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Olga Benário PrestesA Revolutionary in Rio by Ruth Almog
Rochelle G. Saidel reacts to the recent review of this film.

Olga Benário Prestes Deserves Better than a Romantic Tearjerker

On September 3, 2004, Haaretz, Israel’s most prestigious newspaper, carried an article by Ruth Almog, a well-known and honored journalist and author in Israel. Almog was reporting on a new Brazilian film about Olga Benário Prestes, a German Jewish political prisoner who was deported from Brazil in 1936, imprisoned in Ravensbrück in 1939, and ultimately murdered by the Nazis in 1942. In response to this article, Rochelle G. Saidel wrote the following letter to the editor, which was printed in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz on September 10, 2004.

Olga Benário Prestes, the subject of “A Revolutionary in Rio” by Ruth Almog (Week’s End Arts and Letters section), deserves a better commemoration than the new film about her, which recently premiered in Brazil. As the article correctly states, the film is based on a “documentary novel” (probably an oxymoron) written by well-known Brazilian journalist Fernando Morais. His book, originally in Portuguese, was also translated into English (Olga: Revolutionary and Martyr, Grove Weidenfeld, 1990). According to this Haaretz article and others published in Brazil, the film is an audience-pleasing “telenovela,” a “tearjerker,” “a love story,” “an epic film,” and “Hollywood-style saga about a beautiful woman.” Almog quotes the film’s director that he wanted to “make a film that would touch people’s hearts, not a political film.”

It should be impossible to make a film about Olga Benário Prestes that is not a political film. I have been familiar with her inspiring and tragic story since I first visited Ravensbrück concentration camp, then part of the German Democratic Republic, in 1980. This visit and others ultimately led to my book, The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp (2004, University of Wisconsin Press). A chapter is devoted to Olga, as well as to Austrian Social Democrat Käthe Pick Leichter, another heroic Jewish political prisoner.
Olga was totally committed to politics from her childhood to her dying day, when she was taken from Ravensbrück with other mostly Jewish political prisoners to be gassed at Bernburg, a euthanasia facility. Even against all odds in Ravensbrück, she used her political skills to teach secret classes, write and distribute an underground newspaper, organize extra food for sick prisoners, draw a world atlas as a teaching tool, and encourage the women in her barrack to stay as clean and healthy as possible.

She was designated as both Jewish and a political prisoner by the Nazis, making her a target of harsher treatment than non-Jewish political prisoners. She never stopped resisting the Nazis’ persecution of her as a Jew, a communist, and a woman, and was even placed in solitary confinement and in the prison bunker because of her resistance activities. Her last act of resistance was a letter to her husband and daughter, which they received many years later. On her last night at Ravensbrück, sensing she would be sent to her death the next day, she wrote to her daughter: “Above all else, I'm going to make you strong. . . . I promise you now, as I say farewell, that until the last instant I will give you no reason to be ashamed of me."

Olga Benário Prestes surely would have protested about the humiliation and indignity of taking the story of a brilliant, heroic, committed, political and strong woman and reducing it to a “tearjerker.”

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