A Brazilian Hero

Souza Dantas’ biography, the Oscar Schindler from Brazil, is finally published

At the beginning of the forties, to challenge the most banal orientations of the New State was frightening. According to the case, the inevitable destination was prison. It was a much worse period for Europe, where the advance of the Nazi occupation established an atmosphere of terror.

In that scenario, the most intense chapter in the life of Ambassador Luis Martins de Souza Dantas took place. During twenty years Souza Dantas was in charge of the Brazilian diplomatic mission in France. Moved for what he later called ”a Christian feeling of mercy”, he challenged both dictatorships at the same time. He granted diplomatic visas to enter Brazil to hundreds of people who, from the point of view of the Brazilian immigration policy, were considered undesirable. They were Jews, communists and homosexuals who were running away from the horror of Nazism. With his actions, Souza Dantas saved about 800 people from extermination. He became the Brazilian equivalent of the German industrial Oskar Schindler, who saved 1,200 people from the Holocaust, in accordance with what was narrated by Steven Spielberg in his movie, ”Schindler’s List”. The memory of the diplomat’s actions was forgotten for years. Only now it is starting to be given its real place in history. During April, the process of acknowledgement of the Ambassador as a ”Righteous Among the Nations” will be started. He will become one of the few to receive such distinction from the Holocaust Museum, in Israel, only granted to those who, under the Nazi yoke, risked themselves for other people’s good.

Souza Dantas’ actions are not yet in schoolbooks. For decades they were restricted to the memory of those families he helped. An important part of that story was confined to the documents of the bureaucracy of the State, kept as memos in the historical files of Itamaraty (Brazilian State Department) and in the National File. By putting together those two sources of information, the historian from Rio de Janeiro, Fabio Koifman, built a more precise biography of the Ambassador. The result is the dissertation of his master’s degree at the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ in its original language). The more than 7,500 documents he put together helped him make the list of the 425 Jews saved by Souza Dantas, who are the foundation of the acknowledgement process of the Holocaust Museum. Out of the testimonies picked during those four years of work, impressive stories arise hitherto unknown such as the director of the Polish Theater Zbigniew Ziembinski, considered one of the greatest scenic arts revolutionaries in Brazil. It was due to Souza Dantas that he arrived Rio de Janeiro in 1941, after wandering through Europe in search of an exit of the hell of war. ”I had people lying on the floor, next to the embassies, begging, waiting, subjected to the worst derisions, to the worst tortures”, remembered Ziembinski years later in an unprecedented registry of his memories. ”Until the moment that, suddenly, we learnt that there was a Quixote… the famous ambassador Dantas”.

Ziembinski, whose Jewish origin was never corroborated, was among the hundreds of people who came to Brazil in the ships that sailed through the Atlantic. The travel was not a major problem. The greatest obstacle for the refugees was not to get a ship, though they were rare. The necessary visas to get to the destination countries were hard to obtain. As it happens nowadays, the exodus of refugees was a ghost to many nations. In Brazil, there was another problem added to the list of difficulties, the contrary orientation to the Jewish immigration. Nevertheless, being aware of the risk involved in contradicting Vargas, Souza Dantas ordered to open the doors of his embassy in Vichy, where the diplomatic representation was transferred after the Nazi occupation of France.

His courage, meanwhile, brought him problems, such as an investigation opened by the administrative department of the public service in charge of Vargas. He was accused of granting irregular visas. In an Itamaraty telegram, Souza Dantas affirmed in his defense that after the prohibition he did not grant ”even a visa”. It was a lie. By disobeying express orders, he still saved dozens of people. The living proof of the diplomat’s lack of fear came to Koifman by means of the testimony of the Polish Chana Strozemberg, whose visa was issued in January 1941, a month after the prohibition, but with false information.

To put in practice these actions of solidarity, Souza Dantas used the most diverse files. He granted diplomatic visas to bearers of ordinaries passports, so that they possessed a greater possibility of acceptance. Some of them did not even have the document. He usually wrote in French on the passports to facilitate the reading at the boarding port. In spite of using a foreign language, French, in a paper destined to the Brazilian immigration authorities, at least he followed the routine procedure for the sealing. Koifman assures that it was one of the many cases of visas granted to people. In other cases, he was a mediator to colleagues of other embassies to obtain visas as if they were Brazilians. The best of the ambassador’s memories is that in a time where many diplomats sold visas and accepted jewels as payment, he was never corrupted. Chana Strozemberg’s husband, in gratitude, insisted on Souza Dantas to accept him a present. As an answer he heard a suggestion: that he should donate it to the International Red Cross. The list of assets left by the diplomat, picked at his room in the Great Hotel of Paris, where he lived when he died in 1954, registers as the most valuable item a gold necklace with the medallion of the Rio Branco baron. From Koifman’s careful work arises one of the most dignifying Brazilian biographies.