A Brazilian Jewish Childhood
By Marc Raizman
In my group of friends when the conversation stalls, one of them to annoy me will ask me to sing those Italian Fascist songs they have heard from me before. What he has in mind are rousers like "Giovinezza," or "Faccetta Nera," all hit-parade musts in Italy during the Mussolini era.
Invariably, an outsider to the group will pose the trite cliché, "How does a nice Jewish boy like you happen to know Fascist songs?"
Every mystery has an explanation and mine, while long, is a simple one.
In 1936, as a child growing up in the Jewish neighborhood of Bom Retiro in São Paulo, I had just completed four years of elementary schooling. The time had come for my parents and I to decide where and how to continue my education. One possibility was to take the much dreaded entrance examination at the free, government-sponsored Collegio Estadual, a seven-year high school. It was dreaded because there were generally 2,000 or more candidates for 100 open vacancies available yearly.
My parents weren't sure I could withstand the onslaught that such written and oral examinations would require. Every year when the names of the 100 who had made it were published, the six or so Jewish boys or girls who had passed the examination became heroes in our neighborhood. Even their parents gained stature in the community and suddenly became experts to be consulted on how future applicants should go about preparing for the entrance examinations.
The other possibility was to enroll me in one of the many for-profit private schools. My parents had limited financial resources and attending a private school was something they would have trouble affording.
However, one day, my father, who was a journalist, returned from a meeting at the São Paulo Press Association, of which he was a founding member his press card carried the number 73 excited with the information that a private high school was offering four scholarships to children of newspapermen. This was an unusual and exciting offer except that it posed a number of questions for a Jewish family.
The school, the Instituto Italo-Brasileiro Dante Alighieri, was owned by an Italo-Brazilian association which was sponsored and funded by the Italian government which at the time was run by Mussolini. Clearly, the school's objective was to co-opt the allegiance of the thousands of Italians who had emigrated to Brazil and especially to São Paulo which in the 1940s comprised 50 percent of the city's population. Walking down the street in the summer, you were more likely to hear opera coming out of open windows than sambas.
Dante, as it was called for short, was widely acknowledged to be an outstanding secondary school and among the best in the country. However, it was on the opposite side of the city and to reach it from Bom Retiro, our self-imposed ghetto, would require taking two streetcars, 30 minutes ride each way.
These were the years before World War II and the Italians were eager to win the support of Brazilian newspapermen for the war that loomed on the horizon. That must have been one reason for the scholarship offers.
I won one of the scholarships and became a Dante student. The teaching staff was made up of Italian and Brazilian professors. Several of the Italian professors had taught at the university level in Italy and had been assigned by the Italian government to teach in Brazil. Some of the Brazilian instructors were of Italian descent but others were not.
Once at Dante it became evident to me that the student body represented every social class in the community. In our classrooms, sons and daughters of multimillionaire industrialists sat next to sons and daughters of cab drivers and factory workers, and, in my case, a kid from a Jewish neighborhood. The children from wealthy families came to school in chauffeur-driven cars while most of us, including myself, took public transportation, mainly streetcars. Once in school, there was no difference in how rich or poor students were treated.
While I was delighted to be attending a school with such a fine reputation, there were drawbacks. Schools in Brazil must follow the prescribed program for each grade as set by the country's Ministry of Education. At Dante, this was covered in the morning hours. However, in the afternoon, when kids in my neighborhood were free to play soccer or go swimming, I had to return to Dante to attend the Italian Liceo program which ran from 1:30 to 3:30. These afternoon classes were in Italian and included Italian history, literature and Latin. That is where I learned to speak Italian.
I wasn't aware of negative comments by our Jewish neighbors but I am sure that many did not approve of my attending a "Fascist school."
In the late 30s and early 40s, Mussolini instituted a number of anti-Semitic laws, but at Dante, in far-off Brazil, these laws had no impact. In my case, no one at the school ever said anything that could be interpreted as a fallout from the Italian laws.
I was the only student of Eastern European Jewish origin. Most of the kids in the school knew me as Jewish if for no other reason that I lived in a noted Jewish neighborhood.
There were a number of Italian Jewish students in the school but not one of them ever walked up to me and said "I too am a Jew." I knew from reading that Ottolenghis, Segres, Lattes and Tedeschi were Italian Jewish family names. Obviously, they felt no need to connect with a non-Italian Jew.
I occasionally ran into problems at Dante but they were mainly because I caused them. An example was at the cathecism class taught once a week by a Jesuit priest. The practice was for the students not interested in the class to move to the back of the classroom and keep busy quietly by doing homework or reading a text. I refused to do so and I had to stand alone in the school's corridor during the 50-minute class.
One of the requirements for the afternoon Italian literature class was for the students to purchase a copy of "Crestomatia Italiana," a 500-page anthology with writings by leading Italian writers and poets but also had a number of photos of Mussolini. One of the montage photos had Il Duce sitting on a white horse which itself stood on top of a world globe. Another photo showed a shirtless Mussolini cutting wheat side-by-side with Po Valley peasants. I know that many of my classmates thought such preening photos of "Musso" were over the top.
One year, Mussolini's three sons, who were flyers, and Edda Ciano, his daughter, came to Brazil on an official visit and the itinerary included a visit to the Dante Alighieri school. It was for this occasion that we learned to sing several Italian fascist songs, and that was when I learned those songs.
Halfway through WWII, Brazil, which originally had favored the Axis Powers, shifted its position and sided with the Allies. In fact, Brazil sent an expeditionary force to fight in Italy with the American 5th Army. When Brazil broke diplomatic relations with Germany and Italy, the Italian professors at Dante, including Dr. Venturi, were repatriated.
When the diplomatic break came, the school changed names and administration. I had still one year to go before graduation and I became concerned that the new Brazilian administration might not be bound by the terms of my scholarship. That was never an issue and I graduated from Dante in 1944.
I should add that during WWII, the U.S. Dante Alighieri society was listed by the U.S. Attorney General as a subversive organization.
A couple of years ago I chanced meeting a Dante classmate who had married an American and was living in the United States. I gathered enough courage to ask her for the impression I might have made, being a Jewish kid from the other side of town.
Her comment was "We were at Dante to get the best possible education and we assumed that was your reason for being there too. To be honest, I had totally forgotten about your being Jewish until you mentioned it a moment ago."
While I often thought of my years at Dante as traumatic, a school where I rightly didn't belong, I now find to my surprise that my classmates simply ignored my Jewishness and considered me just another classmate.
A couple of years ago I flew to Brazil to attend Dante's 60th graduation anniversary. At this reunion, no one asked me if I still remembered how to sing the old Fascist tunes.
Marc Raizman, a former foreign correspondent and journalist, is retired and lives in Boulder, Colorado, USA. His article on a Red Light District foisted on a Jewish São Paulo, Brazil, neighborhood appeared in Jewish Magazine on October 2004.
from the Febuary 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine