Interview with Luis Krausz For Tribune Juive. By Daniella Pinkstein

São Paulo, May 16, 2024

Dear Luis Krausz, thank you for giving this interview. In these difficult times, Jews are more aware of the knowledge that comes from afar, feeling that their fates are intimately connected.

 To start by mentioning a few facts about you:

You are one of Brazil’s leading Jewish writers, with a degree in Biblical Studies and Jewish theology from Columbia University. In Brazil, you completed your thesis on modern Jewish literature, which you now teach at the University of Sao Paulo. You also translate works into German and Hebrew. You have received many literary prizes in Brazil, amongst them the the Prix Jabuti and the Prix Benvira.

– Here in France, not a lot is known of the history of Brazilian Jews. This in spite Franco-Moroccan immigration, if I’m not mistaken. So that we can understand the context in which Brazilian Jews have evolved, could you briefly outline something of the history of these communities?

Indeed, the Jewish presence in Brazil dates back to the early days of Portuguese colonization of South America: many of the early colonizers were “newly-converted Christians” – that is to say, Jews who had been baptized to escape the Inquisition in Portugal. They settled in Brazil because they believed they were to some extent sheltered from persecution. They thought that they would be able to continue their Judaism in secret in the New Continent. As even if the Inquisition were to eventually establish itself in Brazil, the risk of being caught was much lower here than in Portugal. Nevertheless, there have been numerouscases of Brazilian Marranos who were imprisoned by the inquisitors, deported to Portugal and executed during the “Autos-da-fé” in Lisbon. In any case, in some regions of the country, particularly in the north-eastern interior, we can still find traces of this early traces of this early Jewish presence in Brazil, as there are many families who cultivate what might be called “residual Judaism”, habits whose significance is no longer meaning is no longer known to these practitioners, but which still exist, such as lighting candles such as lighting candles on Friday nights, never eating pork, burying the dead without a coffin, etc.

Then, in the 19th century, at the time of the rubber boom in the Amazon, there was a major wave of Moroccan Jewish immigration, the traces of which can be found all along the Amazonas River, where today you’ll find several small abandoned Jewish cemeteries, as the small communities that once settled there have long since disappeared. However, there are still small Jewish communities of Moroccan origin in Manaus and Belém, but most of the descendants of these immigrants have assimilated into the majority population.

Then there were also Jewish immigrants from Alsace and Sephardim from the Ottoman Empire who arrived in Rio and São Paulo towards the end of the 19th century, followed by Russian pogroms – Jews from Eastern Europe fleeing anti-Semitism in the 1930s, German and Austrian Jews and, in the aftermath of the founding of Israel, Jews from Egypt and Syria. So, as you can see, this is a very diverse community and, as elsewhere, not really united.

– Are there any Jewish colonies, as in Argentina? Is the history of Brazilian Jews drastically different from other Jewish communities in Latin America?

The colonies of the ‘Jewish Colonization Agency’ were set up in southern Brazil in the late 19th century to shelter Jewish refugees from Russia. However, these colonies didn’t really prosper and, unlike in Argentina – where Jewish agrarian colonies still exist – the Brazilian colonies disappeared in the 1920s-1930s, and their populations quickly integrated into urban life in PortoAlegre, São Paulo and Rio.

– Have Brazilian Jews continued to maintain a link with their European roots?

Not really. Brazilian society is very welcoming, and at the same time, immigrants and their children who had escaped persecution in Europe, wanted to forget the hell that was Europe for Jews in the 1930s and 1940s.  At the same time, for Brazillians – in general terms, the idea of Western Europe remains, for many people, the paradigm of civilization, culture and the arts. In recent years, Brazil has witnessed the celebration of indigenous cultures, which fits into the context of post-colonial thinking – very much in vogue these days. Even so, Brazil’s passion for Europe, above all in the elites of society,  as the continent of “progress” has far from disappeared, and this view is shared by many Jews. But this modern Europe is not Eastern Europe, noris it the Europe of the 1930s. In any case, the languages of the Jews – such as Yiddish and German, survive only as increasingly rare remnants in Jewish communities today.

 What was their situation during the twenty years of the military junta?

