"Now I must sleep, so tomorrow I can be strong," wrote Olga Benario to her husband and daughter from a Nazi concentration camp on the last night of her life. "I kiss you both for the last time."
Olga Benario, the daughter of a middle-class lawyer from Munich, thrust herself into the most treacherous currents of revolutionary struggle.
At 14 she joined the Communist Party. She was still a teen-ager when she liberated her lover from a German prison at gunpoint and fled to Moscow. She was sent to South America to start a revolution. But her life ended, by a poignant twist of fate, in a concentration camp.
Fernando Morais, Benario's self-appointed biographer, persuades us that her hunger for adventure, her sheer force of character, her passion and courage, called her to a strange and tragic destiny. As depicted in "Olga," she was a strong and beautiful woman, a hero in the very best sense of the word, but a doomed hero.
The book focuses on the zenith in the arc of her life. She was dispatched by the Comintern to Brazil in 1935 in the company of Luis Carlos Prestes, another impossibly romantic figure who was Moscow's best hope for triggering a revolution in Latin America. They traveled in the guise of a rich young couple, well supplied with cash and clothing to keep up the pretense, and even managed a sumptuous "honeymoon" in New York before landing by seaplane on the coast of Brazil.
"May 1935 be the year of revolution in Brazil," Prestes toasted his comrade and lover.
As it turned out, the elaborate plot was stillborn: "The revolution 'began' at 3 a.m.," Morais explains, "and was over by 1:30 p.m. that afternoon." The Brazilian secret police, assisted by the Gestapo, rounded up the usual suspects and broke them under hideous torture. Soon enough, the story of Olga Benario turns from high-spirited revolutionary adventure to a descent into the maw of the Holocaust.
Benario was a Jew, a Bolshevik, and a wanted criminal in Nazi Germany. The Brazilian police did not torture her; they offered her as a gift to Adolf Hitler. The fact that she carried the baby of a Brazilian citizen did not save her, nor did the heroic protests of her fellow prisoners. Her heroism and courage were put to a different test from the one for which she had prepared.
History has provided Morais with settings and incidents fit for a Hollywood movie. Benario carries an ivory-handled revolver. The Brazilian police make cynical use of Prestes' faithful dog to search out and identify the couple in hiding. A police interrogator--blond and German-speaking--asks no questions at all; rather, he impassively cracks and eats hazelnuts until, suddenly, he crushes a suspect's thumb in the nutcracker. The only clue to Benario's ultimate fate is one word on a slip of paper sewn into the hem of her skirt: Bernburg, the site of a Nazi gas chamber.
Morais is a Brazilian journalist who now serves as minister of culture for the province of Sao Paolo. "Olga" is clearly his passion--as the woman herself was in the lives of so many other men--and he spent years in search of her exotic but elusive story.
Significantly, he found a rich vein of once-secret information in the National Archives in Washington, thanks to the complicity of U.S. agents in suppressing the Prestes conspiracy.
The saga of Olga Benario, while muscle-bound with facts, in Morais' hands is aflame with the telltale glow of an author who has fallen hopelessly in love with his subject. Morais tells Benario's story so vividly, so convincingly, that we can readily understand why.
Next: Charles Bowden reviews "The White Puma" by R.D. Lawrence (Henry Holt).