October 5, 1933:
Gisa Catarina Gärtner was born at sea on October 5, 1933, halfway between the province of Tirol, Austria, and the state of Santa Catarina, Brazil, thereby becoming the youngest of 91 Catholic Austrian emigrants headed to found a new colony in the New World.
Her fellow emigrants greeted her arrival dubiously for two reasons: First, no one had been aware of her mother’s pregnancy so they assumed she had concealed it. Second, an unaccounted colonizer would require explanation and additional paperwork with the Brazilian authorities.
Her family greeted her arrival with equal dubiety. The last of eight children, tiny Gisa’s closest sibling outstripped her by 12 years; her eldest already married and settled in Canada at age 27. A large woman, her mother had only started to suspect she was with child in the final days leading to Gisa’s birth. At 49-years-old, her menses had become sporadic; when they ceased completely, she assumed her childbearing years had ended and good riddance. Totally unprepared to care for an infant on the crowded ship, Gisa’s arrival caused her family both great inconvenience and great embarrassment.
Upon arrival on Brazilian soil, the immigration authorities debated Gisa’s status. Her fellow colonizers would enjoy privileges as Brazilian citizens while retaining their Austrian rights. But, having never touched Austrian soil, Gisa had no such claim. In the end, Gisa unconsciously gained another dubious distinction: as the only non-Austrian settler present on October 13, 1933 when their Director of Colonization, Andreas Thaler, officially founded and named the new settlement Dreizehnlinden, or Thirteen Lindens, after a poem of the same name by German poet Friedrich Wilhelm Weber.
In the months that followed, harsh reality and relentless mosquitoes set upon the colonists as they endeavoured to acclimatize to the hot Brazilian sun and reversed seasons, all packed together into one rudimentary communal barracks. They worked together; they ate together; they slept together.
In those her first months, Gisa received the minimal care required to keep her quiet. Passed from one sibling to the next, she only enjoyed the warmth of her mother’s bosom when hunger spurned her to wail inconsolably and she was indulged to guzzle a quick, greedy drink before being returned unceremoniously into the hands of whoever would take her. The exhausting work required to start anew spared no able body. Sometimes, one of the children would simply forget Gisa laying somewhere and only her crying would alert someone else passing to her abandoned state. Yet, miraculously, she not only survived but she grew and developed alongside the developing settlement.
So began Gisa Catarina Gärtner’s life: an afterthought in every sense of the word.
This post marks the beginning of the story “Death by Water”, within the story “Life by Drowning”, to which I alluded when I called this a “multi-dimensional novel”. Although Gisa Catarina Gärtner and the Gärtner family is fictional, the setting is real and the historical details are accurate to the best of my knowledge. Find out more about the history of these brave immigrants in the related post And So It Began.
1933 – 1939: Dreizehnlinden, Santa Catarina, Brazil
By the time Gisa grew old enough to go to school, the rudimentary communal barracks had transformed into small neat houses and productive farms, and the settlement of Dreizehnlinden into a community complete with a church and a store, as well as a school.
As stonemasons and bricklayers, Gisa’s father and her two eldest brothers played an integral part in laying the foundations on which the community grew. In 1937, the town’s seasoned workmen completed its crowning accent, a tall red-brick residence sitting high on a hill for the settlement’s founder, Andreas Thaler. They called it Das Kleine Schloss—The Little Castle—or O Castelinho in Portuguese.
Gisa gloried in walking past the castle and stopping to gaze up into the windows in the tall round tower. She would exclaim wistfully in her small five-year-old voice, “a real castle, right here in Dreizehnlinden!” to which her sister, or whoever was with her, would reply: “Silly girl, you’ve never seen a real castle before. In Austria, there are many castles.”
“In Austria…in Austria…” A statement Gisa heard often as a child. Her family had left Austria to find a better land, a better life. Yet, their hearts remained tied to the Homeland. Their memories fixated on the mountains, the comradeship, the feasts, to the exclusion of the overcrowding, the religious discrimination, and the hunger that had driven them to leave. Nostalgia does that.
Her father, a tall wiry man with large calloused hands, called Gisa his “Little Brazilian”. Even at five, she felt the condescension. When she occasionally interjected a Portuguese word or phrase, which she picked up so naturally, into conversation, her family chided her: “Deutsch, Gisa, Deutsch.”
