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The war of the Rosas

The experience of saving Jews in Nazi Germany marked the life and work of Guimarães Rosa and his wife, Aracy


Aracy and Rosa far from the cold of Germany on a trip to Italy in 1950JONNE RORIZ / AGÊNCIA ESTADO

The Brazilian historian Mônica Schpun, from the École des Hautes Études em Sciences Sociales, Paris, began researching the life of Aracy de Carvalho Guimarães Rosa (1908-2011), the second wife of writer, João Guimarães Rosa (1908-1967), in order to do justice to the history of Aracy who, as an employee of the Brazilian Consulate in Hamburg, helped Jews by giving them countless entry visas to Brazil, despite orders despatched to the contrary in secret circulars from Itamaraty [the Brazilian Foreign Office] at the time of Vargas.

The story has never been told in any depth and all merit is commonly attributed to the writer, because he was the one who had the real power to sign passports. The project has just become a book, Justa – Aracy de Carvalho e o resgate dos judeus trocando a Alemanha nazista pelo Brasil (Record) [Righteous – Aracy de Cravalho and the rescue of Jews, exchanging Nazi Germany for Brazil]. This long-awaited biography is important, because talking about Aracy is not only discovering the great influence she had on the writer’s work, but also going back to the time when Rosa lived in Germany, where the two met and witnessed together the horrors of the war and of the Nazi regime. At the same time, this experience allowed the writer to go deeper into the “wonders of German culture,” which he used later as inspiration for his greatest creations, whose maximum expressions appear in the violence of Riobaldo and the Faustian path of the cowherd in Grande sertão: veredas [The Devil to Pay in the Backlands], which was in fact dedicated to “Ara,” Aracy’s nickname. These are, it is noted, contradictory experiences of the same culture resulting in a dilemma whose resolution led Rosa to rethink his writing. The point in common between them is Aracy.

Called the “Angel of Hamburg,” she is the only woman mentioned in the Holocaust Museum in Israel as one of the 18 diplomats who saved Jews from death and the only Brazilian female to deserve this honor, alongside Ambassador Souza Dantas who, disobeying orders from the Vargas government, granted entry visas to Brazil to French Jews. In 1982, she was recognized as “Righteous among the Nations,” an honorary title given by Israel to people who, risking their own lives, helped persecuted Jews. To merit this honor it is necessary for several witnesses to supply information about the actions of the “Righteous Person” that justifies their nomination. Aracy received countless recommendations from people she helped. Nevertheless, there is a strange lack of knowledge about her. Even more serious is that there are those who deny she had any importance whatsoever in the work of her husband, despite three decades of a harmonious and loving life together. Aracy’s biography contains elements for changing this view, by not only recounting her courageous action in Nazi Germany, but also throwing new light on her role in the life and work of the writer, including the little discussed influence on the attitude of Rosa towards politics, a controversial point in his allegedly “apolitical” path.

The two met in 1938 in the Brazilian Consulate in the port city of Hamburg, where the young diplomat had been sent for his first posting as assistant consul, after finishing his studies at Itamaraty. It was also in that city that he adopted a new habit, which is celebrated in Grande sertão: veredas, writing in notebooks (which he inherited, as he says, from his colleague, Machado de Assis). The result is the so-called “German diary,” written between 1938 and 1942, a notable and modern “collage” of newspaper cuttings, quotations, precise notes on the times of air-raid warnings, a list of books, a list of food seasonings, comments on his constant visits to the zoo, descriptions of landscapes and the weather, ideas for future novels and criticisms of the measures taken against the Jews.

There is, however, among these highly diverse elements, an inter-relationship that does not escape the eye of specialists, such as filing on the same page news of the death of a Nazi leader, alongside an observation that he had sold his automobile. The complete text, whose publication was planned for the end of this year, remains unpublished, prevented as it has been by Rosa’s heirs, although it has been completely organized by researchers from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).

When the writer disembarked in Bremen, already separated from his first wife who remained with their two daughters in Brazil, he had as yet published no books, but brought with him in his luggage his first work, which he intended to revise in between his diplomatic work. This was still called Contos [Short Stories] and signed by Viator. A show of the importance of the “German diary” are the various “casual” notes on the various meanings of “sagas,” a Germanic way of telling stories that were fundamental in the format and revision of the title of his first creation. “He revised the book and in 1946 changed the title from Contos to Sagarana, a hybrid word combining ‘saga’ with the Tupi language word ‘rana’, which means ‘like’,” observes literature professor Reinaldo Marques from UFMG, one of those responsible for the edition. “This is just a part of what can be discovered in the diary. Overall, it is the only testimony of a writer of his stature about one of the most tragic moments of the 20th century, a scathing sign of the exhaustion of the project of modernity,” notes the researcher.


