Academic Studies Press
Series: Jewish Latin American Studies June 2020 | 146 pp.
9781644692981 | $22.95 | Paperback
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On a Clear April Morning, by Marcos Iolovitch, is a lyrical and riveting coming of age story set among early twentieth-century settlers brought to an almost unknown Jewish farming experiment in an isolated corner of Brazil. This autobiographical novel is filled with drama, joy, disasters, romance, and humor. It travels from farms where the crops won’t grow to towns where the Yiddish-speaking protagonist falls in love, befriends sons of German immigrants, studies philosophy with the Jesuits, and becomes an important member of Brazil’s literary world. This first English edition includes elucidating historical notes on the origin of Jewish farming communities in the U.S., Canada and South America by the translator, Merrie Blocker, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer.
About the author and translator
Born in a small Ukrainian village, Marcos Iolovitch was raised in southern Brazil among poor Jewish farmers and peddlers. He became a noted poet and essayist and practiced law. A fighter for social justice, he dedicated his autobiographical novel to “all those who suffer and dream of a better world.”
Merrie Blocker is a former U.S. diplomat who served as Cultural Attaché in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the setting for On a Clear April Morning, as well as in Central Asia, Romania and throughout Latin America.
Marcos Iolovitch, author of On a Clear April Morning, was an avid student of the great philosophers. But he believed that to reach “true wisdom” we need to open our windows and observe the “subtle shades of reality that envelope” us. In this autobiographical novel, in which a young man seeks to find a righteous and fulfilling path, we watch this charming and caring protagonist discover his own wisdom through the realities that envelop him, the realities of Jewish immigrants in southern Brazil during the first decades of the twentieth century.
Rio Grande is strongly tied to its European roots as revealed in the faces, surnames, and cuisine alike. A land of immigrants, Germans, Jews, Arabs, Italians, Poles, Portuguese, Rio Grande “has created a . . . peaceful marriage of cultures.” It is a place where, as Iolovitch relates, a youngster from a Yiddish speaking family could have as his best friend a son of German immigrants, a place where education could begin in a Jewish “cheder” and later be influenced by Jesuit teachers.
Here you won’t find any of Brazil’s famed beaches. But you will find, perched on hilltops with breathtaking sunsets over the Guaiba River, a city where civic life, education, and intellectual pursuits matter.
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In Porto Alegre, political engagement is a highly held value. It is the capital of a state with only seven percent of the national population, but a state that has given Brazil over twenty percent of its presidents.
Porto Alegre is home to two of Brazil’s finest universities, both noted for their teaching and the quantity and excellence of their humanistic and scientific research: the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) and the Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS), rated the best private university in the country.
This translation of On a Clear April Morning is the result of the work of another Gaucho center of intellectual inquiry, The Marc Chagall Cultural Institute. Founded in 1985 by Jewish intellectuals and business people, many descendants of immigrants who followed the same path as the Iolovitch family, Instituto Cultural Marc Chagall seeks to preserve and disseminate all aspects of Jewish culture and history. In 1991 the Institute published Caminhos da esperanca/Pathways of Hope, a bilingual history of Jews in Rio Grande do Sul. It was written by the critically acclaimed Brazilian Jewish author, Moacyr Scliar, who the New York Times described as “one of Brazil’s most celebrated novelists and short- story writers”. Moacyr asked me to edit the English text. He also gave me the chance to share his love for Iolovitch’s novel, which had inspired his own body of work.
Caminhos da esperanca begins its historical essay with the beautiful opening lines of this novel, “On a clear April morning in the year 19— when the steppes had begun to turn green again upon the joyful entrance of Spring, there appeared scattered about in Zagradowka, a small and cheerful Russian village in the province of Kherson, beautiful brochures with col- ored illustrations describing the excellent climate, the fertile land, the rich and varied fauna, and the beautiful and exuberant flora, of a vast and far- away country of America, named—BRASIL.” And throughout Caminhos da esperanca Iolovitch’s descriptive prose is cited.
I read On a Clear April Morning at one sitting. Delighted by the mixture of lyricism and history that Iolovitch gives us, I wanted the world to have this book. I promised myself that someday I would translate it and obtain its publication in English. That day has finally come.
