Hundreds of people turned out for celebrations commemorating 100 years of Eastern European Jewish immigration to South America’s largest country.

The fête at Kehillat Yisrael, the oldest standing synagogue in S. Paulo, kicked off a two-week long exposition chronicling Jewish life in Brazil.

Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Y. Dovid Weitman oversaw the cultural event and delivered its chief opening remarks. Highlights of the affair, which was covered by various media outlets, included a photography exhibition of snapshots and portraits by famed Russian-American photographer Roman Vishniac, the unveiling of a newly released coffee table book charting Jewish immigration to Brazil, and the premiere of a 50-minute documentary, “100 Years of Jewish Emigration from Eastern Countries.”

The film “documents the lives of Jews who came to Brazil from Germany, Romania, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic,” explained Marcio Pitliuk, a Brazilian-Jewish filmmaker, curator, book publisher and Holocaust historian.

In July 2009, Pitliuk and Weitman led a group of 100 Brazilian students aged 18 to 25 on Projeto Alicerces, a study tour of Eastern Europe to discover their Jewish roots.

“We ate kosher food, we celebrated Shabbat in important synagogues in Europe and we visited Jewish cemeteries,” said Pitliuk, who shot footage of the trip for inclusion in the documentary.

The film also features interviews with Jews who survived the war in Europe and journeyed to Brazil, one of the few countries during that period that received Jews openly.

“On Nov. 9, the night of kristalnacht, I watched from the window of my apartment as the Nazis destroyed my synagogue and threw the Torah books into the fire. I saw that with my own eyes,” recalled an emotional Geraldo Lewinski, a German-born Jew who immigrated to Brazil in 1939.

“I think that if my grandfathers couldn’t emigrate, I would not exist,” added Lewinski’s granddaughter, Lara Lewinski. “I could never imagine that there could ever be a Lara from Germany today.”

According to Pitliuk, there were four main waves of Eastern European Jewish immigration to Brazil. The first occurred in 1904 when Jews settled on agricultural land purchased by German-Jewish banker Baron Maurice de Hirsch; the second took place prior to World War II when the Nazis came to power; the third occurred after the war; and the fourth wave coincided with the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule when thousands of Hungarians crossed the border into Austria, among them 200 Jews who eventually journeyed to South America to begin new lives.

Items on display showcase the history of Brazilian Jewish immigration.
Items on display showcase the history of Brazilian Jewish immigration.

Today, there are 100,000 Jews in Brazil.

“We had opportunities to work and nobody contested it, even though we were Jews and not Brazilians,” said Ilona Leibovitch, a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor who attended the Kehillat Yisrael event. “In others countries it didn’t happen like that.”

Weitman is now heading up plans to raise funds to turn Kehillat Yisrael, no longer a functioning synagogue, into an immigration museum that would honor the legacies of all members of the Brazilian Jewish community.

Philanthropist Samuel Klein, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who moved to Brazil in 1957 and is now the owner of Casas Bahia, the country’s biggest electronic store chain with 50,000 employees, credited Brazil with welcoming him with open arms, giving him a chance to pursue his professional dreams, and, quite literally, saving his life.

It was a sentiment shared by many at the pride-filled celebration.

“I’m Brazilian,” said Klein, with a catch in his throat and an outpouring of gratitude. “Now I’m Brazilian.”