In ‘Passport to Freedom,’ History is Dramatized

Aracy de Carvahlo, a Brazilian woman in a long, burgundy coat holding a briefcase, looks off into the distance. She is surrounded by four Nazi soldiers.
Brazilian-German actor Sophie Charlotte plays Brazilian consulate employee Aracy de Carvahlo in “Passport to Freedom.” | Courtesy of IMDb/Globo

Described as “O Anjo de Hamburgo,” or “the angel of Hamburg,” Aracy de Carvalho was credited by Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem as a driving force in saving German Jews on the eve of the Holocaust. 

As an employee of the Brazilian consulate in Hamburg from 1935-1938, she helped Jews secure visas to flee to Brazil, against the stacked odds of growing Nazi animosity toward Jews and Brazilian President Getulio Vargas’ restrictions against entry of Jews into the country.

Though honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations in 1982 and becoming a face on a Brazilian mail stamp in 2019, de Carvalho had her pop culture debut on Dec. 22, serving as the protagonist in streaming service Globo and Sony Pictures’ eight-part miniseries “Passport to Freedom.” 

A soapy, but satisfying fictional adaptation of de Carvalho’s story, “Passport to Freedom” brings the Brazilian consulate employee to the foreground of 1938 Hamburg, when the assassination of Nazi German diplomat Ernst Eduard vom Rath by Polish Jew Herschel Grynszpan incites Kristallnacht and a wave of relentless violence against European Jews.

Aracy (played by German-Brazilian actor Sophie Charlotte) suddenly has her work cut out for her: growing restrictions from the German and Brazilian governments and higher demand for visas. Making matters more complicated is the introduction of the newly-transferred Brazilian deputy consul João Guimarães Rosa (Rodrigo Lombardi) and growing suspicions of S.S. Officer Thomas Zumkle, who keeps tracing Aracy’s every move.

The benevolent João, who periodically intervenes between a Nazi assault against bullied Jews, eventually joins Aracy in her pursuit to assist Jewish refugees, and the two quickly, and predictably, fall in love.

“Passport to Freedom” creators Mário Teixeira and Rachel Anthony bundle the story of the angel of Hamburg neatly into a seven-hour package, adding drama to the story of a woman working a desk job.

The writing is clear, the period dress and setting are compelling, and the director cleverly integrates historical footage of 1930s Europe into the fictional universe, weaving it nearly seamlessly into the newly shot frames.

Watching the small successes and massive adversities of the Jewish characters in the show is sure to pull at the heartstrings of audience members. “Passport to Freedom” pulls no punches in its depiction of Nazi violence against Jews.

The clear picture “Passport to Freedom” paints makes for good television. In the early Nazi landscape of fraught politics and individual decision-making of non-Jewish onlookers of the systemic oppression of Jews, Teixeira and Anthony make the audience’s job easy. Though good does not always vanquish evil, the audience will likely come away from the show knowing, at the very least, who was good and who was evil.

The reality in which the show is based was maybe not so clear-cut. Leading up to the show’s release, Brazilian historians Fábio Koifman and Rui Afonso questioned some of the veracity of de Carvahlo’s story in their book “Jews in Brazil: History and Historiography,” according to a JTA report.

João Guimarães Rosa, a Brazilian man wearing a suit and thick-rimmed glasses with slicked-back black hair is stairing lovingly at Aracy de Carvahlo, a Brazilian woman wearing a flat-brimmed hat and purple patterned dress.  They are sitting at a park dotted with Nazi swastika flags.
Rodrigo Lombardo as João Guimarães Rosa and Sophie Charlotte as Aracy de Carvahlo | Courtesy of IMDBb/Globo

The historians claimed that de Carvahlo was simply following the orders of the consulate, “incurring little to no personal risk in issuing standard visas to German Jews who escaped,” JTA reported.

Though Koifman and Afonso’s arguments have not been addressed by Yad Vashem or verified in their own right, the claims beg the question: In a portrayal of historic events — especially those with the profound weight and import of the Holocaust — what is the responsibility of the creator to their audience?

In all the show’s attempts to elicit an emotional response from the audience, tell a compelling love story and give a competent account of 1938 Hamburg, there’s a nagging feeling that the truth has been stretched in some scenes. This is a point of a historical drama, sure, but in the case of depicting the Holocaust, extra care should be taken.

For casual television viewers or non-Jews just learning about the Holocaust, “Passport to Freedom” may be a friendly introduction into a little-known story. To Jews familiar with the horrors of the Shoah, the show can, at times, feel like more of a spectacle than a promise to “Never Forget.”

When making a historical canon more available to the audience, “Passport to Freedom” succeeds in spotlighting the narrative of those few individuals who heroically defied Nazi powers. But in the show’s attempt to make the story appealing to audiences, one can’t help but wonder what gets lost in the process.

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