On a Clear April Morning, first published in 1940, has been recognized by many as the first literary work to draw on the experiences of Russian Jewish immigrants in Brazil. But in the history of Brazilian literature, it has an even more important place. As Regina Igel, Coordinator of the Portuguese Program at the University of Maryland, who has spent her life studying the Jewish component in Brazilian literature explains, On a
Clear April Morning was “the first [Jewish] needle to penetrate the Brazilian literary fabric . . . [and] was apparently the first novel in Portuguese that draws its subject matter from the Brazilian Jewish community.”8
As “an inaugural landmark in the [Brazilian] Jewish literary panorama,” and as an historical document depicting the trajectory of early twentieth-century Jewish immigrants to Brazil, On a Clear April Morning is indeed worthy of respect. But it is Iolovitch’s lyricism, his ability to paint a picture of the emotions and scenes he describes that makes readers fall in love with this book.
Iolovitch’s enchanting opening lines that so captivated Scliar have been quoted time and again by those describing Brazilian Jewish or regional literature. But these are only the beginning. On a Clear April Morning is full of poetry and often the poetry has musical allusions. Just to cite a few instances: upon departing their Ukrainian village after all the goodbyes, Iolovitch’s father’s wagon moved down a lonely road as Marcos describes “Chimneys unfolded slow plumes of smoke in the chilly morning air. In concert, the cadence of a distant engine and the rhythmic fall of a hammer upon an anvil accompanied the slow ascent of the day ”
Or when he fell in love, Marcos laments the object of his heart that is many miles away: “Her image never left me, not for a second. I saw her in everything and everywhere. She was on the page of the book that I opened, on the blank sheets of paper that I touched, in the paleness of the moon, and in the brilliance of the stars.”
Or when his poverty forces him to live in a leaky newspaper-lined shed, he communes with the “drops of water [that] began to beat to the rhythm of the rain. . . .
Little droplet, little droplet, I murmured, how sad is your muffled tempo. . . , your sad cadence ”
On a Clear April Morning is full of poetry and musical cadences and tempos because Marcos Iolovitch was both a musician and a poet. He supported himself by teaching the violin for several years. And poetry was his real literary love. On a Clear April Morning is Iolovitch’s only full-length narrative work. His two other books Eu e Tu (I and Thou) published in 1932 and Preces Profanas (Secular Prayers) published in 1949 are collections of poems and poetical aphorisms.
As do so many young poets, this sensitive young man used his pen to understand humanity and the meaning of life. As he describes, the first years in Brazil did not fulfill his father’s dream. Instead they were full of hunger, tragic deaths, economic failures, anti-Semitism, and his father’s alcoholic response. “Why and for what do we live?” Iolovitch asks. Why does God
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“distribute rewards and punishments without even the most basic concern for equality and justice”?
He seeks his answers in the great nineteenth- and early twentieth-century philosophers, in the realm of the intellect where one of his favorite philosophers, Arthur Schopenhauer, noted, “ pain has no power.” Iolovitch dedicates a whole chapter of On a Clear April Morning to Schopenhauer. And he most likely took the title of his first book, I and Thou from the best- known treatise of the great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber. In I and Thou, Iolovitch reflects the concept that Buber develops in his I and Thou that “man becomes whole not in relation to himself but only through relation to another self ”.
In Buber the true I-Thou relationship is that “in which two persons face and accept each other as truly human.” This acceptance of each person as truly human and the compassion that results is what defined Iolovitch. Moacyr Scliar describes him as “endowed with a charming kindness.”
Iolovitch was kind because he cared about others. Even when he was wronged, he saw his aggressors as human beings. Instead of becoming vengeful he tried to understand them. After being attacked by anti-Semitic bullies, for example, he realizes that their anger towards Jews was not an inherent evil. Rather it was the result of some priests who taught their students the most incredible lies about Jews. Instead of bringing to their students the commandment to “love thy neighbor as preached by Christ, they brought the seeds of hate ”
As a child Iolovitch’s greatest pain came from “the tears of my mother and my two brothers, ” caused by his father’s drinking. But even then, he understood that his father was a “good man [who drank because] it hurt him to see the family reduced to such a deplorable state.” As he grows, Iolovitch’s compassion reaches further. He dedicated On a Clear April Morning to “all those who suffer and dream of a better world.”
