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Arts & Culture Film on Brazilian Jew ‘given’ to Hitler Takes Brazil by Storm

September 20, 2004
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Six decades after she was given to Hitler as a gift by Brazilian dictator Getulio Vargas, Brazilians are being introduced to Olga Benario. Based on the best seller of the same title by Fernando Morais, “Olga” has become one of the most popular films of the year in Brazil.

The 385,968 people who saw the film over its opening weekend in theaters earlier this year made it the most-watched among Brazilian films in 2004; by its second week more than 1 million people had seen the movie about Benario, who died in a Nazi gas chamber in 1942.

On Tuesday, the Brazilian Ministry of Culture was slated to choose the country’s entry in the 2005 Oscar race for foreign film, and “Olga” was considered to be one of the favorites.

Benario was born in a Jewish family in Munich, Germany, in 1908, and joined the Communist Youth Organization at the age of 15.

In 1934, she was entrusted with guaranteeing the safe return of Communist leader! Luis Carlos Prestes to Brazil. While posing as husband and wife, the pair fell in love.

After the failure of the Communist revolution the next year, Benario and Prestes were arrested and separated from each other. As an act of personal vengeance against Prestes, Vargas had Olga, seven months pregnant, deported to Nazi Germany.

On arrival she was taken to a Gestapo women’s prison. On Nov. 27, 1936, exactly one year after the failed revolution, Anita Leocadia was born.

In 1938, Benario was deported to a Nazi concentration camp and she was killed in 1942.

Part of the movie was filmed at Sao Paulo’s 2,000-family Congregacao Israelita Paulista, Brazil’s largest Jewish congregation. For the congregation’s rabbi, Henry Sobel, “The message of Olga Benario’s story is more important for Brazilian non-Jews than it is for Jews.”

He explained that many non-Jews in Brazil do not even know what happened under the Nazi regime — even less so that Vargas admired Hitler.

! “For these Brazilians and especially for the Brazilian youth, the fil m can serve as an educational tool and alert them to the dangers of religious prejudice,” he told JTA.

“Olga has a timely message in light of the resurgence of anti-Semitism around the world,” he added.

Several other locations in Rio de Janeiro were used to shoot the European scenes; snow was made out of foam and shampoo under Rio de Janeiro’s boiling December sun.

Some 900 students from a Brazilian military school dressed in Communist uniforms to watch as the actress playing Olga delivered a speech at the Communist Youth Organization.

Many Brazilian Jews are praising the film, on which Aleksander Henry Laks, the Polish-born president of Rio’s Brazilian Association of Holocaust Survivors — Sherit Hapleita, served as a consultant.

Silvia Rosa Nossek Lerner teaches Jewish History at a Rio Jewish school called Liessin. She recently took all her first- and second-grade students on a field trip to see the film and several activities about the film are scheduled! to take place in class.

“Olga stands for Brazilian Jews as a moment of great discrimination in the Vargas rule. For the Brazilian society, it is a way for them to understand a bit of how the Holocaust was,” Lerner said.

Lerner noted that Olga’s story is not even mentioned in Brazilian schoolbooks. “It’s not a reason for national pride because it’s related to Brazil’s closeness to the Axis during World War II,” she told JTA.

Journalist Miguel Gahiosk Fernandes has been deeply engaged in the fight against anti-Semitism for several years.

“At that time, anti-Semitism was theology, it was before the Second Vatican Council,” he said, referring to the official Catholic document that abolished the position that Jews killed Jesus.

Olga and Prestes’ daughter, Anita Leocadia Benario Prestes, 68, who teaches history at the Rio de Janeiro Federal University, said she is proud of both of her surnames.

Anita was exiled to the former Soviet Union in 1964 when milit! ary rule started in Brazil.

“I am an international Communist like my mother,” she said.

Although they say the film doesn’t have anything to do with it, the Brazilian government recently announced that Prestes will receive some $30,000 from the Amnesty Committee, which she said she will donate to the National Cancer Institute.

She said she liked “Olga,” but can’t help criticizing the end. “My mother was hopeful. The film’s end doesn’t have this hope.”

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