Aracy de Carvalho at work in the passport sector in the consulate in 1939EDITORA RECORD

Rosa arrived in Germany as an admirer of German culture. “But he didn’t ignore Nazism and was angry about the persecution of the Jews. His encounter with German culture became ambivalent, a shock between the past with positive connotations and an evil present,” says the professor from UFMG, Georg Otte, who is also on the “German diary” team. “There were two ways out of the dilemma. One, irony, as when he wrote ‘Heil Goethe!’, as a parody of Hitler’s greeting after watching Faust. Another was to return to the nature around him, like neutral territory that allows the ‘ego’ to avoid the confrontation between the conflicting images of Germans. The ‘peace’ of nature helps resist the war that defiles the preconceived image of the Germans.” It was with Aracy that he observed this perverse Germany. “An outing today with Ara. In a corner I saw a small beach for children. Little waves lapped on the beach. But to spoil the whole tender poetry of the place they had erected a small yellow sign on a post: ‘Play area for Arian children’.” Or even: “Outing in the car with Ara. Even children four years old or less are wearing yellow badges, shameful!” Aracy ends up by check-mating the “apolitical” Rosa, something that eludes many historians.

The bringing together of Aracy’s biography and the diary is a complex plot full of subtleties that may change our way of understanding the world of Rosa, which is only understandable when the various facets of the writer as diplomat, writer and a paradoxical observer of the cruel reality of the war are tied together, which leads him in the opposite direction to fantasy, to the ‘animalization’ of the world as a way of surviving and ‘swallowing’ the modern world through denial. With Aracy, in addition to a companion of almost three decades, he had a reader who was attentive and who participated in his creations, as well as a model of courage and an assumed posture when faced with injustice. After all, when questioned why she would risk granting visas to Jews, she replied: “Because it was fair.”

Oddly enough, it was with almost the same words that Rosa would justify his participation in the actions of Aracy and describe his beliefs as a diplomat years later in an interview. It is possible to perceive how Ara helped him consider his diplomatic activity from a new perspective and how this view molded his new way of perceiving the world, to transform it into thoroughly modern literature. With one blow, Rosa absorbed the “good” side of the Germans, their culture, and the “perverse” side of this same civilization, finding solutions for this dilemma that were the key to his new literature. None of this, however, would have been possible without Aracy at his side at that fundamental moment in time.

How did these paths come together? Aracy, the daughter of a Portuguese father and German mother, took advantage of her mother’s nationality to leave the country with her son after separating from her husband. In Europe, she did not face the harassment that divorced women suffered in Brazil, and she lived in freedom. In 1935, after intervention by chancellor Macedo Soares, she managed to get employment in the passport division of the consulate in Hamburg. Rosa and she were born in the same year (Aracy’s birthday was on the same day as Hitler’s April 20) and fell in love as soon as they met. “I went looking at houses with the assistant consul!” she notes. In a month the tone had become more heated: “I was beautiful. He really loves me a lot!” They were already able to share secrets. “Without being a diplomat, Aracy had a strategic administrative position, dealing directly with granting visas, although she didn’t have the authority to sign them, a privilege reserved for the consul-general and his assistant,” explains Mônica. “Aracy ignored the limit of the number of visas granted to Jews that had been imposed by the New State and continued preparing them, making it easer for almost a hundred of them to sail to Brazil. So that the consul-general, Souza Ribeiro, would sign the visas she placed them between the paperwork and managed to get hold of passports without the red ‘J’ for Jews with friends,” says historian Maria Luiza Tucci Carneiro, from the University of São Paulo (USP), author of the recently published Cidadão do mundo [Citizen of the World] (Perspectiva), a continuation of her analyses of the anti-Semitic diplomacy of the Vargas regime.

Editora Record

The front of the Brazilian consulate in Hamburg, which was destroyed in the warEditora Record

Aracy used to forge false residence certificates to be able to help Jews from other cities where there were less lenient diplomats. She even transported a Jew in the trunk of her car to the border with Denmark, only escaping because of her consular plates. She visited Jews to take them food and gave advice on how to repatriate goods outside the country and looked after valuables for Jews until they embarked, to avoid them being stolen by Nazis. “Rosa used to say that someday she would disappear. After all, it was in her home that the escaping Jews took shelter,” says Tucci.

