been at the heart of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. During one such debate, Paulo showed off a watch made in communist East Germany, the GDR. Although it was unimpressive, Dad spotted what he felt was an amazing business opportunity. In the popular mind, “German” was synonymous with “reliable” and, coming from a communist country, the prices of the watches would be extremely competitive. They would surely sell like water to the emerging Brazilian lower middle class.
Dad soon opened an importation business in Rio. For an outsider, at first thought it might have seemed strange for someone who had two thirds of his family slaughtered by the Nazis to make a living through selling German products. Nevertheless, Dad was at ease with the no-nonsense approach so typical of Germans and he pragmatically tried to apply this state of mind to his own business decisions. In this, he was little different to most of his Jewish friends; despite all they and their close ones had gone through during the war they sill maintained their respect for Teutonic pragmatism and straightforwardness. As most eastern Europeans they continued to see Germany as an incorruptible and innate leader. While they may have physically left Europe, the old continent had never left them.
With a business up and running, a rented flat facing the beach and furnished in the best British style, the comfort of a live in maid and promising prospects ahead, the next step was to start a family. Sarah arrived in 1958 and, five years later, my time came.
Thirty centimetres taller than the average local female, a strong gringo accent and a wardrobe full of fashionable clothes tailored in London, for Brazilians, Mum came across as a powerful, adventurous and open-minded woman who was ahead of her time. This was easy in a place where respectable housewives were never seen out at night, not even in restaurants with their husbands. Her bikinis – in vogue in post-war Europe – showed her belly button. This display of nudity shocked many people at the beach and, more than once, lifeguards asked her to leave.
Mum was also one of the first women drivers in Rio, which attracted many comments, some rude and some in admiration. Neither of these two approaches disturbed her, as in Renée’s opinion Brazilians transformed into uncivilized cowboys as soon as they were behind a steering wheel. In the country that was to provide the world with Formula One racing champions such as Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna, she took upon herself the mission of teaching the natives by example how to respect speed limits. Her car always ended up slowing down the fast lane, which put her on the receiving end of a constant flow of hooting and swearing from the drivers she had forced to overtake on the wrong side.
The attitude behind her driving was revealing. At home, she banned any novelty that suggested being more advanced or more forward than the image she had of herself. Because of this, our domestic life was stoic, almost puritan, with the occasional verbal and physical abuse when she lost control of things. There was no television, no comic magazines and no Brazilian or international popular music, be it jazz, bossa nova or rock ‘n’ roll. She also forbade sweets, chocolates, fizzy-drinks and pastries, insisting on a diet of generally tasteless, health-food.
Mum and my sister.
Dad was born in 1900 in the Polish town of Krosno, in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. Eastern European Jews considered the Galitzers as the peasants of their world while their fellow Austro-Hungarians looked down upon Jews from that region as being the peasants’ peasants. Therefore, in Dad’s mind it was a great social leap to marry into my mum’s well-established Golders Green family. Perhaps because of this, Dad went along with her rules. For him, his young wife – 20 years his junior – symbolized the highest expression of London’s refinement, a world that he wanted to belong to. However, he never really achieved this goal as, in so many ways, his thoughts and attitudes were lost in a time warp. He occasionally would let his world slip out in stories from his past: of the rabbi whose beard he had glued to the table while he was sleeping; the barn where he had managed to fool a Polish policeman searching for illegal alcohol; his grandfather, a wealthy anti-Zionist, who everyone came to seek advice; and a plethora of jokes, sayings and religious teachings from that vanished space-time that only lived on in his memories and in precious photographs.
For my Old Man, Brazil was an attempt at reinvention, but in his new life he could hardly have been more of an outsider. Not only was he a foreigner to Brazil, he was also foreigner to a life of middle class urban comfort and a foreigner by age and by experience to most of his social circle. The relative innocence and the joyousness in his new country contrasted with his hidden solitude and the disappearance of his former world, of which the last remaining thread of contact were his business links in East Germany, a Soviet satellite born of the country that had caused him so much pain.
Perhaps to maintain his sanity, whenever the weather permitted Dad reconnected to his universe on solitary dawn-walks along Copacabana’s oceanfront. At that time of the day, with no eyes on him, he was free to be himself. On his way to the beach, he shared the streets with the occasional maid sent out to buy the early-morning bread, with zealous porters cleaning the entrances to their precious buildings, and with packs of stray dogs chasing newspaper and milk delivery trucks.
Sometimes he took me with him and I enjoyed it. At that time of the day the early-morning mist covered the beach and the ground was still moistened by the dew that had settled during the night. We would walk at the water’s edge and talk mostly about existential issues where I would ask questions and he would answer them as easily to understand as he could. As the conversations became deeper and more interesting the haze dissipated while we left our footprints behind on the smooth wet sand.
We always went until the fishermen’s colony at the far end of Copacabana. Their base was one of the first constructions in the neighbourhood: an old wooden depot where they sold their catches to local restaurateurs and residents. Next to it, dozens of small fishing boats rested on the sand surrounded by nets where seagulls fought over the remains with skinny dogs, observed by sleepy donkeys and tied up goats. Around them were swarms of flies and a strong smell of salt and decaying fish permeating the air.
In groups of five or six, the fishermen would set out before sunrise while a small party would coordinate the activity from the beach, shouting and sending signals. By the time we reached the colony, the boats would already be on their way back. To haul them in, the men would lay tree trunks in front of their wooden vessels and then push those heavy wooden crafts until they came to rest on the beach close to the avenue. The daily act of catching and landing the fish was like a mini-festival. The fishermen always needed more people to help pull in the nets, and a gigantic human circle would form, trapping the hundreds of sea creatures leaping in all directions out of the water, gasping for air. Once the bosses separated the prize catches, they allowed anyone who had participated to take whatever they wanted. Sometimes I too made a point of claiming my own, but they always ended up in the rubbish bin as they were either too small or not good enough for our pretentious dinners.