Rio’s new Holocaust memorial takes visitors on victims’ journey of survival

Memorial also commemorates non-Jewish victims of Nazis; main exhibition includes mementos of those persecuted in Holocaust, database of survivors who built new life in Brazil

Photos from the permanent collection of the Holocaust Victims Memorial on display on the exhibition's opening day, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, January 19, 2023. (AP/Bruna Prado)
Photos from the permanent collection of the Holocaust Victims Memorial on display on the exhibition's opening day, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, January 19, 2023. (AP/Bruna Prado)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Rio de Janeiro on Thursday opened the doors to a Holocaust Memorial that honors not only Jewish victims but also lesser-known groups likewise persecuted by the Nazi regime.

Curators hope that the memorial, perched atop one of Rio’s shapely hills with a view of Sugarloaf Mountain and Guanabara Bay, becomes a pilgrimage site for a diverse audience.

“Nazism is not only a history of victimized Jews. They were the main target, but others also suffered,” said Sofia Levy, a member of the curatorial team. “The message is: don’t ever think it doesn’t concern you.”

The main exhibition is a journey through a tunnel behind the central hall, depicting victims’ lives before, during, and after the Holocaust.

The first section features colorized photos of birthdays, traditions, and the day-to-day lives of soon-to-be victims. One picture shows Hilarius Gilges, a Black German actor and tap dancer who was a communist. A table displays the names of groups who the Nazis persecuted: artists, anarchists, masons, Roma people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay people, and the disabled. It also specifies the various Jewish groups targeted, like Hasidic and Sephardic Jews.

From there, the memorial’s visitors on Thursday passed into the second section and were suddenly bathed in sepia-toned light. A railroad representing the deportation trains runs beneath black-and-white photos of the text of Nuremberg laws that made Jews legally inferior, Hitler Youth members, and a man holding a sign inciting the boycott of shops owned by Jews. Graphic images of concentration camps and stick-thin corpses do not appear; instead, visitors can figuratively put themselves in victims’ shoes by standing on footprints to hear recordings of Holocaust victims’ accounts.

A monument stands outside the Holocaust Victims Memorial on its opening day, with Sugar Loaf Mountain in the background, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, January 19, 2023. (AP/Bruna Prado)

In the final part, life resumes in color — for those fortunate enough to have escaped the horror. Videos from families’ archives show births, celebrations, and other snippets of life. And an interactive screen contains a database with information and photos of those who built new lives in Brazil.

Jorge Tredler, 83, leaned over the table and looked up at his mother, father, and sister. Their family fled Poland and spent years passing through the Soviet Union, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, and other nations before finally reaching Brazil in 1951.

“I feel really emotional, it brings me back to the past,” Tredler said. “This place recalls one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, so people know about it and there never again is a Holocaust.”

The memorial is Brazil’s third Holocaust-focused institution inaugurated in just over a decade, following a museum in the southern city of Curitiba and another memorial in Sao Paulo. Levy said the idea was born three decades ago, but work only got off the ground with a municipal ordinance passed in January 2018 allowing for its creation.

That same month, far-right former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro was sworn into office. He was an outspoken champion of Christian faith and conservative values. Many human rights associations blamed his fiery rhetoric for the recent surge in cases of people promoting Nazism, as well as hate crimes against members of the LGBT community.

“The years when Bolsonaro was in power led to the emergence of extremists with a greater intolerance for difference,” said Fernando Lottenberg, a Brazilian Jew who is the Organization of American States’ commissioner for monitoring and combating antisemitism. “Like [former US president Donald] Trump, he created an atmosphere favoring the expression of this kind of behavior.”

Jorge Tredler, 83, of Poland, who came to Brazil with his family in February 1951 after taking refuge in Russia and other countries during the Second World War, points to a photo of his mother Irena on an interactive table that tells the stories of thousands of people who took refuge in Brazil during the Holocaust, at the Holocaust Victims Memorial in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, January 19, 2023. (AP/Bruna Prado)

There are more than a dozen neo-Nazi groups in Brazil with between 2,000 and 3,000 organized activists, according to Brazilian nonprofit SaferNet, which fields complaints of intolerance on social media via a hotline it runs with the prosecutor general’s office.

Brazil’s Jewish population was around 107,000 in 2010, according to the national statistics agency IGBE’s latest census. Many of them are descendants of people who fled rampant antisemitism in Europe in the 20th century. And 14 million Brazilians identified as Black in 2010, while 83 million identified as biracial.

“A developed society is plural and diverse,” said Alberto Klein, president of the Holocaust memorial’s cultural association.

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