59th Anniversary in Rio de Janeiro

I spent the 59th anniversary of my parents’ execution speaking at Midrash, a progressive Jewish cultural center in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I arrived in Rio on Sunday morning after an overnight flight from New York. My first presentation was not until Monday evening, but after resting on Sunday afternoon, I spent most of the next day doing television and newspaper interviews. On Monday I spoke following a showing of Sidney Lumet’s film, Daniel. My talk focused on my experiences growing up, and how I came to start the Rosenberg Fund for Children and develop the concept of constructive revenge. On Tuesday evening, after a screening of the 2008 French documentary, The Brother Who Sent the Rosenbergs to the Electric Chair, I gave a lecture about the new developments in my parents’ case. Most of the audience of over 100 each night did not require translation, but for those who did, it was provided in a video-linked separate room.

The audience was very receptive, responsive and enthusiastic. Many who attended the first evening’s program returned for the second. It was probably the best conceived and organized set of presentations in which I’ve participated.

Beyond that and perhaps more surprising, the Brazilian media provided me with fantastic national coverage. Apparently they loved the concept of constructive revenge and gave me more TV air-time to explain it than I’ve ever had. This was both gratifying and perplexing since this concept has practically been ignored in the U.S. I appeared on television so frequently that by the time I left Rio I noticed people on the street glancing at me with recognition. Brazil is a massive country about the size of the U.S. with a population of 200,000,000. My audience of viewers ran in the tens of millions. I wish I had more understanding of why my message resonated so well there.

More generally, I was impressed with the dynamism of Brazil. Rio is easily the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. Nothing I’ve experienced matched its integration of ocean, mountains, vegetation and buildings. In typical tourist fashion I spent my entire time near the waterfront in upscale neighborhoods, only glimpsing the favelas as distant clusters of ramshackle dwellings perched on treacherously steep mountainsides. There also was a noticeable armed police and security presence, heightened perhaps by the international Rio + 20 conference that was ramping up during my stay.

Brazil is a very diverse society that boasts about its relative lack of racism. However, I noted in the fancy neighborhoods that those enjoying the cafes looked European, the police guarding the streets were slightly darker, the bus drivers darker still and the street sweepers, maids and the homeless tended to be the darkest of all. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but reflects a general social stratification along racial lines. Evidence of sustainability efforts were everywhere I went, from electric buses to low flow toilets to recycle bins in hotel rooms and restaurants. But the Amazon rainforest is still being consumed at an alarming rate, and historically the Brazilians have done as good a job of exterminating and subjugating the native population as we have in the United States.

I was intrigued to observe an emerging world power that did not appear interested in projecting its military might. When I asked which countries were Brazil’s enemies, the only response I received was that Brazil once fought a war with Paraguay over territory in the 19th century. Victory at soccer seemed more important to most Brazilians than victory in combat, and they were most proud of their cultural exports. I was also told that because Brazil had endured decades of brutal military dictatorship that lasted until the mid 1980’s, people were acutely aware of and committed to maintaining human rights and due process. However, some of these same people confirmed what I’d read. This orientation didn’t necessarily extend to street people and was belied by a police force that could be brutal and corrupt.

I barely scraped the surface in the eight days I spent there, and doubtless my impressions were skewed by my limited travel and the relatively few people with whom I spent time. Now more than a week after returning, I’m still processing this very powerful experience.

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