A magnet for German-Jewish refugees | German-Jewish cultural heritage in Brazil | DW | 29.11.2012
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A magnet for German-Jewish refugees

It was mostly liberal Jews who emigrated from Germany to Brazil. They still have a community center in Sao Paulo today.

It used to be an open house. But today, an imposing door blocks entry to the reception hall. Those wanting to enter the building of the Jewish Community Congregacao Israelita Paulista, affectionately known as CIPI, have to ring the bell and get past the doorman.

These security measures are standard practice in Sao Paulo, a city in which every better-off household is surrounded by electric wire fences and barbed wire, in which CCTV cameras observe entrances to properties and every car entering an underground parking lot has to pass through two security gates. The crime rate is high, the fear of being kidnapped oppressive.

In the heart of the city

The CIPI is hidden away in a small street, not far from the roar of the Avenida Paulista, a multi-lane freeway through the countless concrete tower blocks scattered throughout the sprawling metropolis. When the community was founded in 1936, the area was still relatively peaceful. There were no sky-scraping tower blocks, no exhaust fumes, and children played carefree on the streets.

The Congregacao Israelita Paulista was an initiative founded by Ludwig Lorch of Germany, who had lived in Sao Paulo with his wife Luisa since the end of the 1920s. Lorch had urged many friends and acquaintances to leave Germany. In doing so, he saved some of their lives. Then in 1936 he founded the CIPI, a community center open to all. But first and foremost it was a meeting point and safe haven for the many refugees from Germany - victims of the Holocaust.

Ruins of an old house in Sao Paulo in Sao Paulo Die Fotos dürfen ausschließlich im Rahmen des Projekts Spurensuche verwendet werden. Alle Bilder hat Silke Bartlick im Juni 2012 in Sao Paulo/Brasilien aufgenommen

Sometimes you get a glimpse of what it used to look like

Refuge in Sao Paulo

They came to Sao Paulo because the city had distinctive European features, explains Heinz Kohn, who was born in Hamburg in 1928. They were also attracted by the climate, which was more agreeable than the sweltering heat of Rio. But also because there was industry there, meaning jobs.

For 40 years, Heinz Kohn headed the CIPI. "People call me a memory of the community," he says, grinning. Frequently told stories from the early years belong to this memory. Back then, Kohn explains, volunteers from the CIPI regularly stood on the harbour in Santos ready to welcome new arrivals.

They brought the refugees to Sao Paulo and helped them with the necessary documents and with finding work. They helped console them and provide distraction in the CIPI. There was music and entertainment.

Inside synagogue Congregação Israelita Paulista, with the Torah Ark

There are a large number of synagogues in Sao Paulo

The community center was a central part of the lives of so many migrants and remained so for years. People came to Sabbath on Friday evenings, to holy festivals, and founded groups for women, the elderly and children. It's astounding how many men still speak so fondly of their time in the CIPI Boy Scout group.

Changing community

Jews from Germany were generally well educated, cultivated and shared a strong sense of justness and social responsibility, Ruben Sternschein, the community rabbi since 2008, explains.

They came from an almost 100-year liberal tradition and were schooled by thinkers such as Moses Mendelssohn, Martin Buber, Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche. "They brought all that here," Sternschein says. Not just to the community, but to the city.

The Congregacao Israelita Paulista is now the largest Jewish community in Latin America. Around 1,500 families belong to the community today, which adds up to about 8,000 people. Senior and youth groups, as well as a diverse range of study courses are offered at the centre and there are many large celebrations each year - including some 50 weddings.

Rabbi Ruben Sternschein

Rabbi Ruben Sternschein

But one thing has changed over the decades. The Jews who came from Germany and the generations that succeeded them are now fully integrated into Brazilian society. The CIPI is no longer at the center of their lives.

Today, Ruben Sternschein says, the community faces entirely new challenges. The question of how the meaning of Judaism can be retained, how the religion can help people find answers to the questions troubling contemporary society, to how one can live a meaningful life.

"If we can find good answers," Ruben Sternchein says, "then will continue to be successful in the future.

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