Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “World War II”

Lost Samba – Chapter 02 – Escaping the Nazis

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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.

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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.

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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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The conflict of the century

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Whoever thought that the conflicts of the Nazis against the allies ended with the second world war may be wrong. The conflict of conservatism against freedom is still out there. As this site relates to Latinos I will talk about the face under which it appeared in Brazil, in form of  the conflict between caretas (squares) and doidoes (crazies) that was ever-present in the 60’s 70’s and part of the 80’s.

After the dictatorship got rid of the left wing revolutionaries (many of whom were caretas ) the families, the military and other reactionary forces moved their attention to the menace that long-haired rockers, surfers and weed smokers in general presented. It remains a mystery why the powers found these libertarian minds dangerous, but they did.

The Brazilian middle class bought into the American mainstream fury against the libertarian forces of the sixties. The divide was clear, or you were in favor of changing the world, wore hippy clothes and had long hair or you wanted to save the world from those agents of change. The doidoes were in the minority, but their intensity was irresistible and their presence was overwhelming to a mainstream that had the entire military and police apparatus on their side.

It is easy to minimize and make jokes about this conflict, but if one looks beyond the surface it has had an immense effect on the world as that generation reached maturity. The first one was the growth of religious fundamentalism; in order to undermine this hunger for change and the growth of communism (which in its essence is simply the notion of a society based on collaboration rather than on profit) the powerful introduced religion as an effective diversion. The place where this was most felt was in the Muslim worlds here the US and its careta allies invested heavily in zealots, such as Osama Bin Laden. The disaster in Afghanistan and in other countries with a Muslim majority is there for anyone to see. But it was not only there that this offensive took place, in Brazil and in the rest of Latin America all sorts of evangelical churches appeared and became the acceptable face of the will to change and of hope in for a better future. They became an important political force which the internal and external powers rely on.

The other area of combat against the doidoes was the war on drugs. The hard fist on drugs strengthened the criminal element, and the innocent cannabis was substituted by the lucrative cocaine and heroin. What was once something designed to be a chill out and a way to have a few moments without the weight of “the system” on one’s back became demonized and resulted in a costly multinational war. If diverted to more rational uses, the amount of money spent on this global paranoia against the “long haired” would have helped mend the economic, cultural and social cracks happening everywhere in our times, it would also have helped the world become a more intelligent and less hypocritical place with much weaker criminal organizations.

The doidoes counter attacked with the internet, a free vehicle to spread information, and to bring people together. The founders of the internet envisaged it as an instrument to bring democracy to knowledge as well as a way for people to escape the control of the state. Although the caretas are trying to undermine its freedom, this has been a highly successful revolution and has been one of the few  positive developments in the past decades.

Although no one knows how the future will be, if we take Brazil – a country known for absorbing anything you throw at it, where people of all races, cultures, faiths and ideologies are building something new – as a paradigm for what will happen at the end of the tunnel some conclusions may be taken. There, the conflict betweencaretas and our doidoes is still alive but got less important after the country was forced to brace together to tackle an economic crisis that lasted fifteen years and that makes the current one in the “First World” look like a walk in the park.

In those dark days each side learned from each other and now that the country found prosperity people from all classes have become more confident, more creative, more aware of their situation and more practical. It is not that the country can put itself in a place to teach other nations on how to deal with their contradictions, Brazil still has many problems with corruption and social inequality. However its experience shows that the friction of opposites makes things move forward and dealing with them in a rational way, using them equally and with an open mind is the way forward.

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