German Brazilians in Southern Brazil

By Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere, July 19, 2014

Souvenir of the HH Amerika Linie

Souvenir of the HH Amerika Linie

German immigration to Rio Grande do Sul is celebrating its 190th anniversary this summer. Despite the ban on German schools and institutions during World War II, German or rather, the Hunsrückisch dialect is still spoken in many villages around Novo Hamburgo.

Since 2009 it is even being taught at several schools. However despite these efforts to preserve German culture, as far as soccer is concerned, they are 100% Brazilian. Well, at least until 8 July.

Without the palm trees, the forest between Reitersberg and Theewalt (Tea Forest) could be a forest in Germany. It should have been called Tannenwald (Fir Tree Forest), but that already existed. For Brazil it is rather cold. In early July it’s winter and in one of the main settlement areas of German Brazilians roughly 100km North of Porto Alegre, the temperatures at night descend to as low as five degrees Celsius. But not only the temperatures are more German than Brazilian, so is the food: “Tomorrow we will have Kartoffelküchle (potato scones)”, says Solange Hamester Johann, the founder and heart and soul of the Hunsrück project in the museum she created just outside of the Theewalt centre, which in Portuguese is called Santa Maria do Herval.

The main thrust of the project is the introduction of Hunsrückisch, a local German dialect from the Rhineland-Palatinate region, into the curriculum of elementary schools in and around Theewalt. With the help of German linguist Ursula Wiedemann who lived in Theewalt for five years, a special orthography was developed, based on Portuguese pronunciation, so that young children could learn it easily, e.g.: “Yeete Folek mus ti importans fon sayn moter xprooch wise” (Standard German: “Jedes Volk muss die Wichtigkeit seiner Muttersprache wissen” – All peoples need to know the importance of their mother tongue). This is one of the signs the pupils of the Castelo Branco elementary school have hung on the wall in the entrance hall. In 2007, Hunsrückisch was even recognized by UNESCO as one of the minority languages in Brazil, code hrx. “We see every day that this orthography and not standard German was the right decision. The kids learn it quickly and have fun in the classes.”

Theewalt Museum

Theewalt Museum

Located between Porto Alegre and Theewalt, Novo Hamburgo, with roughly 235,000 inhabitants is the biggest city in the Northern part of Brazil’s most southerly state, Rio Grande do Sul. The name Hamburg however, is a bit misleading and was only chosen because most of the German immigrants came to Brazil via the port of Hamburg.  Like the Lauermann family. Luis was born in near-by Ivote and has been the city’s mayor for two years. “It is not important anymore in the elections whether you are German, Italian or Japanese, and this is a good thing. The worst attack I suffered during the election campaign was over the fact that I am not from Novo Hamburgo,” explains Lauermann in his office overlooking the city. Lauermann began his political career in the union movement, like former president Lula. In fact the only time he visited Germany was by invitation of the German union DGB in 1991. Lauermann belongs to the last generation, which grew up speaking mostly German: “My father only learned proper Portuguese in the Armed Forces, and until I went to school, I also only knew a few words.”

This situation has drastically changed, especially in the bigger cities. “Unfortunately here in Novo Hamburgo less and less German or Hunsrückisch is spoken. The younger German-Brazilians are not terribly interested in their origins,” complains Felipe Kuhn Braun, who despite his young age of 27 has already published nine books about the German immigration. “Everything started with a box I inherited when my grandmother died. There were about 50 photos, but often nobody knew who was in the photos or where they had been taken. So I began investigating.”

The writer Eddy Ekrem Guzeldere with Luis Lauermann

The writer Eddy Ekrem Guzeldere with Luis Lauermann

Felipe who works in the press office of the state government in Porto Alegre, because “it is impossible to make a living from writing books,” visited Germany in 2007, especially the native regions of the German-Brazilians. Often German immigration to Southern America is equated with the escape of Nazis during the Second World War, whereas in reality the major influx was to Argentinia and Chile. Felipe could only find two photos showing support for Hitler’s NSDAP party among German Brazilians. “After the war, understandably nobody wanted to talk about it.” For Felipe it was the Germans in Europe who turned out to be far more receptive  to national socialism; the Brazilian Germans a lot less, especially in the countryside where it was hardly an issue.

Even if, according to Felipe, the number of German-speakers in the region should decline further, a lot depends on how leading personalities tackle the issue. Some mayors promote German or Hunsrückisch through events, and in schools, others don’t. And it seems that it doesn’t matter whether a person is of German origin or not. “The former mayor of Dois Irmaos was a German and he stopped all the activities relating to the preservation of German. The current mayor is an Afro-Brazilian woman, who has once again started supporting these activities.”

Felipe is soon to publish a book about Dois Irmaos. In his latest published book “Alemaes no Brasil” (Germans in Brazil), he has traced the stories of numerous immigrant families, one of them being the Pickbrenners who still live in Novo Hamburgo, in a quieter residential neighbourhood with single family houses. Margot, the “daughter” of the house, welcomes us, together with one of the numerous dogs. The house with three floors extends on a slope, of which the ground level has its own entrance where the brother lives. On the first floor live Margot and her mother, Eva Pickbrenner Momberger.

Eva Pickbrenner

Eva Pickbrenner

The family is a peculiarity in Novo Hamburgo for at least two reasons. They speak  standard German among themselves and Eva was born in Germany, in 1915: “My family returned to Germany from Namibia in 1912 because of malaria.” Back in Germany, Walter Pickbrenner, Eva’s father fought in World War I. Then in 1922 the family’s fate changed again. A fire destroyed almost all the harvest, but additionally “there was high inflation. We actually wanted to emigrate to Canada, but that was legally not possible, so we ended up in Southern Brazil”, recounts the 99-year-old Eva in the living room with a small dog on her lap. As in Namibia, the fathers’ first work place was a bakery in the city of Gramado, the Brazilian Cannes, where since 1973 a glamorous film festival has been held.

During World War II the family was in Brazil. Margot remembers that she didn’t suffer any trauma when German schools were shut down then, but there were nasty experiences too. “One teacher said that she would like to make goulash from the Germans.” Eva remembers that “in the small, almost completely German villages it was not that harsh, but in the bigger cities no one would dare to speak German in the streets. The older ones who didn’t know much Portuguese would just remain silent outside their homes. It often depended on the neighbours, some hated Germans and openly showed this.”

Even thoiugh the German-Brazilians who still speak German are fewer and fewer, the two women still find the opportunity to use German outside the family. Every week Eva  meets up with a group of about 10 German women in Gramado, “who are slightly younger than me”, she says with a twinkle in her eye as she sits across from her typically German cuckoo clock, which according to Margot “is true handcraft, not this Chinese stuff.”

In Theewalt, at the mayor’s and the Pickbrenners of course the soccer World Cup was also a topic of conversation. Margot commented in standard German that “we will of course support our beautiful Brazil, no doubt.” When asked who they were supporting, the pupils in Theewalt forgot they should be answering in Hunsrückisch and screamed in chorus: “Brasil, Brasil!!”.

Well, that was before 8 July.

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Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere is a political analyst and journalist based in Istanbul –  for more information see his website

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