Outside Dreizehnlinden’s isolated community, Brazil’s political structures shifted on tenuous footings. On November 10, 1937, based on the pretext of protecting the country from a communist revolution rumoured to have support from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas staged a political coup. With military and popular support, he called a state of emergency, dropped the Constitution of 1934, banned all political organizations, dissolved the Congress, and proclaimed himself Dictator over this Estado Novo (New State). Under Vargas’ nationalist agenda, power shifted from the states to the central government, and from the landowners to the urban middle and lower classes. Dreizehnlinden’s inhabitants read about these changes with mild concern; constitution or no constitution, life continued.
The end of 1938 found only her youngest brother, age 20, and her sister, age 17, at home with Gisa. Her two eldest brothers—strong and self-reliant, in their late twenties—had married two sisters from within one of the Austrian colonial families and established homes of their own. Not long after, her two sisters next in line—healthy, robust girls in their early twenties—had each married as well. At home, Gisa’s youngest sister, Teresa, had taken over much of the housekeeping while their mother tended their garden and chickens. Like the rest of the men in her family, her youngest brother worked in construction.
In 1939, Gisa’s world widened to attending school. Walking to and from by herself—a tiny, wisp of a child, small for her age, and so slight in comparison to her sturdy, grown siblings, with fine blond hair tied in braids down her back. She surveyed everything around her with intense seriousness through ever-changing blue-grey-green eyes—eyes the colour of the sea she had been born on. And so she grew, apart from the rest, and only partly aware why.
1939 – 1942: Dreizehnlinden, Santa Catarina, Brazil
No sooner had the stalwart community of Dreizehnlinden established foundations, than political unrest and natural disaster combined to shake them to the core.
Even in the far reaches of the south of Brazil, they could not escape the turmoil that embroiled their Austrian countrymen in Europe. In March 1938, Austria’s formalized Anschluss (connection) with the German Reich, made administration of the settlement of Dreizehnlinden subject to the German Consulate General in the nearby town of Joaçaba. The Nazi Party considered the area as prime real estate for the settlement of their own emigrants—Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia. Led by Andreas Thaler, and supported by his influential connections, the families in Dreizehnlinden argued vehemently against this unwelcome invasion onto the lands they had prepared.
On June 28, 1939, more fundamental concerns temporarily overshadowed their political ones when a torrential rainstorm assaulted the community, flooding the river, damaging crops, and injuring livestock. When the rains finally abated, to their horror, they discovered Andreas Thaler drowned, assumedly in an attempt to rescue a cow from the river’s swift current. Without Thaler as representative, the town became evermore susceptible to German agendas.
On September 1, 1939, Germany turned its attention toward Poland, provoking France and the United Kingdom to retaliate. Thus began the Great War. From late 1939 to early 1941, through a series of campaigns and treaties, Germany conquered or controlled much of continental Europe, and formed the Axis alliance with Italy and Japan. The Nazi’s long reach extended further and further.
Little Gisa experienced Germany’s influence as an absence. The regular influx of bad news from abroad, and the continued interference from the German Consulate, diverted her family’s attention away from household tasks, and her care. All around her, people half functioned in a full state of distraction. Too young to understand events on a global scale, Gisa simply felt them…in her father’s cynicism, her mother’s apathy, her sister’s impatience…. She retreated into herself, only deepening her isolation. As quiet as a mouse, she received as much attention as one. And the war raged on.
1942: Dreizehnlinden / Papuan, Santa Catarina, Brazil
In the face of war abroad, Brazil’s President Vargas attempted to remain neutral. Brazil depended upon trading partnerships with both Germany and the United States, the manufacture and sale of arms to Germany making up a significant percentage of that trade. However, increasing cooperation and financial investment from the United States motivated Brazil to officially sever diplomatic relations with Germany, Japan, and Italy on January 28, 1942.
In July 1942, the press credited German U-Boats with sinking thirteen Brazilian merchant vessels in the South Atlantic. Others speculated that credit for the attacks belonged elsewhere. Regardless of the perpetrators, Vargas resisted further measures against the Axis. The Brazilian public, on the other hand, took to the streets to demand that the government retaliate with a declaration of war. In the capital of Rio de Janeiro, restless ne’er-do-wells exercised their frustration on German-owned restaurants and other businesses.
Still, the thousand-kilometre distance between Rio and Dreizehnlinden shielded Gisa, her family, and other German-speaking residents from any direct confrontation and the undercurrents of conflict continued to affect Gisa as only a vague, indescribable sense of discomfort. At age eight, she still more closely resembled a child several years younger, small and thin with too-large eyes. She quietly kept to corners and preferred to sit with her legs pulled tight to her chest and her arms around her knees, when allowed the option.
