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Brazil’s Rock of Ages

 Brazil's 
        Rock of Ages

At
age 80, Hans still presides over H. Stern. He still arrives
at his office every morning, his sole concession
being that he now arrives at 8.30 rather than 8 AM as he
once did. He remains fully informed of all ongoing activity.
by: Phillip
Wagner

 

The
elderly gentleman behind the desk was wading through a large stack of
correspondence when an assistant ushered me into the room. My passing
broke the shafts of sunlight that penetrated the penthouse windows.
Noting my arrival, the gentleman paused before briefly returning his
attention to a document that I concluded he must have been deliberating
on. I remember feeling a little awkward and embarrassed; I was surely
imposing. But then he quickly laid the document to one side and welcomed
me with such warmth and sincerity that I was caught off-guard.

"Would
you like some coffee", he asked in a soft, but clearly audible,
tone. I indicated that I would. I was about to experience Brazilian
cafezinho for the first time. That was seven years ago, and I
was immediately ‘hooked’. I’ve never since attended to the criticism
of Brazil’s coffee exports, which experts consistently label "mediocre"
and/or "inferior". The quality of the harvest notwithstanding,
I learned that preparation is the real key to a good cup of coffee.
And I discovered that the gentleman behind the desk takes as much care
with people as he does for the acclaimed products associated with his
name.

I tried
to apologize for arriving in blue jeans and a T-shirt, explaining that
I had been en-route to my hotel when advised that I would only have
this brief opportunity before interviewing music artist Marisa Monte.
But the kindly old man gently waved off my concerns with a purposeful
right hand and invited me to sit down with him. Although I enjoyed our
‘interview’, I was so impressed with the reception I received that my
professionalism lapsed. I took notes but, in retrospect, asked few meaningful
questions.

And
even if I had, I wouldn’t have worked them into a story at that time.
The most important things I gained from that experience were an awareness
that Hans Stern was as special as his success was remarkable, and a
realization that everyone seemed to want something from him. The stack
of correspondence before him consisted of requests for favors, for sponsorships,
for donations, for Ú well, you get the idea.

For
me, the residual impact of that, almost chance, meeting was powerful.
An ongoing kindness to periodically correspond over these years has
heightened it. In these difficult times, when patriotism has become
so fashionable in the United States, I am reminded of these words, inscribed
on a memorial in my city of Indianapolis … "The true patriot
best supports his government by creating friendliness through kindness
and generosity wherever fate may carry him".

Hans
Stern is the only child of Kurt and Ilse Stern, and was born in Essen,
Germany on October 1, 1922. It seems likely that the Sterns, or their
predecessors, may have arrived in Essen in the preceding century since
its population exploded from fewer than 5,000 in 1818 to about 120,000
shortly after 1900. Immigrants originated in Poland, Silesia and East
& West Prussia. Most arrived looking for work in the Ruhr Valley
mines that would fuel Germany’s industrial revolution. Friedrich Krupp
founded a cast steel factory in Essen in 1811.

Prussia
was granted authority over Essen by the post-Napoleon Congress of Vienna,
which was conducted by such notable 19th century diplomats
as the manipulative Prince Metternich of Austria, the flamboyant Talleyrand
of France and pragmatic Lord Castlereagh of England. The intrigue and
machinations of the three, most particularly the Austrian Metternich
were later emulated by Henry Kissinger in the form of his Middle East
"shuttle diplomacy".

War
Times

The
first decade of Hans’ life was more or less carefree and happy, although
he struggled through a slight physical handicap. Hans enjoyed a wide
circle of friends, a number of which also survived the war; Hans has
maintained intermittent contact with some of them over these many years.
Hans’ father was a "successful and well to do" self-employed
electrical engineer in Essen, supplying installations in houses and
apartments. But Hans’ idyllic world began to disintegrate in the 1930s.

In
early March of 1933 Essen exhibited a degree of independence that didn’t
sit well with the new National Socialist Party, which failed to receive
a majority of votes in the region’s local elections. The Jewish population
could hardly have orchestrated the result, since it accounted for only
about 4,500 of the several hundred thousand, perhaps a half million
or more people residing in or in close proximity to Essen at that time.

But
Hermann Goering angrily advised Nazi followers that "You’re allowed
to settle up with the traitors, we stand to our words and it will be
settled". The term "traitors" referred to Jews and other
"undesirables". A book burning that took place in Gerling
Square on June 21st presaged an untenable future for the
Sterns in Essen, and life there became progressively more threatening
for them. It seemed only a matter of time before everyone’s worst fears
would be realized.

