OLGA by Fernando Morals New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990 320pages, $19.95
Olga Benario may not be a household name in the United States, but she should be. A communist, a Jew and a feminist — she personified those qualities that make a woman a mensch. This book may finally provoke her historical due as a martyr to the Holocaust.
Fernando Morais’ searing tribute to her, simply called Olga, is so well-researched, enraging and evocative that it can only enrich the tradition of Jewish resistance to bigotry and hatred the world over. For here, in journalism that rivals the best political suspense story, we are brought into the soul of prewar Germany and are made privy to both the Nazi ascent and its bolstering by international forces.
The story begins in the early 1920’s in Germany, when Olga, a rebellious 15-year-old, meets and falls in love with Otto Braun, a 22-year-old communist activist. Defying parental admonitions, she moves in with the intelligent, charismatic Braun, and begins to climb the rungs of a local party youth organization. These are good times, filled with heady victories in battles with fascist gangs, stimulating political debates and comradely struggles. But such days are short-lived. By 1928 Otto is arrested and jailed for his activism, and Olga finds herself in the limelight, plotting, and eventually carrying out, a daring plan for his escape. Not surprisingly, her success in springing Braun carried a heavy price: the couple is forced underground, after a time ending up in the USSR.
Although both continue their political agitation, the pressures on the dislocated pair mount, until finally they separate. Olga then meets Brazilian communist Luis Carlos Prestes, also in exile in the Soviet Union, and she agrees to accompany him, posing as his bride, on a circuitous return to his birthplace. En route, the two fall into role, and the charade becomes reality. While they never legally marry, they live as common-law spouses to the end.
And what an end it is. In Brazil, Olga and Luis, still underground, play leading parts in that country’s Communist Party. In 1935, Prestes commandeers a political coup that fails. Unprecedented repression against leftists follows. Unfortunately, this time Olga cannot wend her way to freedom. Instead, she and Prestes are incarcerated. Seven months pregnant, she bears a baby girl in prison. (Anita Leocadia Prestes, the daughter, currently lives in Rio de Janeiro and teaches at a university.) Later, Olga is deported to her homeland, a “gift” from Brazil’s pro-Nazi government to the Fuhrer.
Death, Olga knew, was inevitable upon her return to Germany. Still, she remained a leader, first in Lichtenburg Prison and later in Ravensbruck, a compassionate ear for the other prisoners, a loyal friend, a patient teacher and a staunch advocate for decency in the face of inhumanity.
“I have struggled for the just and the good” she wrote the night before she was gassed, “for the betterment of the world. I promise you now, as I say farewell, that until the last instant I will give you no reason to be ashamed of me.”
Fernando Morais’ painstaking telling of Benario’s tale (based in part on first-hand interviews with Luis Carlos Prestes, who died in early 1990, as well as with others active in Brazil’s left-wing) inspires reverence, and, like the recounting of any tragedy, sadness and anger.
Forty-eight years after her death, Olga Benario remains a beacon — an amazing example of strength, passion and conviction. She is yet one more extraordinary woman who should be implicitly honored as we participate in projects that endeavor peace, justice and equality.
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, editor and writer whose work appears regularly in progressive and feminist publications.