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PETRÓPOLIS, Brazil — When European powers France and Germany square off in Rio de Janeiro’s famed Maracanã stadium on July 4, this hillside city an hour away should have no problem picking a favorite. About a third of the 300,000 residents here are descendants of the original German settlers, and many can trace their lineage directly back to the original families — the Krautkraemers, Kniebels, Korndorfers and the rest of the 2,000 or so who arrived in 1845 to build a new life in the New World.
Germans are one of the oldest immigrant communities in Brazil, and though their numbers were always smaller than those of the Portuguese, Spanish and Italians (and, later, Japanese), some 12 million Brazilians claimed German ancestry on the 2000 census. Brazil’s Germans helped turn the country into an agricultural powerhouse and almost single-handedly created the idea of a middle class in Brazil. They also played unwitting host to Dr. Josef Mengele (who, in fairness, also spent time in Paraguay and Argentina) and, more recently, produced supermodel Gisele Bündchen. Throughout it all, the German clusters, particularly in the agricultural highlands in southern Santa Catarina state, have kept both the language and the culture famously intact.
And so, on the day that Germany was to play Ghana in their second group match, photographer Eduardo Leal and I drove an hour past Rio de Janeiro’s hillside favelas, up jungle roads with their warning signs about crossing monkeys, and into the city of Petrópolis, the first building of which is a schlocky half-timbered beer hall called Casa do Alemão (German House). We skipped that, drove down into the old city and passed the cathedral designed by Major Júlio Frederico Koeler, the city founder who was born in Mainz. We parked, walked into the Crystal Palace at the center of town, and happened upon a dozen boys and girls wearing traditional Hunsrück clothing and twirling to Rhineland folk dances while their leader, Elisabeth Graebner, counted off “eins, zwei, drei, eins, zwei, drei” into a microphone. Outside, workers were putting up stands in preparation for the massive annual Bauernfest, which would attract up to 400,000 visitors throughout July for strudel and beer. Across the canal was the Bohemia brewery, just one of several famous breweries in town. Had we somehow stumbled on an unreconstructed German idyll in the mountains?
The answer, as the Germans say, is jein — a little “ja” and a little “nein.”
When the music in the Crystal Palace stopped, the language reverted to Brazilian Portuguese. Not all of the children have German ancestry, and none of them speaks German. They wear the dirndls and knee britches that Graebner sewed for them only on special occasions. Graebner worries about their missteps in the dances and, more broadly, how much of their identity they’ve lost.
“It’s the seventh, eighth generation,” she told me after the rehearsal. “They’re losing interest. When I grew up, it was German all day from ‘Guten Morgen’ to ‘Gute Nacht.’ It’s not like that now.”
She told me all of this in splendidly fluent German of her own, unaccented and crystal clear, unlike the diaspora German I’ve heard elsewhere around the world: the Hutterites of the American plains speak an ancient dialect littered with Slavic loan words; the Germans of the Caucasus suffered so much repression that the newest generation had to relearn everything from scratch. But here in Brazil, particularly in strongholds like the southern city of Blumenau, where Graebner grew up, the language passed frictionless from generation to generation. I spent years living in Berlin and other cities to learn what I know of the language; Graebner has never set foot in Germany. She is as Brazilian as Lula or Neymar.
Petrópolis gets its name from Emperor Dom Pedro II, who had his summer palace here, and whose body lies in the cathedral. But before it even had a name, this town — the first planned city in Brazil — needed laborers. Koeler, who designed the city, had a stroke of luck in 1837 when a French ship landed in Rio on the way to Sydney, Australia. Most of the passengers were German peasants, and the ship’s passage was onerous enough that they decided to stay in Brazil. That first wave did well, despite disease and hardship, and Koeler was soon actively recruiting Germans to build his planned city. On June 29, 1845 — the day of the year now marked by the start of Bauernfest — the first ship of permanent settlers arrived in port. By the end of 1845, more than 2,000 Germans had arrived to help build the city with neighborhoods called Bingen, Ingelheim and Westfalia.
It’s clear why Germans might be attracted to this place, cooler and mistier than Rio below. ("The Portuguese and the Spanish keep by the coast," says the father of one of Graebner’s dancers. "The Germans, they like mountains.") But why were Germans so prized? "The emperor wanted to make this place whiter," says Graebner with a shrug. A recently published pamphlet on the colonization of Petrópolis is a bit more circumspect, saying only that Koeler disliked the idea of slave labor. Whatever the reason, the Germans both here and in the south of Brazil formed an early middle class in the country: Neither slave nor slaveholder, they typically worked small family lots of farmland. The bedrock elements of Rhineland culture — self-reliance and a hard work ethic — were a salve for a country that was otherwise split between an indolent European ruling class and a brutalized slave caste.