In 1940 an interviewer wrote, “Marcos is a great idealist, a passionate dreamer that takes very seriously human existence and he is totally sin- cere when he says that his wish is for a better world for all humanity.” He was inspired by authors that “elevated mankind, that dignified the human species, that ennobled life.” And that is what he attempted in On a Clear April Morning. He describes the nobility of his everyday characters, as in his brother’s efforts to build a pushcart so they can peddle fish, or in an older couple’s efforts to enliven the life of a young child from a poor family with trips to an unknown paradise, the movie house.
But after the Second World War and all its horrors Iolovitch becomes a very frustrated idealist. His final book, Preces Profanas (1949), is a protest
to the Lord for the suffering of all mankind, “Jews, Catholics, the Muslims, and Buddhists, the believers and nonbelievers, the saints and the sinners.” Like most literary works, On a Clear April Morning was not created in an intellectual vacuum. Since the 1890s Rio Grande do Sul had been Brazil’s most literate state and by the 1920s Porto Alegre “already possessed. . . important books stores, cinemas, newspapers and an active intellectual life . . . [with] dozens of published authors.” This city of immigrants was enriched by a European concern for ideas and enjoyed European resources. Often Germany was the source. Twenty percent of the state was German- born or descendants of German immigrants. Various bookstores sold works in German and German Jesuits were instrumental in supporting the study of philosophy in both Catholic and secular educational institutions, including those that Iolovitch and his friends attended.
German most likely presented Marcos with few difficulties. Even early on Iolovitch’s family, like probably many of the Jewish immigrants, had found comfort in Rio Grande’s German roots. When a nurse of German descent needed to explain to Marco’s father that the nine-year-old boy had typhoid fever, she had no problem. Yiddish, the language of Eastern European Jews, is descended from a medieval German dialect.
But most important for writers, Porto Alegre was the home of one of Brazil’s most dynamic publishing houses, Editora Globo, and its noted literary journal, Revista do Globo.
Editora Globo sought the newest in literature and offered the chance to publish to many young writers. As a result, in the 1930s and 40s Rio Grande do Sul gave Brazil some of its most important authors. Each one “reached out to a different sector of reality seeking to convey it with his own per- sonal vision.” These authors often described “human beings whose living conditions were far from ideal,” and often designed plots that addressed philosophical, political, and social issues. They had a cultural conscience. They were concerned with principles, with goodness and sought to balance intellectual and psychological concerns. And in some works, the lyricism was extreme.
Iolovitch fit right in. Of course, he chose his topic from the sector he knew best, the Jewish community. He explored principles and included intellectual and psychological concerns in his work. He filled On a Clear April Morning with discussions on the origins of anti-Semitism, the mis- guided paths mankind chooses, and the injustices of society but always beautified by his poetry and lightened by the ironies of Jewish humor.
In addition to Schopenhauer and Buber, Iolovitch and his friends read many of the nineteenth-century sages including Charles Darwin,
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Herbert Spencer, Auguste Comte, Ernst Haeckel, Ludwig Buchner, and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. They were searching for a rational and scientific explanation of the cosmic and societal phenomena that surrounded them. They also read the moderns. Iolovitch listed among his favorites Erich Maria Remarque, Andre Gide, Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham, and Guillame Apollinaire.
But it was probably Leo Tolstoy that most influenced On a Clear April Morning. In an interview at the time of this novel’s first publication in 1940, Iolovitch notes that during the previous ten years he had been continually reading Tolstoy’s early autobiographical novels, Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth. Iolovitch must have been inspired by Tolstoy’s great powers of detailed pictorial observations that so mirrored his own. He must have felt a warm sense of companionship as he watched Tolstoy’s protagonist, like Iolovitch himself and the protagonist he will create in On a Clear April Morning, struggle with ethical concerns, sexual awakening, and religious doubts.
Like Tolstoy, Iolovitch began his novel with a dateless moment: Iolovitch—“On a clear April morning in the year 19…”; Tolstoy—“On the 12th of August, 18**.” Both writers used these vague historical moments because these young authors, although drawing on their own experiences, sought to write universal tales of growing up. They sought to write tales filled with youth’s desire to understand the world, to assess morality, and to find a path for a righteous and valued life. To create this universality, they didn’t write autobiographies but used the autobiographical form that allows insertion of fictional elements and permits the author to choose “experi- ences which transform and mold a character.”
