Brazilian bestseller probes fate of Jewish ‘disappeared’

Brazilian bestseller probes fate of Jewish ‘disappeared’

In his latest novel — newly available in English — Bernardo Kucinski fictionalizes the aftermath of his sister’s real-life death

Without her body, Ana Rosa Kucinski's family couldn't perform the standard Jewish mourning rituals. (Illustrative image: YouTube screenshot)
Without her body, Ana Rosa Kucinski's family couldn't perform the standard Jewish mourning rituals. (Illustrative image: YouTube screenshot)

LONDON — Four years ago, on a flight home from Israel, Brazilian journalist and political scientist Bernardo Kucinski had an epiphany. He was reading a Batya Gur novel he picked up at Ben Gurion Airport, “Murder on the Kibbutz,” when it dawned on him that he should write a crime story of his own.

Four weeks later, he’d completed a novel. The book was never published, but it gave him the confidence to write more fiction.

In any case, there was a different story Kucinski knew he wanted to tell — one that was never going to be easy, primarily because nearly all of it was based on truth.

Using a narrative technique that encompasses multiple voices, Kucinski’s “K,” published earlier this year in English, is a novel that elucidates the horrors of a chilling South American phrase from the 1970s: “The disappeared.”

The term refers to the thousands of men and women across Latin America who were secretly abducted from their homes, or on the streets, and then tortured, mutilated and murdered, their fate never officially revealed to their families. Some were members of guerrilla groups fighting the region’s right-wing military juntas, but the majority were non-violent trade unionists and political party activists.

In his novel, Kucinski recalls one man’s fictionalized search for his disappeared daughter, amid an atmosphere of paranoia, fear, intimidation and deceit in Sao Paulo in the early 1970s.

Nearly 40 years after his sister's disappearance, Kucinski still gets emotional when speaking about her death. (Courtesy of Bernardo Kucinski)
Nearly 40 years after his sister’s disappearance, Kucinski still gets emotional when speaking about her death. (Courtesy of Bernardo Kucinski)

The narrative’s protagonist, K — loosely based on Kucinski’s father, Majer Kucinski — is a Jewish refugee who had been a political activist in his native Poland who narrowly escaped the Holocaust, unlike most of his family. The daughter is inspired by Kucinski’s real-life sister.

Now 76, Kucinski, speaking to The Times of Israel in a quiet room in North London, gets visibly emotional when talking about the plot. His eyes still glaze over with grief when he discusses the traumatic episode, nearly 40 years later.

“[My sister’s] disappearance was a tragedy inside a tragedy because in 1974, the dictatorship in Brazil was already agonizing,” he says. “A decision was taken at the top to make a transition to a controlled form of democracy, but part of the military apparatus resisted this — particularly the people involved in the torture and the killings.”

Kucinski’s sister, Ana Rosa Kucinski, was a member of Aliança Nacional Libertadora, the National Liberation Alliance, which engaged in armed struggle. Although she was not involved in military operations herself, she provided support to her husband, Wilson Campos, who ranked high in the organization’s hierarchy.

“K” hit a nerve in Brazil following its publication in 2011, with its first edition selling out in weeks. Soon after, another author, Claudio Guerra, wrote a book about the same subject — the fate of Kucinski‘s sister.

“This man published a book in which he disclosed that he took the body of my sister and her husband,” Kucinski says. “He then burned their bodies in a furnace, exactly like the Nazis did. This happened in an old sugar cane factory. He will never be tried for this because, in Brazil, there is [an amnesty] law that says he cannot be.”

In “Memórias de uma Guerra Suja” (“Memories of a Dirty War“), Guerra doesn’t admit to killing Ana Rosa Kucinski and her husband, but reports that the bodies had bite marks, and that Campos’ fingernails had been ripped out.

“[Guerra] was nothing but a common criminal beforehand. But in Brazil during the 1970s, the military system took help from people from the criminal world to work these death squads,” Kucinski says.

Newly published in English, "K" struck a chord in its author's native Brazil.
Newly published in English, “K” struck a chord in its author’s native Brazil.

“K” evocatively describes the unique ambiguity and psychological distress inflicted on the many thousands of families of the disappeared.

“Besides killing people’s relatives, you create uncertainty and anguish,” he says. “It’s that moment when you have to decide that the relative is not coming back, so you have to make a decision to kill them yourself [in your own mind].”

Much of Kucinski’s narrative sets Brazil’s violent internal conflict into the broader context of the Cold War — Brazil’s far-right leadership combined its human rights abuses with anti-communist rhetoric so that the United States and its Western allies would look the other way.

Percolating within this broader story is the personal guilt that the author’s father felt for failing to recognize the dangers facing his daughter.

One of the reasons, Kucinski believes, was the older man’s obsessive dedication to preserving Yiddish, which had been nearly wiped out by the Holocaust, a theme he returns to many times in the book.

“During that time, my father was holding regular meetings with a group of Yiddish writers in Brazil,” Kucinski says. “He was also a dedicated critic of Yiddish literature. The irony is that he was caring for a dead language instead of living people.”

“My father should have known about my sister’s political activities. He was not a naïve person. He had spent two years in prison in Poland in the 1930s because of his political activities with Linke Poale Zion, the socialist Zionist organization he was instrumental in founding.

“But he was so immersed in the Yiddish language and in Zionism. So my novel was very much inspired by his suffering, and his sudden realization about his daughter’s tragedy.”

Kucinski says Brazilian Jews’ reactions the disappearance varied.

“In Brazil, the Jewish community did not behave better or worse than other communities in respect to the dictatorship. But [members] did keep to themselves regarding this issue, and didn’t make much noise about it.”

‘In Brazil, the Jewish community did not behave better or worse  . . . in respect to the dictatorship’

A striking element of Kucinski’s story is that his sister was offered more support by the Israeli government than by local Jews, who presumably didn‘t want to attract the government‘s attention.

“My sister and her husband were told that if they were freed, they could come to Israel and live,” he says. “So there was certainly more help from the Israelis than there was from the Jewish community in Brazil on this issue.”

Kucinski, who presented the new English-language translation of the book last month at London’s Jewish Book Week, excuses himself to prep for a speech. Before we part, I ask one final question: Four decades later, how does he balance his feelings of sadness and anger?

His answer is a poignant mix of grief and forthrightness.

“Guilt also has a very strong presence when you are dealing with this subject because you begin to inquire into the moment you failed to see the danger,” he says.

“You could have saved someone, but you didn’t. It’s the same thing with the survivors of the Holocaust, and it takes years for the relatives to overcome this. You are guilty simply because you survived, and they didn’t.”

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