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The Angel of Hamburg

She didn’t follow orders.

Aracy Carvalho was a Brazilian clerk working at her country’s consulate in Hamburg Germany who used her position to save German Jews and find homes for them in Brazil.

Born in 1908 to a German mother and a Brazilian father in Rio Negro, Brazil, Aracy was a bright child with a facility with languages. Besides Portuguese, her native language, she spoke German, English and French. As a young adult, Aracy moved to Sao Paulo. She married a German man with whom she had one child before separating in 1935.

With her multicultural upbringing, sharp mind and friendly personality, Aracy decided to go into the diplomatic field. She was appointed to the Brazilian Consulate in Hamburg, Germany in 1936 and served as Chief of the Passport Section. Two years after her arrival in Germany, a horrific pogrom against Jews took place throughout Germany. November 9, 1938 became known as Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass.” Much more than glass was broken by the Nazi party’s paramilitary unit, helped by fervent members of the Hitler Youth as well as German civilians. Jewish homes, businesses, schools and hospitals were destroyed with sledgehammers, and 267 synagogues were burned to the ground. Many Jews were brutally murdered, 7000 Jewish businesses were destroyed. 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Jews across the country were thrown into despair and fear, and over the next few days 638 (or more) Jews committed suicide.

During Kristallnacht, Aracy sheltered a Jewish couple, Margarethe Bertel-Levy and her husband, in her small apartment. She then made arrangements for them to leave Germany safely, with most of their possessions. As the situation for Jews in Germany worsened, Aracy hid several other Jews. One of them, Gunther Heilborn, would later name his Brazilian-born daughter Aracy in honor of the brave young woman who saved his life. 

Working in the diplomatic field, Aracy’s job required her to be apolitical. Brazil and Germany had a strong trade relationship, swapping Brazilian cotton for German industrial goods, and the president of Brazil, Getulio Dornelles Vargas, a ruthless dictator, did not want his diplomatic corps to do anything to alienate Hitler. Aracy was instructed to “unofficially” prevent desperate Jewish refugees from going to Brazil by giving them visas marked with J, and then denying them approval to travel. This was not acceptable to Aracy, whose moral compass overrode the instructions of her superiors. She quietly refrained from marking Jewish passports with the tell-tale J, instead issuing as many valid visas as she could to Jewish applicants, even those she knew were using forged passports. She also helped them financially so that they had enough money to start a new life once they reached Brazil. Aracy became known among Jews as the “Angel of Hamburg.”

Around this time, João Guimarães Rosa was appointed Brazil’s deputy consul in Hamburg. On his first day on the job he met Aracy and was soon entranced by the beautiful passport official, especially since there was something mysterious about her. Aracy seemed to be hiding something about herself, and as João got to know her and earned her trust, he discovered what it was. Initially he was shocked, but soon came to agree that she was doing the right thing, and developed enormous admiration for the brave young woman, who could get fired or worse for disobeying orders. They were married in 1940.

The political winds often shifted quickly during World War II, and by 1942 Brazil was no longer on the side of Germany and instead joined the Allied Forces. Aracy and João were recalled back to Brazil, where João became one of Brazil’s most celebrated authors who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1967. 

In 1982, Aracy Carvalho de Guimarães Rosa was honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem. She lived quietly in Brazil until her death in 2011 at the advanced age of 102. “Passport to Freedom,” a miniseries about Aracy’s wartime heroism, aired on Brazilian television in 2021. 

For breaking the rules to save innocent lives, we honor Aracy Carvalho de Guimarães Rosa as this week’s Thursday Hero.

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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