Tolstoy of course went on to write many more tales. Unfortunately, especially for those enthralled with On a Clear April Morning’s beautiful prose, Iolovitch did not.
In the 1930s and 40s Iolovitch was a recognized member of the Gaucho literary world. His short stories and poems appeared in the prestigious Revista do Globo. When southern Brazilian literature was discussed, his name was included along with those whose fame still resonates today. He appears in numerous dictionaries of Brazilian and Latin American writers. He was interviewed on the front page of a major newspaper. The Brazilian pavilion at the 1939–40 World Fair in New York displayed his books. And Iolovitch formed part of Rio Grande do Sul’s delegation to one of Brazil’s most important cultural events of the twentieth century, the first Brazilian Writers Congress, held in São Paulo in 1945.28 But after the publication of Preces Profanas in 1949, his writing seems to have ceased. Instead, perhaps
because of his new responsibilities as a father, he dedicated himself to his legal practice. He never made much money but then he didn’t love the law. He had chosen legal studies because he needed to work his way through school and the law school didn’t require class attendance, just successful final exams.
But just before Iolovitch ceased writing, a ten-year-old boy wrote him a letter extolling the beauty of Iolovitch’s poems in Preces Profanas, “one of the most beautiful books I have ever read.” That young boy grew up to be the noted author Moacyr Scliar who arranged for the second edition of Numa Clara Manha de Abril to be published in 1987 and passed the book to me. To Moacyr, the “god-father” of this English edition who I often felt guided its formation from on high (Moacyr passed away prematurely in 2011) I send my deepest gratitude. Because Moacyr believed so much in the inspirational beauty of Iolovitch’s novel, English-language readers will now have their own chance to fall in love with On a Clear April Morning.
On a clear April morning in the year 19… when the steppes had begun to turn green again upon the joyful entrance of Spring, there appeared scattered about in Zagradowka, a small and cheerful Russian village in the province of Kherson, beautiful brochures with colored illustrations describing the excellent climate, the fertile land, the rich and varied fauna, and the beautiful and exuberant flora, of a vast and faraway country of America, named—BRASIL where the “Jewish Colonization Association,” better known as the JCA, owner of a great parcel of land, called “Quatro Irmãos,” located in the municipality of Boa Vista do Erechim, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, was offering homesteads on favorable terms to all those who wished to become farmers.
Situated on the left bank of the Schisterni River, on whose bed the village youth used to skate in winter when the waters transformed themselves into a thick and polished mass of ice, Zagradowka lay far from civilization, forgotten by the world, abandoned by the government and left to its own fate, as were innumerable small communities of the extinct Czarist Empire that found themselves dispersed across the immeasurable vastness of the steppes. Zagradowka’s inhabitants, simple, uneducated, and unrefined people, lived peacefully from trade and agriculture.
A wide central street, crossed by various narrow lanes, divided the village in half. Almost at the end of the street, where it opened up into two roads that led towards the different linhas coloniais, there arose in the center of a circular garden a little church. At the entrance to the village, on the right-hand side for someone coming from the river, was my father’s commercial establishment. And, on the same side, at the other end of the street, near the church, was the business belonging to his stepfather, the oldest and wealthiest wheat merchant in that region, with whom my grand- mother had entered into second nuptials three years after the death of her first husband.
Orphaned at eight years of age, my father began to work in his stepfather’s establishment. He spent his adolescence at the counter, accumulating some savings in exchange. When he was nineteen, he married, opening a modest store of his own.
2 On a Clear April Morning
With an open nature and a deeply caring heart, he enjoyed widespread esteem among his fellow countrymen and an almost carefree life. When the shelves emptied a bit and needed new wares, he would go by sleigh to Krivoy Rog to make the necessary purchases. And so, his life glided along placidly, always maintaining the same rhythm, without any bumps in the road.
But, with the passing years and the coming of children, he began to worry about their future.
Reading the brochures roused the villagers from their usual tranquility, provoking absurd comments on the validity of the information and the true geographic location of Brazil. From that day on no one spoke of anything else. It was the topic everywhere. In the pharmacy, in the stores, in the synagogue, and, especially, at the weekly Friday market.
