Personal Items Narrate the Story of So Paulo's Jews in New Museum

Museu Judaico de So Paulo (the Jewish Museum of So Paulo) is expected to be inaugurated mid-2016.

Diogo Bercito

Sitting by the window, Ruth Tarasantchi, 81, covers her legs with a threadbare brown blanket, her hands feeling the holes left by decades of use. She points to the word “Dohan” sewn on one of the sides – her grandmother’s last name. “This is a rag that I used to iron my clothes. It’s worth nothing if I sell it,” she notes. “What is valuable is its history.”

Formerly used by an American soldier, the blanket has been in her possession since the 1940s. Tarasantchi and her family – originally from former Yugoslavia – had by then been released from a concentration camp south of Italy. It traveled to Brazil with her when she immigrated in 1947. Now this very piece of cloth is going to be one of the items exhibited in a new Jewish museum to be opened in So Paulo next year with an estimated budget of $7 million.

Museu Judaico de So Paulo (the Jewish Museum of So Paulo) is expected to be inaugurated mid-2016 in what was formerly the Beth-El Temple, built in Byzantine style and opened in 1929 as an important center of So Paulo’s Jewish community. The restoration was made possible by donations. Tarasantchi and her colleagues are still looking for more funding.

She has been hunting artifacts like the blanket for the past 10 years, gathering objects that can narrate the story of Jewish migration to So Paulo.

“It’s inconceivable that in a country this size there is still no Jewish museum,” she tells Haaretz in her apartment near the iconic Paulista Avenue. “It’s an absurd situation.”

Brazil has 200 million inhabitants. Its Jewish population numbers around 120,000, half of them living in So Paulo – although this number may vary according to the source.

Imbued by this sense of urgency, she began asking other members of the community to contribute whatever they could find. The first donation to the museum was an ancient Venetian tallit (prayer shawl). Since then, Tarasantchi has already received up to 2,500 items.

“Firstly I befriended a group of Sephardic ladies that handed me artifacts from Smyrna [known today as Izmir, Turkey]. After that, people told each other about the project, and then they started to donate en masse,” she says. “We want to build a museum which will show how Jews lived in the places they came from.”

Forget me not

The Jewish Museum of So Paulo is a project about remembrances. Memory also seems to be a major concern in Tarasantchi’s own life. She shows Haaretz her office and, spread on a large desk, what seems to be an inexhaustible pile of documents. She still keeps her grandmother’s diary, with the narrative of their escape from former Yugoslavia day-by-day. She treasures her parents’ pictures and travel papers – they left their hometown with a fake Christian name, as did many others. Even “Beba,” the doll she carried as a child during the war, is still part of her life, together with a paperboard checkers game. She donated all these items to the museum.

Diogo Bercito

Tarasantchi was born in 1933 in Sarajevo. Her family fled to Italy during World War II. They lived in a concentration camp for eight months before being freed by British soldiers and finally immigrated to Brazil on a ship baptized Philippa, in 1947. She married Jacob Tarasantchi, a doctor from what were then the territories of Bessarabia, in Eastern Europe. She studied Art History and learned restoration techniques – a useful skill set for her current task.

During the morning she spends with this writer she recalls in detail an impressive amount of information. She cites, for instance, a certain Captain Stone when narrating the liberation of the Ferramonti camp in 1943. “The soldiers gave us canned food. We were not used to that, and everyone had diarrhea!” she recounts, laughing.

Later, when showing an old picture published by a foreign magazine, she grabs a magnifying lens and finds herself in the crowd – and then squeals upon seeing that someone holds a can of corned beef, exactly as she had described a bit earlier.

Tarasantchi found traces of her own story in some of the artifacts donated to the museum during these past 10 years. A certain family, for instance, gave her the travel documents of a deceased Jewish immigrant who fled to So Paulo during the 1940s. She then noticed that his visa had been issued by the very same consul who had issued her father’s permit. Both traveled in the same ship, even though they never met each other. “It thrilled me,” she says.

The hunt for artifacts, however, taught Tarasantchi more than her own family history. By gathering items from Egyptian Jews, for example, she learned more about sometimes forgotten parts of the community.

Diogo Bercito

“I didn’t know anything about them. Then people brought me objects. Someone donated silver shards recovered from a Torah destroyed in Cairo’s synagogue.”

She is now working on a book in which she will tell her own story, so that it stays alive. She doesn’t say it out loud, but gives the impression of not trusting the new generations for this task. Meanwhile, she has been recording these memories in a series of images she has already exhibited in museums. Her favorite technique for that purpose is a type of engraving on a copper plate. She shows her burnt fingertips, a result of handling nitric acids.

One of the engravings she has over her desk shows a sequence of several episodes of her life, from Sarajevo to So Paulo. Another portraits her village back in Yugoslavia. “Well, it portraits it as I remember it,” she corrects, even though when visiting the place decades later she could still find her way to her old house (she specifically recalls the green apples by the terrace). One of the drawings quotes French writer Marcel Proust in a corner: The only true paradise is paradise lost.

Heterogeneous community

Modern Jewish immigration to So Paulo began in the 19th century, with significant waves during the following century. Tarasantchi’s collection will portray it as a very diverse group – she gathered, for example, scrolls from Morocco, silver objects from Italy and pictures from Bessarabia.

“It is important to emphasize that So Paulo’s Jewish community is not monolithic or uniform,” agrees Luis Krausz, who teaches at Universidade de So Paulo. “The community was formed by different immigrants, from different parts of the world and during different periods.”

Universidade de So Paulo has around 20 students per semester in its Hebrew course. Hebrew literature and Jewish literature attract approximately 30 of them. According to Krausz, there are still diverse topics on Jewish immigration that require research, for instance, the history of Jews from Arab countries in So Paulo.

The diversity that Krausz finds in this community is also reflected on the study “Mosaico de Nacionalidades” (a mosaic of nationalities), in which Brazilian researcher Maria Luiza Tucci Carneiro presents the various waves of Jewish migration to Brazil. Carneiro is also the author of an influential research on anti-Semitism in the country.

This community, like in other countries, organizes itself around institutions that include synagogues, schools and charity organizations. Tarasantchi’s collection will be another important cornerstone for the construction of this identity.

But, as is donating money, handing over memories is not an easy task, Tarasantchi warns. Some of the objects she has gathered for the museum took her time and effort.

“Not everyone is willing to donate them, even if they have been keeping these items for decades in their drawers,” she says.

Herself included. She grabs an old suitcase by the handle and wanders with it in her living room. “I had this when I left Yugoslavia,” she explains, showing the light-brown item. It is so well kept that it doesn’t show its age.

“It’s going to be a little bit harder to donate this one,” she smiles. “I guess I’ll keep it here for a little while more.”