Special to the JTA the Jews of Brazil
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Special to the JTA the Jews of Brazil

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Jews as individuals have always worked on human rights and social justice during Brazil’s authoritarian regimes, but there has been no community stance. Rabbi Henry Sobel of Congregacao Israelita Paulista here is considered the outstanding example of an individual who is a leader of the community, and at the forefront of the human rights struggle.

Sobel’s reputation stems from his courageous stand at the time of Vladimir Herzog’s death in 1975. All discussions about the involvement of the Jewish community with the issue of human rights in Brazil seem to emanate from this one focal point: the so-called Herzog affair.


Herzog was a well-known Brazilian journalist. He taught at the University of Sao Paulo, and was director of the Department of Journalism at TV-Cultura. He was a Jewish leftist, with former ties to the Communist Party. According to Sobel: “Herzog was a Jew. Not an observant Jew, but a Jew. A Jew with great intellectual capacity, universal in his vision and deeply committed to humanitarian causes, both in Brazil and abroad.”

On Monday, October 27, 1975, the newspapers reported Herzog’s death, at the age of 38. He was found dead in his prison cell, and the official explanation issued by the army was that he had committed suicide. He had been arrested that weekend, summoned to “intensive hearings” at the International Operations Department of the Second Army Division, Sao Paulo.

“We were then at the height of repression in this country,” Sobel recalled. “Unfortunately, Vlado (Herzog) was nor the first nor the last to suffer at the hands of a totalitarian regime.”

Sobel said that he consulted with the people from the Chevra Kadisha, the congregation’s burial society, who are responsible for the washing and purification of a body before burial. Three witnesses affirmed to him (in confidence, out of fear) that they had found visible signs of torture on Herzog’s body. The Brazilian authorities had issued a communique claiming that a suicide note in Herzog’s handwriting had been found in his cell.


Herzog’s funeral took place on Monday, October 27, at the Jewish Cemetery in the Butanta section of Sao Paulo. “The funeral had wide repercussions in the local and international press,” Sobel said. “In addition to the tragic circumstances of the death, a large number of the 600 people who had attended the funeral had the impression it had not been celebrated according to traditional Jewish rites.

“In an interview which I gave to the press on the following day, I clarified that the burial rites had been strictly observed, in accordance with Jewish law. I stressed, furthermore, that the Jewish community was shocked by the violation of Herzog’s fundamental human rights, and that he had been the victim of a system which killed him. I declared categorically to the press that Herzog had been buried with all due honors as a Jew, as a Brazilian, as a human being.

“According to Jewish law, a suicide is buried on the outskirts of the cemetery,” the rabbi explained. “It is a way of condemning visibly the sin committed by a person who destroys his own life. This was not the case at Vlado’s funeral; he was buried right in the center of the burial grounds.”

Sobel continued: “I was extremely concerned not only with the barbarity of the crime, but also with the unfavorable image of indifference attributed to the Jewish community. I made a point of declaring to the press that the synagogue supported human rights as strongly as the (Catholic) Church, and that Jews were as disgusted and distressed with Herzog’s death as all other Brazilians.”

With the notable exception of Sobel, the Jewish community generally remained silent. A few days after Herzog’s death, the journalists’ union requested an ecumenical service. Sobel participated, along with Cardinal Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns and Rev. Jaime Wright, representing the Protestants.


The Jewish community was not happy with Sobel’s forthright and vocal stand, nor with his participation in the ecumenical service. For the most part, since the 1950’s the Jews of Brazil had survived and thrived by not making waves. They kept alow profile, took car of problems through personal contacts with individual members of the military regime, and gingerly guarded their economic prosperity.

Sobel had arrived in Sao Paulo in 1970, soon after his ordination from Hebrew Union College. Criticisms from the Jewish community, he recalled, included such statements as: “It’s easy to be brave when you have an American passport,” and “Sobel behaved like an American, rather than a Brazilian.”

Sobel says now that he had tacit approval from only one leader of the community, but an important one: Dr. Benno Milnitzky, president of the Confederacao Israelita do Brazil, the umbrella organization for Brazil’s Jewish community.

“Jewish representatives were conspicuously absent from the ecumenical service, but I had quietly been given the ‘green light’ by Benno,” Sobel said. Milnitzky, a Sao Paulo attorney who was Confederacao president in 1975 and holds that position today, concurred.

One leader of the community who asked to remain anonymous told this reporter that he personally interceded with a Minister of the military government to prevent Sobel from being exiled. Sobel said that his exile was a distinct possibility, but that no one in the Jewish community came to his aid. Sobel did, however make a special trip to Brasilia to advise the American Ambassador of his plans to participate in the ecumenical service.

“Everyone was scared and terror was rampant in 1975,” Sobel recalled. “Anyone who spoke out on human rights was labeled subversive. The Jewish community kept a super-low profile. It was an act of defiance even to go to the ecumenical service.”


Critics and proponents of Sobel’s action now agree that the 1975 Herzog affair and subsequent ecumenical service was a turning point in the repressive military regime. Approximately 8,000 people filled the Sao Paulo Cathedral on October 31. Among them were federal legislators, university professors, students and representatives of student councils. Shortly after the service, President Ernesto Geisel fired the Commander of the Second Army, Sao Paulo, who had been responsible for Herzog’s death.

The rabbi emphasized that Herzog was not arrested for being a Jew. “He was arrested, interrogated, tortured and murdered because of his leftist ideology and his former connections with the Communist Party,” Sobel said.

“He happened to be a Jew. But the reaction would have been exactly the same had he been a Catholic or a Moslem or Budhist. Analyzing the episode in retrospect, it would have been extremely harmful if anyone, individual or institution, would have protested against the murder of a Jew. In Herzog’s case, I am fully convinced, there were no anti-Semitic connotations whatsoever.”

(Tomorrow: Part Three)

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