Some inhabitants of Zagradowka were not unaware of the existence of a free and fabulously wealthy land called America, though they had only formed a vague and nebulous image of this faraway place. But they had never heard of Brazil. In their eyes, Brazil was just a legend, created by the imagination of some adventurers.
Papa also had little education, but he had no doubts about the truth of the offerings. He had complete trust in the goodness of mankind. That’s why he read and reread these brochures with growing interest. And he ended up vividly enraptured by the description of this new land. Especially by the colored illustration on the cover.
The cover of the brochures displayed a simple landscape depicting rural Brazilian life.
Under a clear and distant soft blue sky, a farmer, with a wide-brimmed hat and a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves, was bent over, wielding the handles of a plow pulled by a team of oxen turning over the virgin land. A little farther on, in the background, lay the golden crop, extensive ripe wheat fields. Even further back, blued in the distance, were coconuts, palms, and mysterious forests. And, in the foreground, highlighted in vivid and bold colors, was an enormous orchard, composed principally of orange trees; in their shade pigs ate the beautiful oranges that had fallen to the ground.
This little picture impressed Papa profoundly.
He didn’t like trade, the exploitation of naïve peasants. Agriculture, however, seduced him. It was reputed to be one of the cleanest and most honorable professions. That’s why he wanted his children, who were all boys, to pursue it. He deemed that he could assure them a splendid future by making them farmers. With time, he thought, they would marry. They
Chapter 1 3
would form a large family. They would all live together, leading a happy life in a tranquil corner of a virgin world.
He saw in Brazil the heaven-sent land for the realization of his plans.
For some time, he secreted this beautiful dream deep inside him. He didn’t let himself reveal it to anyone. He spent his spare time contemplating the colorful cover and the orange trees.
Oranges in Russia were imported. They came packed in boxes and rolled in tissue paper like the apples from California here in Brazil. And they were very expensive.
Papa would look at the wheat field, at this symbol of abundance. He imagined himself a grand farmer, tilling the soil with his sons, far away, very far away, in a distant land called Brazil.
Finally, having resolved to change his life, he shared with his wife his resolution to leave Russia to become a farmer in the New World.
Mama energetically opposed this plan, invoking heartfelt concerns. She wasn’t going to leave her family and friends to go adventuring in a land whose existence she doubted. But her objections did not dissuade him. And soon after, to make his decision irrevocable, he put his business up for sale. He sold all that he had. And he set the departure date.
On the appointed day, with farewells and embraces, the whole town came to wish us a successful journey.
My brothers and I were seated on a wagon crammed full with baggage while my parents said goodbye.
With great difficulty, they managed to disentangle themselves from their friends and family and their deeply felt embraces. Eyes brimming with tears, they pressed to their hearts each one there, trying, in vain, to hide their premonition that each one of those embraces would be the last they would share this side of heaven.
The farewells completed, my parents sat down on the coach-box of the wagon as it slowly began to move.
Repressed sobs erupted from those beloved friends. Wailing spread everywhere. Both men and women lowered their heads wiping their eyes. Various hats and handkerchiefs waved in the morning light.
Some relatives began to follow us at a distance while the vehicle moved on slowly, leaving behind two parallel grooves on the straight and seldom followed road which stretched out like a dark ribbon until falling out of sight in the shallow flatness of the fields.
Only many, many years afterward did I come to understand the signif- icance of two parallel lines. . . .
4 On a Clear April Morning
After having covered some distance, Papa turned to look back at his native village for the last time.
The crowd of friends and family had dispersed. The town remained behind, way behind.
Chimneys unfolded slow plumes of smoke in the chilly morning air. In concert, the cadence of a distant engine and the rhythmic fall of a hammer upon an anvil accompanied, synchronically, the billowing ascent of the day, which the sun had been flooding with the joy of its light. Like the wing of an injured bird, a single handkerchief moved slowly in the air.
Who would have stayed there waving to him, always from the same place?
To see better, he squinted his eyes a bit.
It was a handkerchief, blowing in the wind, that someone had left stuck in a bush, giving the impression that the steppe itself, which had seen him born and, now, was seeing him leave for an uncertain destiny, was wishing him its ultimate goodbye with the silent eloquence of its sad wave. . . .