“Nazism is not just 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: never think it doesn’t belong to you.”
The main exhibition is a journey through a tunnel behind the central hall, showing the lives of the victims before, during and after the Holocaust.
The first part contains colored photographs of the birthdays, traditions and daily life of the victims who will soon arrive. One picture shows Hilarius Gilges, a Black German actor and tape dancer who was a communist. The table shows the names of the groups persecuted by the Nazis: artists, anarchists, masons, Roma people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gays and disabled people. It also specifies the various Jewish groups targeted, such as Hasidic and Sephardic Jews.
From there, visitors to the memorial on Thursday entered the second part and were suddenly bathed in sepia-toned light. A railway representing the deportation trains runs beneath black-and-white photographs of the text of the Nuremberg laws that made Jews legally inferior, members of the Hitler Youth and a man holding a sign encouraging a boycott of Jewish-owned shops. Graphic images of concentration camps and emaciated bodies are not seen; instead, visitors can figuratively put themselves in the shoes of the victims by standing on a footprint to hear recordings of Holocaust victims’ accounts.
In the final part, color is coming back to life – for those lucky enough to escape the horror. Videos from the family archives show births, celebrations and other bits of life. And there is a database on an interactive screen 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. Her family fled Poland and spent years passing through the Soviet Union, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and other nations before arriving in Brazil in 1951.
“I feel very emotional, it brings me back to the past,” Tredler said. “This place commemorates one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, so people know about it and there is no Holocaust again.”
The memorial is the third institution dedicated to the Holocaust in Brazil opened in just over ten years, after a museum in the southern city of Curitiba and another memorial in São Paulo. Levy said the idea was born three decades ago, but work only got off the ground when a city ordinance was passed in January 2018 that allowed it to be created.
That same month, far-right ex-President Jair Bolsonaro was put into office. He was an unwavering champion of the Christian faith and conservative values. Many human rights associations have blamed his inflammatory rhetoric for the recent rise in cases of people promoting Nazism, as well as hate crimes against members of the LGBT community.
“Due to the years that Bolsonaro was in power, extremists emerged who were more intolerant of difference,” said Fernando Lottenberg, a Brazilian Jew who is the commissioner of the United States Organization to monitor anti-Semitism and fight it. “Like (former US President Donald) Trump, he created an atmosphere that favored the display of this type of behavior.”
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 discusses complaints of intolerance on social media through a hotline it runs with the prosecutor general’s office.
Brazil’s Jewish population was around 107,000 in 2010, according to the latest census from the national statistics agency IGBE. Many of them are descendants of those who fled the anti-Semitism rampant in Europe in the 20th century. And 14 million Brazilians identified as Black in 2010, and 83 million identified as biracial.
“A developed society is plural and diverse,” said Alberto Klein, president of the Holocaust memorial cultural association.
AP videographer Pedro Varela added.