|Português Deutsch Français|
Review: Serpa Pinto, the Ship of Destiny
On 29th August 1940 – one week after Stefan Zweig arrived in Brazil for the second time – the Portuguese passenger ship Serpa Pinto docked at Praça Mauá, in Rio de Janeiro, with 420 refugees on board. Among them was author Leopold Stern, born in Romania, but who wrote in French. In Brazil, he not only became an active member of the local P.E.N. Club, but wrote several works, among them the book Rio de Janeiro et moi. Stern kept regular contact with Stefan Zweig and, after the latter’s death, noted down his thoughts about suicide and the Austrian writer in the book The Death of Stefan Zweig.
For the ship Serpa Pinto this wasn’t the first nor the last time it would bring fugitives from Nazism from Europe, where their lives were at risk, to the safety of the Americas. The Serpa Pinto was one of the few packet ships which for the entire duration of the war maintained links between Rio de Janeiro, Lisbon and New York. Because of this courageous act on behalf of the ties between Portugal and Brazil, it went down in history as a “hero ship” and “friendship vessel”. Many Jewish refugees taken by the Serpa Pinto found a new home in North or South America. Among others, Jorge Mautner’s family and the scientist couple Regine and Fritz Feigl managed to flee to Rio de Janeiro by this route.
In the Spring of 1942, however, the Serpa Pinto was to become a ship of destiny for Nazis and Jews alike. The moving story of its two Atlantic crossings, from Rio de Janeiro to Lisbon and, later, from Lisbon to New York, is told by Rosine De Dijn in the book Das Schicksalsschiff. Rio de Janeiro-Lissabon-New York 1942 (The Ship of Destiny. Rio de Janeiro-Lisbon-New York, 1942).
In May 1942, captain Américo dos Santos took a very special group of passengers from Brazil to Europe. They were German descendents and their Brazilian families serving in Santa Catarina as diplomats of the Third Reich, who wanted “heim ins Reich”, “to go home to the Reich” and fight for the Führer in the war.
Based on diaries, letters, interviews with contemporary witnesses, Rosine de Dijn reconstructs a fascinating insight into the trajectories of two families from this group, from their emigration to Brazil in the middle of the 19th century, through the crisis of the 1920’s, the difficult process of adaptation in a tropical country, to the decision which resulted in their return to their original homeland.
Although these German immigrants had sought to rebuild their lives in Brazil and form new roots, they cultivated and cherished the German culture, gastronomic habits, business traditions, clubs and German language publications. In this milieu, Nazism became an attraction for many followers.
The greater the difficulties caused by the dictatorship regime of Getúlio Vargas, which although to begin with took a neutral position regarding the war, adopted severe nationalization policies regarding minorities from other countries. This resulted in heavy restrictions on mobility and the social lives of those of German, Italian and Japanese origins, throughout the war. Among other measures, publications, classes and worship in foreign languages were forbidden. The ban was extended to these ethnic minorities’ clubs and institutions. There were arrests and the internment of citizens from the countries belonging to the Axis, because of suspicions of forming a Fifth Column.
It is therefore no wonder that Gustav Buchholtz, one of the protagonists, noted down the following thoughts in his diary: “We’re in Brazil, far from the theater of war. But the tendency among the natives is to be against us, I feel that. They don’t like us, are afraid of us. It would be terrible if Germany lost the war! With God’s help, Germany will win […]. Forward with our Adolf Hitler!!! […] Here unfortunately, abroad, we can do little more than be proud of Germany and the fact that we are Germans. But we cannot openly declare our joy because Brazil is neutral!! Only second-rate newspapers can openly promote insulting campaigns, sullying the name of our Führer and his men, but we can’t even celebrate the unique feats of our young Wehrmacht in the History of the world.“ The decision to return home was, therefore, just a logical consequence, since the measures taken by the Vargas regime foresaw risks for the future of children educated in Brazil under German customs.
While the ocean crossing stayed in the memories of the Germans as happy days of lavish banquets and an Equatorial baptism, a few days later, in early June 1942, the Serpa Pinto became the final refuge for almost 700 refugees, most of them Jewish, among them Marcel Duchamp, Simone Weil and Pierre Dreyfus, the son of Alfred Dreyfus. This journey to New York and their freedom were far more difficult for most of the passengers.
Once again, Rosine De Dijn uses detailed descriptions of the trajectory of the Jewish refugees from Belgium to illustrate the destiny of this group of passengers. She delicately reconstructs the dramatic and traumatic escape across an increasingly anti-Semitic Europe occupied by the Nazis. Decades later, the terrible scenes in which the childhoods of these protagonists came to an end, are still alive in their memories. “We were all interrogated. Even my little nine year-old sister. Mireille was interrogated and threatened with the great hellfire, should she tell a lie.”
In some cases, the recollections only came back with the interviews for this book: “I don’t know what is better for me – to keep closed the Pandora’s box or open it?” Many had the clear and painful idea that, in the worst cases, remaining silent could lead to suicide. They knew that the successful escape aboard the Serpa Pinto was no foregone conclusion. “We were lucky [...] very lucky”.
The notes by Rosine De Dijn don’t end with the arrival at the final destination. She allows the reader to follow the Germans who had lived abroad and became disillusioned with their old homeland and the lack of gratitude for their sacrifice, and who after the war ended up returning to Brazil, since the women and children had Brazilian citizenship. In the same way, the reader relives the difficult new start made by the Jewish refugees in the USA. The author also narrates the threats by the German Navy to the Serpa Pinto and its captain Américo after 1942. The ship only narrowly escaped foundering in 1944.
With her exciting book about the “ship of destiny”, the Serpa Pinto, Rosine De Dijn doesn’t only reveal a to this day unknown episode in recent history to a broader audience, but also adds to an important aspect of German-Brazilian history.