Just as today, in the polarised scenario of political life in Brazil, one can note the existence of a Jewish bloc that supports the proto-fascist extreme right of Bolsonaro and another bloc that is radically opposed to that right. Even during the military dictatorship there were Jews who supported the Junta in many ways and Jews who took part in the armed struggle against the military. Judaism has never signified a specific political affiliation in Brazil: there have always been Jews at all points of the political spectrum.

– What is the history of your own grandparents? What region do they come from? and how is it that in a country so different from Europe, but at the same time one of immigrants, did they build a life for themselves in Brazil?

My paternal grandparents, with whom I was very close and who played a big role in my childhood, were Viennese Jews who arrived in Brazil at a very young age, in 1924. I say that they arrived, but in fact, despite the fact that they had lived all their adult lives in Brazil, they never really arrived here. Because mygrandparents were so attached to their home town, to their language, to their culture, to their Austro-Jewish identity, and they didn’t originally have the idea of settling in Brazil permanently. Austria in the 1920s was a country destroyed by war, at the same time, memories of the glory days of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire were still very much alive. My grandfather’s idea of their future was to spend a few years in South America to earn a little money and then return to Europe when the situation improved.

So they didn’t come here with the intention of forgetting their past or their origins: on the contrary, throughout their lives German (which I learned from them) remained their language and the language of their social circle, which grew as the situation improved.

Meanwhile anti-Semitism grew in German-speaking Europe forcing many of the Yekkes (German Jews) to emigrate. My paternal grandparents came from a world in which it was felt that there was no contradiction between being Jewish and belonging to Austro-German culture, in other words, they lived and thoughtaccording to nineteenth-century paradigms that had become anachronistic. And so, when they arrived in Brazil, these refugees from the world of the so-called Jewish-German symbiosis did everything they could to preserve their habits, their way of life, their cultural identity and language in the tropics. They established their institutions separate from those of other Jews, they communicated with each other always in German,they kept the habits and ideas of a world that was becoming increasingly impossible in Europe. 

So my grandparents’ house in São Paulo was a little piece of the old Jewish Vienna that had been implanted in São Paulo, and ever since I was a child I have always astonished and amazed by the great contrasts that existed between the life we and other members of their social circle, and the rest of the city of São Paulo. This wonder is one of the great sources of my literary activity.

– Was your family typical of a certain generation of Jews who came to Brazil to escape Nazism, or were they totally atypical?

I consider my family to be atypical because my grandparents had the great good fortune never really to witness Nazism. Even my great-grandparents came to São Paulo from Vienna in 1933, when the situation in Austria was still relatively calm for the Jews. I think that’s why they always remained very attached to German-speaking Europe.

– Can you tell us a little about your childhood, and some of the key memories that undoubtedly played a part (or a great deal) in shaping what would later grow into your novels?

My childhood was deeply marked by the contrasts between family life, which revolved around a Europe that existed only in memory or imagination, and the realities of life in São Paulo during the years of the military dictatorship. The experience of my family’s irrevocable exile, because it was an exile in time and not simply an exile in space, defined me as a human being – and I think that, in that sense, it was a very Jewish experience. In spite of myself, that’s one of the great themes of my novels.   

– Reading you, this family environment seems to have become a vocation, both as a teacher and as a writer. Has it? How, and why, was the aura of such a heritage so decisive?