Legislation
referred to as "the Nuremberg Laws", which took effect in
September of 1935, deprived German Jews of their citizenship by reclassifying
them as "subjects of the state". On the nights of November
9 and 10, 1938, National Socialist ‘brown shirts’ terrorized Essen’s
close-knit Jewish community. Known as Reichskristallnacht, or the "Reich’s
night of broken glass", mobs of Nazi’s and Nazi sympathizers went
on a rampage. Jewish owned businesses and homes were destroyed.

One
source indicates that "Shortly after Crystal Night, … it was
Ú reported to Goering that 7,500 Jewish owned businesses (throughout
Germany) were wrecked, 191 synagogues and 171 apartment houses were
burned, and 36 German and Austrian Jews were killed". The interior
of Essen’s famed Steelerstrasse Synagogue, "considered one of the
most beautiful in Germany", was gutted. Hans recalled that life
had suddenly become "full of anxiety due to violent anti-Semitism
and rumors of war".

In
an ugly twist of purported justice, German authorities began to take
Jewish males over the age of 15 into "protective custody"
and relocate them to concentration camps. Hans, his father and a grandfather
fled to Cologne ("Koeln" or "K·ln" in German) by
car. There they were secreted away by the librarian at the palace of
the Archbishop of Cologne for three nights. It seems certain that their
lives were spared by that act of kindness. The horrors of Kristallnacht,
and their near brush with death, were taken by the Stern family as a
clear sign that they should leave Germany at the earliest possible opportunity.

Shortly
after returning from Cologne, Han’s father began corresponding by letters
and telegrams with an uncle, Alexander Kamp, who three years earlier
had immigrated to the homeland of his Brazilian wife Gabrielle. Gabrielle
was the sister of Roberto Burle Marx, the respected painter, sculptor,
architect, poet and landscape artist whose reputation since that time
has achieved legendary status.

Marx’s
global influence reaches as far as Malaysia, where the cultivation of
rubber trees prematurely ended Brazil’s rubber boom in the early 20th
century. The Malaysian rubber stock had originated from seeds that British
agents smuggled out of Brazil in 1876. But today, Malaysia is equated
with the Petronis twin-towers which, post 9/11, have supplanted New
York’s World Trade Center as the world’s most famous free standing skyscrapers.
From the observation decks of these towers one can view the "beautiful
mosaic of peaceful gardens" at Kuala Lampur City Center Park that
were designed by Burle Marx.

Hans’
uncle managed to obtain immigration visas for the Sterns. Brazil, which
eventually accepted 13,000 German Jews fleeing Nazi oppression, offered
the only available refuge for Hans’ family at that time; there were
no other options. Ironically, the Ruhr Valley in which Essen is located
was then renown as a "hotbed for typhoid fever, cholera, dysentery
and malaria" each of which might have been more commonly equated
with late 1930s Brazil than Germany. A curiosity, at least for me, is
that Karl Baedeker’s first travel guidebook was published in Essen in
1829; I have relied on my ‘Baedeker Brazil’ guide since first traveling
to Rio and SÛo Paulo in 1995.

The
prospect of uprooting and relocating initially further unsettled young
Hans, but he was relieved to be escaping the horrors of persecution
and his thoughts quickly turned to "expectations about ‘exotic’
Brazil". In February of 1939, the Sterns booked train passage to
Hamburg, which had been established as a free port in 1888 and which
had become one of the largest storage locations for two Brazilian imports,
coffee and cocoa. There, with a dozen or two other Jews seeking refuge
from the coming holocaust, they boarded a ship for Rio de Janeiro.

No
Stern family member who remained in Germany survived; a grandfather
committed suicide. Essen also fared poorly. Having been dubbed an "Armory
of the Reich" as early as 1859, when it was still part of greater
Prussia, it was targeted by 272 allied air raids in World War II. On
a single night it suffered more than 2,000 casualties, almost 500 killed
and more than 1,500 wounded, with 50,000 more residents left homeless.
By the end of the war "ninety percent of the city center and sixty
percent of the remainder" of Essen had been destroyed. Most Essen
Jews who did not leave before the war, about 1,600, perished in concentration
and/or extermination camps. Thirty years after the war Essen was home
to about 170 Jews.

New
Home

The
Brazil Hans first encountered was "much more civilized than (he
had) anticipated. My uncle was waiting for us. We arrived in Rio on
a ship called Cap Norte in the Brazilian summer, which is very similar
to the German summer but the nights are longer. I really do not remember
much about the sea voyage except that it was very rough and everybody
onboard got sick.". Hans’ family stayed only briefly with
the Marx family in a house overlooking a huge garden. Young Hans favored
the local food, mainly black beans and rice, and was immediately happy.