However, there was an incoherency when she talked about the role of her husband in the actions. “Guima played a fundamental role. He was the one who signed the passports,” she said in an interview. In another she declared: “I was never afraid. The person who was afraid was Joãozinho. He used to say that I exaggerated, that I was placing myself and the whole family at risk, but he didn’t use to interfere much and he let me keep on doing it.” For Mônica, this is a question of gender. “In addition to him being the diplomat, Aracy is mentioned as the widow of Rosa. But the title of ‘Righteous’ was only given to her,” she notes.

More important, however, than credit for helping Jews is to discuss the importance of Aracy in the life and work of the writer. Two researchers, Elza Miné, from USP, and Neuma Cavalcante, from the Federal University of Ceará (UFC), have studied the couple’s letters, also unpublished. “You will be everything to me: wife, lover and companion. Yes, darling, you have to help me write our books. You yourself don’t know how much you are worth. I do. In addition to being an inspiration you will be a valuable collaborator, despite, or perhaps because, you have no pretensions as a ‘pedantic bluestocking’,” wrote Rosa in 1942. In 1938, when she went on holiday he remained in Hamburg and swore: “I’ve been day-dreaming about you. I confirm that I shall be absolutely faithful, not even looking at little German girls, all of whom, as a matter of fact, have turned into toads!”

“In these letters, in addition to love, the importance of Aracy as Rosa’s first reader is revealed,” notes Neuma. “Your, our Sagarana is almost ready. Get a copy for us. My joy would be double: the arrival of ARA and of SAGARANA. But in case of danger throw away Sagarana and let just ARA come, who is 300 billion times more important to me,” he wrote in 1946. The summary is in another letter: “The others I met by pure chance. I met you because I needed to.”

Would someone so careful leave his loved one so exposed? This is the theory that Mônica challenges, going against studies that argue that the New State was totally anti-Semitic as a matter of official and secret policy. “The management of Jewish immigration can be included within a bigger movement, like the discussion about the restrictions to the Japanese, which preceded the measures against the Jews. The secret was normal in an authoritarian state and the criticism suffered in 1934 because of the immigration measures led the authorities to maintain these discussions in secret, and not only about Jews,” she observes.

Luciana Whitaker / Folhapress

Aracy in her apartment in Copacabana (1992)Luciana Whitaker / Folhapress

For Monica, the quota law was not an original Brazilian intervention, neither was the country alone in this, with the USA preceding us by a decade. “The bases of the restrictive immigration policy, even the ethnic ones, started before the Jewish refugees.” The notorious “secret circular 1127,” on the entry of Jews, already stated that: “Because of information repeatedly received from diplomatic missions, the federal government knows that countless waves of Semites have been coming here to Brazil and that the governments of other nations are making efforts to get them out of their territories.” According to Mônica, this reveals that the reason for the measure was exaggerated information from diplomatic representations that talked about an “invasion of waves of Semites.” Furthermore, the interest of the government is to attract labor for agriculture, for which 80% of the visas were reserved.

“Of course there was racism, but there were no clear rules and it all depended on the goodwill of the employee and his personal prejudices. Brazilians were diametrically opposed to the Nazis, who wanted to isolate the Jews. Here the fear did not only concern Jews, but was the formation of ‘cysts’ of non integrated immigrants, because of the Vargas policy that preached the merging of immigrants into national society.” It was a restrictive immigration policy for all and for Jews specifically. “There was more fear of the Germans in Brazil, who were watched by the government. The explosion of international anti-Semitism was accompanied by indifference to the destiny of the Jews. This focused more on restrictions than on the anti-Semitism of the national ruling elite, since Jews were not repressed by Vargas,” analyzes Mônica. Here, in place of degeneration, foreigners brought progress. “National mythology devalued blacks and valued immigrants who were able to rebuild their lives and merge into the masses.”

Therefore, without belittling the courage of Aracy, her actions were not at risk from the Nazis, who wanted to get rid of the Jews. The risk was the Brazilian government. “Risks occurred with people like Souza Dantas who, when he was submitted to an enquiry, suffered no punishment. The same did not happen with a ‘Righteous’ Portuguese, ambassador Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the consul in Bordeaux, who granted visas to more than 30,000 Jews until he was dismissed by the Salazar regime and died in poverty.” None of this reduced the courage and philosemitism of Aracy, who in 1950 in Paris with Rosa, complained of the difficulty of getting visas for Jews, although she had no function in the embassy. This fighting character helped Rosa reinforce and mold his ideal of diplomacy. “A diplomat is a dreamer and because of this I could never be a politician, who engages in irrational acts. Perhaps I’m a politician, but one of those who only plays chess when they can do it in favor of mankind. Politicians think in minutes. I think about the resurrection of man,” he said in an interview, establishing an unusual separation between diplomat and politician.