I grew up in the São Paulo of the 1960s and 1970s, under a military dictatorship that imposed a model of radical economic growth, industrialisation and urbanisation on the country. São Paulo was at the centre of the megalomaniacal madness of these soldiers, who believed themselves capable of transforming Brazil into whatever they imagined, with their characteristic blindness, to be a “great country”. The result was a great deterioration of the city, disorderly growth, an increase in the number of “favelas”, misery and violence, caused by the mass migration of destitute agrarian populations to the city. The labour of this population was essential for industrialisation and was used to build the monstrous city that is São Paulo today. At the same time, I witnessed the emergence of a new class of upstarts who ostentatiously flaunted their wealth (and bad taste) as a raison d’être. In this feverish city, undergoing a furious transformation, noisy, dirty and increasingly polluted, life in the streets frightened me. The family atmosphere, on the other hand, especially with my grandparents, whom I saw every day because they lived right next door to us, was like a ghost of what Stefan Zweig called “the golden era of security”: the atmosphere of bourgeois security, stability and certainty in the middle of a chaotic city and country – was something very surprising. For me, this space became a refuge: the hours I spent with my grandparents were the happiest of my childhood. I admired their cultured lifestyle, their aesthetic sense, their tastes, their way of speaking and carrying themselves, which contrasted so sharply with what we saw outside their home. This contrast, and with it the realisation that we can live according to what we believe, and not necessarily according to what is imposed on us by the environment, this aura of another place and another time that lingered there, opened my eyes. At the same time, I witnessed the destruction of the ecumene – the habitable world that my grandparents worked so hard to build: their house in the mountains was swallowed up by the chaotic growth of the place where it was built, as was their town house. In a city without memory like São Paulo, where everything fades away, you don’t need to move to feel exiled.   

– Your work has won many prestigious literary prizes. Unfortunately, you have not yet been translated into French. Out of curiosity, do your novels have a recurring theme, a common thread, a haunting, a favourite subject?

What Marianne Hirsch calls ‘post-memory’, that is to say, the memory of a world that I didn’t really know, but whose powerful presence was part of my childhood. I would say that this is an important theme in my literary work. At the same time, I also think that memory and post-memory are central themes in modern Jewish literary culture, in which the issues of forced exile, involuntary displacement and even disasters and their consequences predominate. 

– Is there a Jewish literature in Brazil? And if so, what kind? And are you part of it?

There is certainly a Jewish literature in Brazil, with some very good writers dealing with issues such as the integration of Jews into Brazilian society, the role played by different types of origins and family backgrounds in the lives of new generations, Jewish identity in the contemporary world and its dissolution, the State of Israel, religion… Among others, I would like to mention Cinthia Moscovich, Flávio Izhaki, Michel Laub, Moacir Scliar, Noemi Jaffe. And, of course, I’m one of them too. 

– You never write out of pure aesthetics, desire, narcissism, self-giving or just plain giving; there’s always a shadow enveloping such interloping activity? May I ask why you write?

I think I write so that I don’t forget. In Judaism, as Yosef Haiym Yerushalmi has shown, memory is, above all else, a religious duty, and to say that the Jews are the people of memory is already a commonplace. In any case, memory is a need for me. As we grow older, we realise, on the one hand, that the world as it was no longer exists and, at the same time, that memory allows us not only to rediscover it but, above all, to transfigure it, to distil it and to search for its essence. I don’t want to forget who my ancestors were, where I came from, what the home in which I was born was like. In a world that is changing faster and faster, and whose demands consume our energies day and night, I think that putting down roots in the past can also help us to understand where we are going.

– Since 7 October 2023, almost all Jews have been in a state of shock. All the more so in the face of growing general hostility. How do Brazilian Jews feel about this? Since President Lula’s odious comparison between the current war between Israel and Hamas and the Shoah. 

I think that Brazilian Jews feel rather perplexed and powerless in the face of this interminable war. On the one hand, of course, there are those who believe that the only solution to this conflict is military violence; on the other hand, there are moderate voices who believe in the possibility of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Frankly, I don’t know what to tell you about this, because I’ve been watching the incessant violence in the Middle East since I was a child, and there doesn’t seem to be a solution. We live a long way from Israel and it’s difficult, if not impossible, for us to know how the people directly involved in this century-old conflict feel. This is a case where opinion is of little use, in my opinion. What’s more, I find that political issues and literature don’t mix very well. I’m not a writer who thinks that politics is necessarily part of his job. Literature, I think, has a raison d’être independent of anything else.

As for Lula’s insidious assertion, I think that on the one hand it fits in with his international political affiliations and, on the other, within the framework of the support that several influential Jews in Brazil have given to his opponent, Bolsonaro, as well as friendship between Bolsonaro and Netanyahu. The Jewish and Israeli support from the far right in Brazil is something very pernicious in my opinion.

