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Brazil Abandons the Jews—Again

During the Hitler years, the regime of Brazilian president Getulio Vargas, driven by religious antisemitism and hostility to immigration, slammed the country’s doors shut as Jews tried to flee the Nazis.
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February 20, 2024
Getulio Dornelles Vargas, Brazilian rancher, lawyer and dictator-president. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images); President of Brazil Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on December 13, 2023 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Brazil’s president has compared Israel to the Nazis and accused it of committing genocide in Gaza. But when the real Nazis were committing actual genocide, how did Brazil’s leaders respond?

During the Hitler years, the regime of Brazilian president Getulio Vargas, driven by religious antisemitism and hostility to immigration, slammed the country’s doors shut as Jews tried to flee the Nazis.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from Germany, James G. McDonald, visited Brazil in 1935 and begged Vargas and other Brazilian leaders to admit Jewish refugees.

McDonald pointed out that vast, underpopulated Brazil is larger than the contiguous United States (that is, without Alaska), yet its population in the 1930s was less than one third the size of America’s. In other words, there was plenty of room for refugees. But McDonald’s pleas ran into a wall of excuses.

The Minister of Labor, for example, told McDonald that no changes could be made to Brazil’s quota for German immigrants. When McDonald suggested that Brazil take in Jews who were living in Germany but were citizens of other countries, the minister replied that his government previously had decided “to classify them as Germans, and any other way of figuring the matter would be too complicated.”

A senior Foreign Ministry official bluntly told McDonald that his government was not interested in any group of refugees that was “predominantly Jewish.” President Vargas was noncommittal, offering only that he would ask the Minister of Labor to appoint a committee to look into the matter. McDonald also met with the country’s top Catholic Church official, Archbishop Sabastio Leme da Silveira Cintra, who expressed “complete sympathy” for the refugees. But when McDonald asked the archbishop to raise the issue with President Vargas, “this he said he could not do,” because of “certain difficulties.”

After nearly six weeks in Brazil, McDonald wrote in his diary that he was leaving the country “in very low spirits,” because of the “hostile personal attitude” of Brazil’s leaders toward the Jews.

Only a trickle of Jewish immigrants were permitted to enter Brazil during the Nazi years. An average of between 2,000 and 3,000 were admitted annually during most of the 1930s. During the peak of the mass murder of the Jews, from 1942 to 1944, the Brazilian government opened its doors to a grand total of 108 Jews in 1942, eleven in 1943, and six in 1944. As 12,000 Jews were being gassed in Auschwitz daily in the summer of 1944, Brazil granted haven to exactly six.

Only two Brazilians are listed among Yad Vashem’s “Righteous Among the Nations.” Both were consular officials in Europe who omitted the Jewish identity of refugees to whom they gave visas, in order to fool the Brazilian government into thinking they were not Jewish.

While Jewish refugees were turned away, Brazil became a popular haven for some of the most notorious Nazi war criminals. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death” who conducted hideous medical experiments on Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz, lived comfortably in Brazil for most of his post-World War II years.  Franz Stangl, a commandant at both Sobibor and Treblinka, also enjoyed his Brazilian exile. He was living there under his real name when Nazi-hunters located him in 1961, yet it took the Brazilian authorities six more years to arrest him. Stangl’s deputy commander at Sobibor, Gustav Wagner, also lived openly in Brazil. He was publicly identified in 1978, yet the Brazilian government rejected extradition requests from five different countries. Herberts Cukurs, the notorious Butcher of Latvia, spent two relaxing decades in Brazil before he was assassinated.

Instead of showing remorse for his country’s abandonment of the Jews, Brazil’s current president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has pointed an accusing finger at Israel, claiming that Israel’s anti-terror campaign in Gaza is “genocide” and similar to “when Hitler decided to kill the Jews.” In other words, with the Jews facing new genocidal assaults, Brazil has abandoned them again. How should world Jewry respond? Consider the example of Mexico.

When Mexico voted in favor of theZionism is racism” resolution at the United Nations in November 1975, numerous American Jewish organizations protested by canceling their tour programs to Mexico. In addition, the Mexican Travel Agents Association reported 68,000 individual cancelations at hotels in Acapulco, and another 60,000 in Mexico City, for the upcoming winter vacation season. A dozen Jewish conventions scheduled to take place in Mexico in the months following the UN vote were canceled, costing local vendors $750,000. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that the boycott has taken a heavy toll on Mexicos all-important tourist industry, with severe repercussions on [the] countrys economy.” Mexico’s leaders backtracked and pledged that they would not support anti-Israel resolutions at future international forums.

Brazil, too, supported the infamous Zionism-is-racism resolution. However, it was not the target of an organized boycott at the time, apparently because Mexico was a more frequent destination of Jewish travelers.  Today, however, there is considerable Jewish tourism to Brazil, including kosher-for-Passover programs that are currently advertising in search of customers. It will be interesting to see if President Lula’s anti-Israel slander results in the kind of Jewish response that Brazil managed to avoid years ago.


Dr. Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. His latest is Whistleblowers: Four Who Fought to Expose the Holocaust to America, a nonfiction graphic novel with artist Dean Motter, published by Dark Horse Books.)

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