Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Death of Vlado Herzog - Life in Times of the Dictatorship.

By Leighton Gage

The year was 1975.
By that time I'd been living and working in Brazil for almost two years.
The military dictatorship was at its height.
One of my colleagues, Clarice Herzog, was married to a journalist.

We who knew him personally, called him Vlado.
Most people knew him as Vladimir, a name he’d chosen to use professionally.

Vlado Herzog was born in what is now Croatia, but his parents had brought him to Brazil when he was very young. He took a degree in philosophy, became a journalist, worked for Brazil’s newspaper of record, the Estado de São Paulo, and spent three years in London with the BBC.

He was, therefore, eminently qualified for the position he took up in the early 1970’s: editor- in-chief of the news arm of TV Cultura, São Paulo’s public television outlet.

In those days, the press was heavily censored. Vlado had to struggle to put out an objective version of the news. That struggle, and his professed liberal leanings, brought him to the attention of the authorities.

On the 24th of October, 1975, he was summoned to the DOI-CODI’s headquarters to tell them what he knew about the illegal Communist Party. The DOI-CODI, 250 agents strong, was the intelligence and political repression arm of the dictatorship.

It was located on the Rua Tutóia in downtown São Paulo. We’d refer to the building as the "Tutóia Hilton" (afterVietnam’s Hanoi Hilton) because torture, and occasionally murder, was rumored to take place in the basement.

But we kept our hopes up for Vlado. He was too well known. They wouldn’t dare. Surely not.

Dare they did. The following day, on the night of the 25th of October, a day I remember as clearly as the day Kennedy was shot, my doorbell rang just before midnight. It was a colleague, going from house-to-house, spreading the news: Vlado had “hung himself” in his cell.

The instrument used to carry out his suicide was reputed to be his belt. But prisoners were always relieved of their belts. We didn’t believe the government’s story. None of us did.

The photos of the body in situ, released much later, bore us out.

Vlado’s legs were bent. It’s physically impossible to kill oneself in that position. And there were two ligature marks on his neck. If he’d truly hung himself, there’d be only one.

Most damning of all, Vlado wasn’t the first prisoner to “hang himself” while in custody. Before him, there’d been thirty-seven others.

Henry Sobel, chief rabbi of the largest synagogue in São Paulo, authorized Vlado to be buried in the center of the Jewish cemetery, rather than in a corner as tradition demanded in cases of suicide.

And at Vlado’s internment, the leading members of all the other major faiths in the city gathered to pay their last respects.

The firm position taken by the clergymen undermined the DOI-CODI’s claims. A government investigation followed. The head of the junta ordered a clean-up.

And that was the beginning of the end for Brazil’s military dictatorship.

Today, almost thirty-five years later, the street on which the studios and offices of TV Cultura stand is named after Vlado.

And there’s a documentary about him, and a best-selling book, and even a Vladimir Herzog Prize for Amnesty and Human Rights.

Of the photos of the time, two continue to haunt me, even more than that of his body hanging in the cell.

This one of Clarice and her children at the funeral.

And this one of Vlado in his cell, stripped naked and waiting for what was to come.

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