– In some of your novels, such as Memories in Ruins, you have taken exile to a level of stylistic, spiritual and memorial perfection, with such agility that it verges on grace. Your writing is suspended by an invisible thread that moves it between miracle and determination. Do you believe exile is inherent to Judaism -without this calling into question the presence of Jews in Israel? – And that exile as a psychological condition for this – answers one of the secrets of Judaism’s astounding survival?

I’m very interested in the question of Israel and exile, which is also found in the work of many Israeli writers that I greatly admire, such as Aharon Appelfeld, Shimon Ballas, Sami Michael, Eli Amir… Obviously, Israel was conceived as a solution to the thousand-year-old question of Jewish exile. But to what extent does this state signify the end of the galut? For many Jews, the Holy Land has instead become the place of a new exile. I quote from one of my first novels, Deserto, the theme of which is a trip I made to Israel in 1976 with a group of young Brazilian Jews. The aim of the trip, which lasted almost two months, was to convince the young people to make aliyah, to prove to them that life in the diaspora was a great equivocation – all that talk which was so fashionable in the 20th century. But in this book I discuss, on the one hand, the disorientation that part of my own family, who emigrated from Vienna to Israel, and, at the same time, the brutal marginalisation that the so-called misrachim Jews suffered in Israel. We young people were housed in an agricultural school whose pupils were problematic misrachim who looked down on us – the rich ashkenazim from abroad – with great resentment and envy. It’s not for me, of course, to judge anyone, let alone a whole country. But I do think that Israel is not the solution to the exile of all Jews, and that the Diaspora has always played, and continues to play, a fundamental role in Jewish history and culture.

– What are the links between Brazilian Jewish communities and Israel? Are they concerned by the Jewish state?

Certainly, Brazilian Jews, I understand, are very concerned about what is happening in Israel. We know that the world has a tendency to consider Jews, the state of Israel and even the government of Israel as one thing. At the same time, we have no direct influence on what happens in Israeli political life. We Jews in the Diaspora are involved in a conflict over which we have no influence whatsoever and that’s not a comfortable situation at all. 

Particularly in Brazil, a country of immigrants, where Lebanese, Jews, Japanese, Portuguese, people from all parts of the world live together in peace, it’s very perplexing and awakens ghosts long thought to have disappeared.

You have an extraordinary voice. Do you think that literature, and Jewish literature in particular, is still relevant today?

In my opinion, literature is the free territory in which what apparently has no meaning can gain meaning. Literary work is about creating meaning, finding meaning: it’s a job of navigation in a chaotic universe, for which you always need a great sense of direction.

– Crossing linguistic borders with ease is also a form of exile, this time in its most marvellous guise – its only infinity being grammar?

I think that knowledge of foreign languages allows us, at the same time, to be at ease in countries that we don’t really know, and also to feel somewhat foreign at home. According to Goethe, anyone who doesn’t know foreign languages is never really able to understand his own language. I think that opportunity to see your own language from a new perspective – that of another language – is a very enriching experience. I was lucky enough to grow up between two languages: German, which was spoken at home and by my grandparents, and which I learnt first, and then Portuguese, which was spoken all over Brazil. At the same time, I’m convinced that when you change languages, in a way you become another person.

This transition from one language to another, and this constant need for translation is, of course, a very Jewish experience. Jews have always had more than one language: at the very least, the Hebrew of synagogal life and traditional studies, and the various vernacular languages, such as Yiddish, Ladino and so on. This complex linguistic apparatus is, in my opinion, something precious that makes exile less scared, and, it also reminds us that, lest we forget, that we are in exile everywhere.

– You are about to publish your seventh novel. What is it called? What is it about? Does it make sense of a world that is slipping away from us more and more every day?

The title of this novel is “The autumn of the pink ipês ”. The pink ipê is a Brazilian tree that flowers in autumn and winter. It sheds all its leaves, which are replaced by splendid pink flowers. I wrote this novel in 2020, 2021, the years of the pandemic, when São Paulo was radically transformed. Autumn in our country begins in May, and in May 2020 there was an astonishing silence and tranquillity everywhere in São Paulo. At the same time, now that autumn had arrived, the air held a freshness and softness that I had only known from places in the mountains. At this time, I got into the habit of taking long bike rides through empty streets.

