Brazilian drama Passport to Freedom honours a hero of the Holocaust

WHEN Schindler’s List, originally published as Schindler’s Ark outside the US market, won the 1982 Booker Prize for fiction, its author Thomas Keneally was nonplussed.

n an interview with The New York Times that year, Keneally said he was “delighted” to win the Prize, yet found it “preposterous” that the Booker judges had given an award for fiction to a non-fiction novel. 

“The book is fiction in the sense that Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff is fiction,” he said. “The facts are there, but I make use of fictional techniques in character development, the manner in which an incident is relayed.”

Keneally spent two years researching and writing the book, and interviewed almost 50 Schindlerjuden who had avoided the Nazi camps, thanks to the enigmatic German industrialist. Where there was no record of the dialogue, said Keneally, he’d done “a reasonable reconstruction”.

When it comes to television dramas, however, there’s a chasm of difference between the kind of “reasonable reconstruction” employed by an author as scrupulous as Keneally and the plain making things up of something as iffy as, say, The Crown.

There’s been a minor attempt to cast doubt on the subject of eight-part Brazilian drama Passport to Freedom (Drama, Saturday), which tells the lesser-known story (to non-Brazilians at any rate) of Aracy de Carvalho, who worked as a diplomatic clerk at the country’s consulate in Hamburg from 1936 to 1942 and is credited with saving a large number of Jewish people from incarceration and death on the eve of the Holocaust.

She began to help Jews during Kristallnacht, the nationwide pogrom against them launched on November 9, 1938. She provided visas to Jews without the required red “J” used to mark them out, thus ensuring safe passage to Brazil instead of a ticket to a concentration camp.

In doing so, she risked incurring the wrath of both her country’s government, which had a non-official policy of not granting entry visas to Jews, and the revenge of the Nazis. Had she been found out, she’d have faced death.

Played here by German-Brazilian actress Sophie Charlotte, she’s one of just two Brazilians honoured by the Yad Vashem with the Righteous Among the Nations award – an accolade bestowed only on those with unimpeachable credentials.

Nonetheless, a couple of Brazilian historians have questioned the veracity of Aracy de Carvalho’s story, claiming she did nothing more than her duty, never issued non-”J” visas and was never at personal risk.

Passport to Freedom, the first Brazilian TV drama made entirely in English, has no truck with these claims, which appear to have gained little traction anyway.

Saturday’s episode – the only one I was able to watch due to a technical glitch with the previews provided – opens in 1938 and loses no time in throwing us straight into the story.

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Aracy, newly liberated from an unhappy marriage, finds the dangerous game she’s playing grow substantially more dangerous as the Nazis’ stranglehold on the city grows ever tighter. There are checkpoints on every second street and the violence against Jews has intensified.

Aracy initially fears the arrival of an unknown quantity, new deputy consul João Guimarães Rosa (Rodrigo Lombardi), may bring another threat of exposure. But when she’s assigned to help him find an apartment, she quickly discovers he’s just as appalled by what the Nazis are doing to the Jews as she is.

As they pass a children’s playground, he openly expresses his disgust at a sign saying Jewish children are not permitted to use it.

Later, he intervenes to save the life of a Jewish man who’s been doused with petrol and set on fire by young uniformed Nazi thugs.

It’s giving nothing away to say that João and Aracy became allies, lovers and eventually man and wife.

Passport to Freedom is handsomely mounted and solidly engrossing. If I have a reservation, it concerns the side-plot about an SS officer and his Jewish lover, a heroin-addicted nightclub singer who passes herself off as Gentile.

They appear to be wholly fictional characters, which is something a fact-based drama about the Holocaust never, ever needs. 

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