Hans
and his father, Kurt, had to find work quickly. All of their belongings,
save what little they’d been able to hide away and carry with them,
had been confiscated in Germany. They were virtually penniless. Hans’
father was hired to operate a power plant built by Engenharia in the
city of Parnaÿba in the northeastern state of Piauÿ. That was interrupted
in the early 1940s when he was very briefly interned as a ‘German enemy
alien’ on Brazil’s entry into the war against the Axis powers.

Hans
initially found work trading stamps in a philatelic shop. About a year
after arriving in Brazil he secured a position, as a typist at Cristab,
a family owned exporter of minerals and precious stones. He noted that
"Like many working youngsters in Brazil at that time, I had taken
an evening course in shorthand. But I had previously learned typing
in Essen through my father’s secretary. She visited us in Rio after
the war". Hans was immediately captivated by the then modest variety
of, and the products produced from, the rocks and gemstones that Cristab
acquired.

At
that time, "Cristab’s main business was exporting quartz crystals
for the U.S. war effort, as well as mica and gems". Hans recalled
that when he left Cristab in 1943, it was still doing well. "But
it was a family business depending on its sole owner, and it closed
down some years later". At sixteen and seventeen, Hans supported
his mother and himself through his father’s internment on his own income.
The two of them moved into a small apartment on a hill in Copacabana.

Hans
‘picked up’ Portuguese as he went along; his English was self-taught,
mostly from reading Time magazine. The Stern family was reunited
after three years when Kurt Stern accepted a position in Rio, at Servix,
performing the kind of work he had done in Germany. Although the Stern
family joined Rio’s then very small German-Jewish synagogue, Hans’ Jewish
upbringing was very liberal, almost ‘Reform’. "My father adjusted
very well" to Brazil, he noted "but my mother never could
speak Portuguese fluently".

Hans
had already laid a strong foundation for future success, and had identified
potential buyers, by the time he set out on his own. His enthusiasm
and initiative at Cristab had earned him opportunities to travel and
procure gemstones. And he had learned to cut and polish the stones.
Some of the local jewelers at that time were selling items with facetted
Brazilian gems as a sideline, but mostly only to the few visitors from
abroad who came to Rio before and during the war.

The
local public had not developed an appetite for these ‘semi-precious’
stones. Hans correctly guessed that, with the war ended, tourist traffic
would increase. He realized that, using his knowledge of gem sources
and local cutters, he could be successful wholesaling gems to the local
jewelers. That became his initial focus as an independent young entrepreneur.

The
Start of H. Stern

Hans
formally established the company now known as H. Stern in late 1945,
in a rented downtown office building, with $200 he received from the
sale of a beloved accordion. It was one of the few personal possessions
he still had from Germany. "I was very fond of it and played reasonably
well, mostly at social gatherings with my friends" he recalls.
"I rented a small, one-room office with a desk, 2 chairs, and a
telephone and hired a young girl to answer it during my absence".
Hans personally procured his gemstones. "The closer you are to
the sources" he notes, "the better prices you obtain".

Hans
first focused mainly on aquamarine from Minas Gerais, tourmaline from
Minas, topaz from Minas, citrine from Goi¦s and Rio Grande do Sul, and
amethyst from Rio Grande do Sul, all for the purpose of being set into
jewelry. But diamonds from Minas, Bahia, Par¦ and Mato Grosso, emeralds
from Minas, Goi¦s and Bahia, opals from Piauÿ, corundum from Mato Grosso,
and agates from Rio Grande do Sul were also procured, cut, polished
and marketed by the vertically integrated H. Stern. According to the
Rio Incomparable net-guide "H. Stern Jewelers (became) the only
fully integrated jewelry concern, handling everything, from the mining
of raw materials in the wilds of Brazil to the design and sale of its
jewelry".

H.
Stern today accounts for a majority of the Brazilian aquamarines, emeralds,
topazes, amethyst and tourmalines produced and distributed around the
world. But when the young immigrant first struck out on his own, none
of these save emeralds were prized. It was Hans who first realized,
and acted to capitalize on, the intrinsic value of these geological
wonders. His innate ability to see that Brazil was poised to realize
a natural windfall from mining, cutting, polishing, designing, mounting
and marketing them was rooted in a childlike passion for exploration,
discovery and revelation. His ‘product vision’ was complemented by marketplace
savvy.