But their presence, and their cultural exceptionalism, has long made them suspect in wider Brazilian society. So when Brazil finally sided with the allies in World War II and became the only independent South American nation to send ground troops to Europe, it spelled the beginning of difficult times for the Germans of Petrópolis. Without the protections that the more densely populated German communities in Santa Catarina had, Petrópolis’s German minority had to go to ground. People translated their names into Portuguese; the Amberger family became the Du Monte family. The German school changed its curriculum.
Graebner brought us to the Lutheran church the morning after we met her, to show us box after box of heirlooms from the community, including century-old German Bibles that families had buried for a decade during and after the war so the authorities couldn’t destroy them.
Flipping through old photographs, Graebner stopped at a picture of a newlywed couple and told the story of the groom’s uncle. He was Sgt. Francisco Boeming, a military man who was one of the 27,000 Brazilians who went to fight the Nazis. But while he was away, his family’s German bakery came under frequent attack from other Brazilians. They were, Graebner said, throwing rocks through the bakery window the very day that a Brazilian army detachment came by to serve notice of the sergeant’s death in combat. The notifying officer was furious with the gathered mob, saying, as Graebner tells it: “You call yourselves Brazilian, but what have you sacrificed for your country?”
Walter Berner, who was born in Petrópolis in 1944, spoke to me in halting German outside the church. "Even after the war we couldn’t speak our language in the street," he said. "People would get agitated." Graebner heard stories of policemen asking little children their name was and yelling at them if they answered in German. When Graebner arrived from Blumenau in 1964, the language was almost dead. Even now, the eight German dance groups (which offer everything from language classes to unofficial matchmaking services for young German Brazilians) have to operate without government or German Consulate help. "We have no support," she says. "We do this on our own."
This sense of victimhood permeates parts of the community, but it can be difficult to sympathize with. After all, Brazilian society victimizes many, and the Germans, for all their tribulations, have never been a true underclass here.
But it’s also understandable why Germans in South America would be defensive. Nazi jokes abound — a British friend of mine told me, of course, to look out for any elderly men who seemed reluctant to talk about the past. It doesn’t help that Mengele, one of the most grotesque of the Nazi menagerie, lived rather undisturbed in Brazil (although seemingly not integrated into the German community) until his accidental drowning in 1979. But in Brazil, the communities are much older, and much more complicated, than simple notions of postwar Germans on the lam.
Teuto-Brasileiros, as they are called, really are Brazilians first. Take Graebner’s mother, Herta — a devoted and devout mother, from hardy Coburg stock, there was a lot that was German about her. But when she died a few years ago — promised to heaven "by grace alone," as the Lutherans put it — it was not at all a German death. She was walking in flip-flops to cut bananas from a tree when she was bitten by a jararaca, a deadly pit viper indigenous to southern Brazil.
When Eduardo and I finally made it to the Bohemia brewery in order to eat Knackwurst, drink Weissbier and watch Germany play, there were really only two overt fans of der Nationalmannschaft in the crowd. Most of the Brazilians were rooting for Ghana, perhaps because Brazilians love an underdog, particularly if that underdog might help bloody a rival that can compete with the Seleçao.
But Isis Jader, a civil lawyer wearing an Oktoberfest shirt she bought in Blumenau, and Gustavo Holderbaum, a dentist and ardent home brewer (favorite beer: IPA), were keeping the fire lit for Germany. As the game dragged on into eventual stalemate, Jader presented a pretty compelling picture of a modern German-Brazilian. Although her mother was a German teacher, she never learned the language herself. She identifies strongly with her heritage: for 20 years she danced in the Bergstadt dance group here, and she was elected Miss Bauernfest a few years back. If there were good jobs for lawyers in Blumenau, she told me as she took a smoke break from the game, she would move there, even though it’s almost 1,200 kilometers away and she has no family there. She would go just to be a part of a larger, more vibrant German community. "There’s no poverty there, everyone is equal," she said with a sigh. "It’s quiet there."
But when I asked Jader about a bracelet she wore on her wrist, a red and green beaded trinket, the conversation got significantly less German. It turns out that she is not Lutheran or Catholic, nor a member of one of the increasingly popular evangelical churches. Instead, she follows Umbanda, a hybrid religion that rose up from the Afro-Brazilian community. And she is a stalwart believer: When she has a spiritual or even professional problem, she goes to an Umbanda terreiro (backyard) to consult amedium, who, according to need, will either become possessed by the spirit of a wise old slave who was beaten to death by his master, or by a deceased indigenous Brazilian, or by others. "It’s unbelievable," she told me. "But when [the slave] possesses them, you see it. They smoke a pipe, hunch over like an old man, become a different person."
But if Umbanda was born of the orixás — demigods of the Yoruba pantheon — and West African cosmology and ritual brought to the New World by slaves and often masked for protection as the adoration of Christian saints, it has turned into something for all Brazilians. In Rio, alongside Afro-Brazilians, you can find Italians and Portuguese and Japanese venerating these old spirits. And there in the Umbanda terreiros, taking their rightful place as true Brazilians, are the Germans as well.