After school, Gisa tended to drop her books inside the front door and then disappear again without a sound. She would wander around Dreizehnlinden, sometimes people-watching through the open windows of the town’s stores. Often, she stopped to gaze up into the vacant windows of the tall red-brick tower of the Kleine Schloss, now devoid of its master. When encountering her fellow townspeople, whether superior or peer, she would scurry quietly away in another direction. Occasionally, she walked up into the hills to visit the cows. Her family left her to her own devises, as long as she returned in time for dinner, which she usually did, led by her appetite.
Then, in August 1942, definitive news reached the small town that a single German submarine, the U-507, had sunk five Brazilian vessels in two days, causing more than six hundred deaths. These new attacks, combined with diplomatic pressure plus economic incentives from the United States, finally led Vargas to declare war on the Axis on August 22, 1942, officially joining Brazil with the Allies. That’s when the war truly reached Dreizehnlinden, forever shifting its foundations.
In a show of pro-Brazilian nationalism and anti-German sentiment, Vargas immediately instituted a number of domestic sanctions. In one foul swoop, he banned use of the German language in public, expropriated German-speaking settlers’ lands, and demanded the renaming of Germanic place names with suitably Brazilian ones. Dreizehnlinden became Papuan. All around them, other German-speaking settlements endured the same treatment.
Wide-eyed, Gisa and her stunned schoolmates watched as Brazilian officials carted their German-language books outside to the schoolyard in a wheelbarrow, tossed them into a pile, and then set them ablaze, feeding the already greedy flames with Dreizehnlinden’s beautifully carved sign as a final offering to the Brazilian nationalist gods. Her sister, Teresa, arrived, along with other neighbours, enfolding her arms around Gisa’s trembling shoulders. The wind changed direction, assaulting Gisa’s eyes with smoke, until tears streamed down her blanched cheeks. Trial by fire.
One of the bureaucrats approached the fire with one last armful of books and stopped to the right of Teresa and Gisa. Teresa’s eyes landed on an old green leather-bound volume with gold gilding and a red crest—the original epic poem by Fredrich Wilhelm Weber, entitled “Dreizehnlinden”, after which they had named their colony. The book had been sent from Austria as a gift for the new school.
As the man lifted the text with his left hand from the stack cradled in his right arm, Teresa stepped forward and grasped it. She locked eyes with the official with a look of half-defiance, half-entreaty, the book suspended between them. He paused, considering the consequences of his next move, then let go, saying “em casa só” (at home only). Teresa turned without a word, pulling Gisa protectively to her side and hastily escorted her and the book home, successfully salvaging a small piece of Dreizehnlinden’s history.
That night, Teresa, who shared a small back bedroom with Gisa, awoke suddenly to find Gisa’s side of the bed empty and cold. She whispered Gisa’s name and scanned the room. She searched the bathroom and kitchen. No Gisa. Panicking, she awoke her parents. Her father lit a lantern and they searched the house again. He noted the still-locked door but searched the yard regardless.
In desperation, they broke the night’s deep silence and called Gisa’s name aloud inside and out. Suddenly, a small movement caught Teresa’s eye through the open door into their room. She ran to the bed and dropped to her knees, peering under it. There, wrapped in a shawl on the bare floor, lay slender Gisa, bleary-eyed and confused.
When asked why she had crawled under the bed, Gisa responded “it feels safer there”, to which her mother matter-of-factly replied that it was not safe to sleep on the floor in Brazil with the spiders and the snakes, picked her up, returned her into her bed with her sister, and then promptly retreated to bed herself without another word.
But, night after night, Gisa’s sister would find her curled up under the bed rather than upon it. Finally, Teresa acquired some straw, sewed Gisa a small tick from an old wool blanket and slid it under the bed. Still unsatisfied, she opened the chest at the end of their bed and withdrew a white cotton-covered feather blanket. Intended for her dowry, she had diligently toiled for months to save feathers from their chickens and ducks to make this blanket for her future marital bed. But, she couldn’t bear to see Gisa lying on that hard floor any longer with only a shawl for cover and there were no other unused blankets left in the house. She half-slid under the bed herself to arrange the feather blanket folded in half over the straw tick, pushing it closer to the wall so her mother would not notice it. From then on, Gisa slept comfortably, safe in her little nest.
The Brazilian government replaced the school’s worn German schoolbooks with shiny new Portuguese ones and their familiar German-speaking teachers with native Portuguese-speakers. They even erected a new flimsy sign declaring the town as Papuan for all to see. With few other choices before them, the community endeavoured to adjust into this shifted reality.
Strangely, despite the shock and angst, these changes put Gisa on a more equal footing with her family and community: now, they must all become Little Brazilians.
I found an interesting propaganda video produced by the United States about Brazil in World War II. You can see it by following the Related Post, “Brazil at War”, below.