“When talking about his actions in Hamburg, he used to say that as a `man of the backlands` he was unable to witness injustice. For him, the tyranny of the politician was injustice. For him, the activity of the Rosas in favor of the Jews was not an example of political action, something that Nazism did, but a diplomatic action. When nothing escapes tyranny, it is necessary to open up a breach in the wall of injustice. This motivated the separation: reason from justice,” analyzes ambassador Heloísa Vilhena de Araújo, author of Guimarães Rosa, diplomata [Guimarães Rosa: diplomat]. There was only freedom in dreams. “Here concepts are inverted. In fact, the reality was Rosa’s diplomatic action in saving lives; the dream, the nightmare, was Nazism. So in Hamburg, switching off politics was a political act at the highest degree of refinement. Here politics finds its limits and turns against itself.”


The young couple pose for a photograph in Hamburg in 1939, far from the bombing and gunsJONNE RORIZ / AGÊNCIA ESTADO

This is clearly presented in the notes in the “German diary.” “I’m writing in bed, to the sound of the explosion of flak (anti aircraft artillery). They are like resounding blows from enormous fists in the elastic bowl of the upper air. Others rumble festively. Some play a drum,” he noted in 1940. “These are clearly poetic, despite the fury of the moment. In order not to succumb to the horror of war the sounds are allegories of a giant with ‘enormous fists’. Rosa’s text becomes a flight from the ‘commonplace daily problems’. Avoiding the cruelty of the reality is an essential criterion for survival,” observes João Batista Sobrinho, a professor at UFMG and author of O narrável da guerra e o céu de Hamburgo (2009) [Tales of the war and the skies over Hamburg].

The same may explain the countless visits to the Hamburgo zoo, which are listed in his diary, a moment for reflection, writing notes and drawing animals. “The fixation with animal life and the almost obsessive observation of German nature was the poetic proposal of Rosa for dislocating not only the common features of human survival, but also of the threat of death arising from the war. In the notes war is animalized, is naturalized, in an effort to reduce its destructive action,” notes the researcher from UFMG Eneida Maria de Souza, from the “German diary” group. “The ‘metaphorization’ of war, thanks to animal mediation, is not only a reinforcement of barbarism, but on the contrary a mutual attraction and a disturbing familiarity.” Rosa writes: “I’m working on the last part of ‘O burrinho pedrês’ [The little piebald donkey]. The sirens have bellowed. Alarm!” This is one of the many “animalized” passages relating to the bombings, which are capable of “staining the clouds with the colors of Zebu cows,” with “cannons accelerating in time to the gobbling of an irate turkey.” “These are associations that make the interpretation of the political spectacle, like a backlands spectacle, an ‘explosion of cattle’. It is metamorphosis operated by the backlands writer in the midst of bombs. The war is interpreted through the oblique eye of the diarist-writer, committed to the constant discovery of  language capable of transforming facts into fiction, personal impressions into language creations,” says Eneida.

There is even guilt because of impotence as in some tales in the book Ave, Palavra [Hail, Word]: “O mau humor de Wotan” [Wotan’s bad temper], “A senhora dos segredos” [The lady of secrets] and “A velha” [The old woman]. In the latter two, the narrator works in an embassy and his characters, women, ask for help to leave Germany. The narrator denies the visa. “This is a new and different way of speaking about Nazi barbarism, through women, and not through male leaders. They are common people, shaken by the happenings, helpless victims, incapable of controlling history and subject to the decisions of the regime,” analyzes the historian from USP, Jaime Ginzburg, author of Guimarães Rosa e o terror total (2008) [Guimarães Rosa and total terror]. “No one can be saved, although Brazil appears as the hope for freedom. The narrator also controls the historical process and the limitations of his capacity to intervene in the violence of war is revealed.” In Rosa’s literary texts there is a questioning of the actions of Brazil (and of the writer-diplomat himself) in the years that Jews were denied visas.

“From this results the importance of analyzing the union between Rosa and Aracy in helping the Jews. The diplomat lives with the writer, to the extent that the subject returns both to issues of foreign policy and to the construction of a fable-like universe. It was the experience of the diplomat with the woman that revealed the coexistence between the ambassador and the brave and fearless man from the backlands,” explains Eneida. “He also helped to build the relation between nature and the world of violence in his books; a practice born out of contact with European culture in the crisis of war and a distortion of the principles of citizenship and freedom, leading the writer to mistrust the appeal of modern rationality, contaminated by the destruction and the disintegration of values,” evaluates the researcher.