The story of the brazilian ambassador who saved more than 400 jews from nazism


Porto Alegre (CJL-OJI) – Under the title ”A deserved though late homage”, the newspaper ”Folha Judaica” of Rio Grande do Sul Israel Federação publishes the following interview belonging to Kerley Tolpolar.

”In the 475 pages of the thesis of his master’s degree in History presented to the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ in its original language), 37 year-old Fábio Koifman, from Rio de Janeiro, scrutinized the life of the Brazilian Ambassador Luiz Martins de Souza Dantas, who served in France during the Holocaust.

Souza Dantas, who was more of an Agnostic than a Catholic, risked his position – and his own life – by granting entry visas to Brazil for persecuted Jews in Europe by Hitler’s regime. This fact, still not very well known in Brazil itself, is the topic of Koifman’s thesis, that must contribute to the acknowledgement process of Souza Dantas (as a Righteous Gentile) by the Iad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum working in Israel.

According to the historian from Rio de Janeiro, what the ambassador did adjusts to the three conditions (to put his life and position at risk and to have saved an important number of people), to be granted the honorific distinction ”righteous among the Nations” which recognizes non-Jewish people who saved Jews during the Second World War, as it took place, for example, with Oskar Schindler (who was the topic of the motion picture filmed by Steven Spielberg).

In this exclusive interview for ”Folha Judaica”, the historian anticipates what he has discovered after three years of investigation about Souza Dantas performance in the Brazilian Embassy in Paris. The book – which rebuilds the Ambassador’s trajectory, who, even though put into evidence by (who was at that time the Brazilian president) Getúlio Vargas, managed to save more than 400 people – will be launched next year by Record Publishing. The most important parts of the interview to Fábio Koifman by ”Folha Judaica” are transcribed hereafter

”Folha Judaica”: How was it possible for Souza Dantas to have saved so many people form the destiny that was general in Europe for six million Jews? What mechanisms did he count to bring them to Brazil?

Fábio Koifman: Well, in fact he was not acting alone. The ambassador granted free diplomatic visas to people who were not diplomats or their relatives. By granting them, he acted alone, by himself. But some other times he obtained travel documents for people who did not have a passport from friends he had in other diplomatic representations. He also had received help from some Consuls, such as the ones in Cadiz and Casablanca. Dantas was destined to Paris at the end of 1922 and stayed there until June 1940, withdrawing – due to the German invasion – to the city of Vichy, together with the French government. The visas were basically granted between June 1940 and January 1941.

”F. J.” How these saved people were chosen?

F.K.: It is imprecise. By what I have been able to perceive, those who managed somehow to get to the ambassador, were saved. Among them, there were people of all conditions. Some had relatives or money in Brazil, others came to him without having anything. Others counted with the help of societies such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (an organization with the aim of getting Jews threatened by Nazism out of Europe). Each one followed the usual route of the refugee. Some returned to Europe after 1945, others stayed forever in Brazil, such as the theater director Zbignew Ziembinski, who had run away form Poland and was the first to put on stage Nelson Rodrigues’ plays. And many never got to Brazil because they used the Brazilian visas to leave Europe and head for other destinations.

”F. J.” If caught, what risks did Souza Dantas really face?

F. K.: He could have lost his position and suffer an administrative investigation, for example, as in fact happened. Getúlio Vargas’s government discovered later that he had ordered in 1941, without superior authorization, the consuls in Cadiz and Casablanca to revalidate the expired visas of refugees. During the second semester of the year 1941 the control over foreigner people entering Brazil was intensified and the authorities could discover that some of them were entering with visas granted by Souza Dantas without authorization from his superiors or obeying what was stipulated about it in the law, and revalidated by consuls who based on orders given by Souza Dantas, equally not authorized and illegal. Another diplomat also lodged a complain against Souza Dantas by the end of 1940, which started a prosecution. This accusation was filed in August 1942 by orders of Getúlio Vargas, just before Brazil declared war on Germany and its allied countries. During that time Souza Dantas was technically retired and, to be honest, nobody wanted to punish him at that precise time and due to the situations taking place.

”F. J.” How many Jews did he save from the Holocaust?

F. K.: I have located 425 survivors, though it is impossible to estimate the exact number because there is not a list and many of them could not be found, or used the Brazilian visa to leave Europe and go somewhere else. Of all the people he helped it has not always been clear to establish the causes that made them desperately want to abandon Europe. But there was a great possibility that they were Jews, communists or homosexuals. In some cases I could not clearly determine the reason of their escape, in other cases they told me personally. Some of them were not Jews by feeling of religious identification, but were so classified by the Nazi laws.

”F. J.” How did you discovered about Souza Dantas’ story?

F. K.: By the anthropologist Katia Lerner, who collected the testimonies of Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Shoá Foundation. In the testimony given by Raphael Zimetbaum, he remembered that he had been saved together with his family by Souza Dantas.

”F. J.” Are there other works about Souza Dantas?

F. K.: No, he is very little mentioned and only in some books. Generally, he is cited superficially and with many mistakes. The Biographical Historic Dictionary from the Brazil contemporary History Investigation and Documentation Center, belonging to Getúlio Vargas’s Foundation, for example, in the 1985 edition has eleven mistakes in its entry about this Ambassador. They are preparing a new edition, where they will include the corrections I made. Until I started my work, nobody had started a serious investigation about Souza Dantas.

”F. J.” How did you develop your thesis?

F. K.: I started at the beginning of the year 1997 and I finished collecting information in April 2000. Since then until January of this year, I left behind all my responsibilities and fully dedicated to the writing of the text. I put together more than 7,500 copies of documents and I performed 55 interviews registered in 30 hours of tape. It is a lot of material and responsibility to honor the memory of such an important as well as unknown personality. The greatest difficulty was the lack of money to afford my expenditures in search of files, trips to make interviews and telephonic calls to other states of the country. Between August 1999 and July 2000 I received a financial assistance of more than 700 reals a month from the Protection to Investigation Foundation, from Rio de Janeiro, that was not even enough to afford the microfilm I did at the National File. I consider to have been lucky during my investigations because I was certain that I was doing something good. Souza Dantas deserved it”.

Some lines written by the historian Fábio Koifman.

Under the title An Agnostic who loved life above all”, Fábio Koifman writes the following in ”Folha Judaica” from Porto Alegre.

”Souza Dantas in theory was a Catholic; in reality, however, he did not believe in anything. He liked Paris, theater, music, the circus and to seduce the actresses of French comedy. He was not fond of material things and died in Paris in 1954, in a little hotel room, with very simple possessions.

”He died at the age of 78, consuming morphine due to the pain caused by his prostate and the problems in his legs. According to the medical report of that time, the cause of death was attributed to colibacilosis, uremia and gangrene”.

He got married by church in Paris in 1933, when he was 57 years old, with Elise Stern, a lady a little bit older than him, who was of Jewish origin. She left Europe before June 1940 and headed for the United

States. They only came together again in 1944. The fact that Elise had been Jewish does not seem to have influenced in his helping action of those persecuted by Nazism.

”Since 1940 Souza Dantas informed Itamaraty (The Brazilian Department of Foreign Affairs) in its offices, about the horrors that Jews were suffering in Europe. Form July 1942 he started to send reports about the deportation of Jews, for example in the trains that departed crowded with them to Poland. The destiny that most of them suffered, we all know”.

Translated into Spanish by the OJI editorial office.
Translated into English by IRWF