The ipês also felt this transformation: in those years they bloomed with a vigour I’d never seen before. I was completely enchanted with my home town, with my own life which was, like everyone else, threatened by the virus. Every moment became precious, because we were acutely aware that each day could be our last, which is always true, but something easily forgotten in the constant whirl of modern life. So, it’s a novel about an acute form of consciousness, about this altered perception of reality, about an experience that has been banished from modern life. But it’s also a novel about vanity.

There is indeed something terribly poignant, and Jewish, between exile and suspended time. This interview, like your writing, also kept us suspended, like a wristwatch left on the corner of a desk, and we are for a few brief moments unaware of the noise of time. Thank you Luis Krausz for this exchange, and for the vital account of of this journey, across continents,  time and history… 



Extrait de “Memories in Ruins”, “The Clocks”

The Clocks

from Memories in Ruins, by Luis S. Krausz

translated from the Portuguese by Ana Fletcher

“There was no other neighborhood in São Paulo more propitious to cultivating Austro-Hungarian obsessions than Sumaré—obsessions that, frustrated over there, had found fertile soil over here, and could develop freely. Drüben—on the other side—there had been a correct order for everything: a framework that shaped our souls and allowed us to put everything in its assigned place, according to a hierarchy sanctified over time, and which we held in the same regard as the ten Sephirot of the Kabbalistic tree. It was an order we clung to as we might the very tree of life, and that showed us the true value of all things. Thanks to this order we—unlike the nameless poor of undefined race—were not colonized, nor were we akin to those displaced Jews who turned up like beggars on the doorsteps of unknown lands. We wanted to believe this would make us Europeans: Europeans in places of exile, like Sumaré, where we dreamt of founding our colony of expats—a colony that would be a real Gartensiedlung: a neighborhood of gardens cultivated skillfully and efficiently; of impeccably organized libraries; of intact inheritances from grandparents and great grandparents; a neighborhood of stamp collectors and alchemists; of orchid lovers and men of letters; where the cool breezes and shady gardens would bring respite from all cares and relief from all pain—a world that was like a book itself, where we imagined we would not be swallowed by time and by history, by the hurricane that blows from Paradise, but where we would be safe: a vegetable patch and an orchard that neither the heat nor the despair that oppressed the city’s streets could penetrate; our city of peace, the port of our happiness. There would be permanence and durability here, and we longed for the seasons to come, each in its turn: the heat of the dry season and the rain of the rainy season and the cold of the cold season.

Of all my family’s Austro-Hungarian obsessions, none could rival that of the clocks, which exceeded all reasonable proportions, and became a serious enterprise—one whose secret goal was, perhaps, to master time itself. My mother had set aside a room exclusively for the clocks: striking clocks, wall and mantel clocks, wrist and pocket watches. All of these piled up in our house like the Egyptian plagues, procured from antique shops and markets in cities all over the world by acquaintances, who, before setting off on their travels, were invariably charged with this small kindness. This amassing of scattered hours had become comparable to a religious mission. Every day my father would spend hours in that strange room, which clicked and resounded with the chords of many striking and musical clocks, but remained locked, inaccessible to all, for the rest of the day. He patiently wound those cruel instruments, which, nevertheless, announced the ever-closer arrival, not of the future, but of the implacable angel of death with its silken wings.

The room, whose entrance was by the foot of the stairs, had been outfitted with a set of double doors lined with cork in an attempt to contain the noise of the pitiless machinery that, nevertheless, spilled out into the house, into the garden, and even, in the small hours of the night, into the neighbors’ houses, prompting fruitless complaints, while more and more clocks arrived, crowding the walls and the shelves, the drawers and the desks of what should have been our library, but whose books had long since been banished to make room for the infernal devices. Life without them had become impossible for my mother, and my father, resigned to his fate, wound the clocks—the wrist and pocket watches once a day, the mantel clocks every other day, the striking clocks once a week and thus forth, so that they should always be ready, tick-tocking in their march towards the end of time. He did this with unselfish, touching care, trailed all the while by my mother, who, a cloth in her clenched fist, busied herself removing the tiniest traces of dust. The beat of the pendulums and the soar of the bells would cause his face to contort in an expression of displeasure, which he nevertheless kept in check, so as not to hurt her. But the traces of those grimaces lingered, in the corners of his mouth, and he bore them for the rest of the day like an inescapable kismet. Once done, they would lock the room, carefully, and close the window that opened out onto the garden, and then my father would sigh, relieved of his burden until the following day.