Hans
could see that local jewelers, rooted in traditional paradigms, continued
to think of tourist sales as a sideline business. "They failed
to recognize the potential of promoting colored gemstones as something
as typical of Brazil as coffee, oranges, samba and ‘futebol’"
he says. Hans understood that visitors wanting to return home with a
small ‘piece of Brazil’ represented a lucrative constituency for these
untapped natural products. Seeing tourists disembark from their boats,
he seized the opportunity to preempt established competitors, who were
satisfied to remain in their shops waiting for business to literally
"fall into their laps". The enterprising Hans sold gemstones
right on the docks, erected waterfront kiosks and initiated the now
commonplace practice of setting up hotel displays in the fashionable
south beach zone districts of Leme, Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon.

Hans’
customer base grew steadily, mostly by word of mouth. "From the
outset" he said, "I sold a good product at a fair price with
an ironclad guarantee and superior after-sales service". It didn’t
hurt that Hans’ self-education, as with gems and languages, extended
to understanding people: Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence
People taught Hans how to judge and motivate them.

But
Hans, characteristically, credits his employees for H. Stern’s accomplishments.
"Brazilians", he notes "are a wonderful source for the
development of a competent and loyal work force". At age 80, Hans
still presides over H. Stern. He still arrives at his office every morning,
his sole concession being that he now arrives at 8.30 rather than 8
AM as he once did. He remains fully informed of ongoing activity and,
remarkably, still participates in at least one annual field trip to
‘show the flag’.

"Brazil
always surprises us with new finds", says Hans. "If I were
to list all the nearby little villages, I would fill a page with their
names, and you would not find most of them on your maps". But he
refrains from interfering too much. Hans’ faith in the next generation,
which has benefited immeasurably from his vision, strength and personal
passion for excellence, seems nearly equal to the kindness and consideration
he extends to everyone around him. Hans Stern is truly Brazil’s ‘Rock
of Ages’.

 

Credits:

Historical
data gathered from EssenßHistory at
http://www.eurotravelling.net/germany/essen/essen_history.htm

The
Jews of Essen Germany at
http://www.edwardvictor.com/Essen.htm
and
http://www.edwardvictor.com/GermanyFrame2main.htm#kristallnacht

 .

Special
Note: ‘Reform’ is one of many variants of Judaism, and is generally
considered to represent the most liberal variant in terms of
the way adherents interpret and practice their faith.

Recommended
reading:

The
Congress of Vienna; A Study in Allied Unity; Author: Harold Nicolson.

The
following information was found by the author online and is reprinted
here in honor of Hans, the Jews of pre-WWII Essen, Germany, and those
Jews who have emigrated to and enriched Brazil in so many ways:

The
Memorial BookßA project by the Old Synagogue in Essen

Over
2500 Jews and around 1000 non-Jews from Essenßthe politically and
religiously oppressed, victims of "euthanasia", Sinti and
Roma, the so-called "Outsiders", and homosexualsßwere murdered
under National Socialism. Their names are known. But only a few still
remember the people behind the names. Reviving the memory of these
people is what the Old Synagogue in Essen has set out to do with this
Memorial Book Project.

The
project targets the interested public, school classes and other groups,
giving them the chance to personally study the life of one of Essen’s
oppressed and murdered victims of National Socialism. In taking on
a sponsorship, the sponsor agrees to research the life of one of those
murdered and to write a memorial biography. Traces of these people,
and clues to their hopes, dreams, expectations and fears are found
in the memories of their surviving friends and relatives, or in historical
materials in the Old Synagogue’s archive. The Old Synagogue aids in
research, provides information to start with, andßif possibleßcontact
with relatives. It supports and advises the sponsors in their work.

Contact:

Alte
Synagoge Essen
Steeler StraŠe 29
45127 Essen
Tel.: +49-201-88 45 218
Fax: +49-201-88 45 225
E-mail: info@alte-synagoge.essen.de

Item
of interest: Given that I’m from Indiana, I was fascinated to encounter
the following quote at
http://www.cooljools.com/HOROSCOPES/gem_history.htm
while
researching this story: "Ú did you know that substantial, 5 carat
gem quality diamonds have been found in Indiana? The Young Diamond
was found in Indiana glacial till in 1898, and the Stanley Diamond
in 1900".

 

About
the author: Phillip Wagner is a freelance photojournalist whose
credits include coverage of the Israeli-PLO accords, film and music
industry activity and travel. He’s authored and co-authored many
stories focusing on Brazil and maintains an extensive personal web
site at
http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm
. The author welcomes
correspondence from readers at pwagner@iei.net 

Phillip
Wagner – copyright 03/23/2003

 

 

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