Though we were seldom allowed to see it, we all held the secret collection in great esteem, and when we traveled, we never neglected our compulsory contribution to the enormous repository of lost hours. And sometimes, during dinner, we reminisced on visits paid to this or that antique shop, in this or that city, years and even decades earlier. The clocks were also diligently catalogued in a big, black book by my father, who used an old Parker Vacumatic fountain pen—his Bar Mitzvah present—to record each one in his illegible handwriting. The brand; the year and place of manufacture; the place, date, and price of acquisition—this was all recorded next to a five-digit catalogue number. My father often asked himself whether it would not be wise to switch to a six-digit cataloguing system, given that the collection’s rate of growth showed no signs of slowing. The rest of us were of the opinion that there was no need to change the existing codes, that it would suffice simply to follow the natural order of the numbers, but he remained unconvinced by the supposed neutrality of the zeros to the left. He would have preferred a new, six-digit system, one that could account for every item in the collection equally. My father went so far as to order a German tome on cataloguing from the bookseller and antiquarian Stefan Geyerhahn, and once the book reached his hands he took to spending several hours a day, after lunch, shut away in that forbidden room, absorbed in the thick volume with black covers, yellowing pages, and gothic writing published in Prussia in 1905, which bore the solemn title Katalogisierungskunde (The Science of Cataloguing). It was an indigestible treatise, divided into numbered chapters, subchapters, and paragraphs. A type of universal code of law, the strict obedience of which was fundamental to life in society: a sort of universal constitution—or a summa, in German, of the Talmudic treatises that guided Jews through millennia of diaspora—to which my father dedicated himself with religious zeal, to the point that he became immune to the racket of the clocks. I imagined him, behind the set of double, cork-lined doors, gesticulating with his hands and fingers, tunelessly singing the verses of that treatise, as our forefathers had done in Poland or on the riverbanks of Babylon.

The wisdom contained in that volume did not bring any visible change to the secret life of the clocks, but a new hierarchy now governed their relations: a hierarchy that only my father understood, legitimized by years of study. It was a strictly private etymology, which traced a tangle of links among the clocks—links like invisible spider webs hanging in the room, their strands stretching out in every direction, forcing my father to take careful steps as he walked, contorting himself and zigzagging around the room, bending forward and to either side, so as not to break the secret strands, the existence of which only he knew, and which became more and more tangled as he consulted further works written by cataloguing experts, delivered by booksellers and antiquarians, which consumed many of his hours, though he never succeeded in reaching a final conclusion as to how best to organize his collection.

What we didn’t suspect was that, alongside his studies of
Katalogisierungskunde, my father was also dedicating himself to experiments of another nature while locked up in that private room. He had long since buried the messianic ideas of our forefathers and, with them, the belief in progress. Instead, he was looking for a way backwards, and all those old clocks, whose hands had revolved around themselves for centuries, perhaps had something to teach him. He was especially interested in one ancient clock, a mantel one, which my great grandmother had received as a wedding gift in Preßburg, now Bratislava. It was a clock whose hands moved from left to right, that is, counterclockwise. Rather than numbers, the dial featured the first twelve letters of the Hebrew alphabet, drawn in black on a plain enameled background; it was said that if someone were to pass in front of it and observe the hands moving for long enough, a paradisiacal vision would be bestowed upon them. The rest of us had set aside that story long before, but my father was increasingly convinced that he was close to divining its significance.

All this activity was shrouded in the most impenetrable secrecy, and this parallel activity—to which my father never made the slightest reference—was carried out under the guise of cataloguing and dedication to the profane manual of the art of cataloguing. My father would emerge exhausted and red-eyed from those hours of work, increasingly tormented by doubt.

We never suspected that, with these experiments, he was hoping to draw nearer to things that had been forgotten over there, far away, during the time of the great change”.

© Daniella Pinkstein

Traduction: Lucien Berman

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