‘Reads like a novel!’ is an overused blurb still slapped onto nonfiction books by burnt-out publicists who can’t think of anything else to say, whether or not it really fits. So, does As Flowers Go qualify for such a threadbare cliché? Quite the contrary. The nicely designed jacket states that it is a novel, and the Brazilian library cataloguers evidently agree, since they classified it as Fiction. But this novel (so-called) reads like a memoir! Except that it’s more exciting than most entries in that genre. Its ‘plot’ is a biographical epic which offers ample novelistic suspense. Confronting adversity, Licco (now of blessed memory) packed more life into his life than most of us would ever dare. It surely takes some special quality to leap from the Balkans into the Brazilian tropics, and there to triumph.
Licco was born in Sofia in 1920 to a religiously observant family, albeit one also well assimilated into Bulgaria’s cultural mainstream. Like most such families in that milieu they regarded themselves as both Jewish and Bulgarian. This family lacked wealth and so while still in his teens Licco went to work at a garage servicing automobiles. He progressed quickly, possessing the patience and flair for tweaking the most out of internal combustion engines. It was an art, especially on the motors made back then. This job turned out to be a lucky break with far reaching consequences. His employer was the American Car Company, a firm importing vehicles made in the United States. In fairly short order, Licco was heading the firm.
Then came the war. Bulgaria’s monarch threw in his lot with Hitler and adopted the Nazis’ requisite anti-Semitic measures. Jewish property was confiscated, Jewish men were conscripted for forced labor, their families were evicted, and a planned deportation to the death camps of the ‘Final Solution’ was only narrowly averted. The community survived, but barely. For most who had endured the ordeal, Bulgaria would henceforth be a memory rather than a homeland. Ilko Minev has included here an account of how ‘Reichsmarschall’ Hermann Goering’s brother Albert, director of the Skoda enterprise, righteously aided the escape of some of Bulgaria’s Jews by supplying them with false German papers. Licco was working for Skoda as a skilled mechanic and with a few others he benefited from this crucial bit of luck, to which he added pluck.
In the war’s aftermath he left Bulgaria for Brazil. The trans-Atlantic voyage is retold lovingly, albeit chronologically somewhat displaced. Especially memorable are the descriptions of wonder from those initial days upon landing in the New World. No immigrant can ever forget such sights and encounters which will cast a glow, or a pall, over all that ensues. Once in Brazil, Licco’s native command of Ladino would grant him a linguistic edge for mastering the Iberian tongue of his adopted home. That advantage is mentioned only matter-of-factly, but it no doubt immeasurably eased the adjustment.
Settling in, he brought his mechanical skills to bear at servicing airplane engines, and eventually made a success in the rubber industry. Ilko Minev recounts this personal story against the historical backdrop of the rise and decline of Manaus, capital of the Amazon region. These portions draw on historical works by Samuel Benchimol, another relative. At Manaus Licco and his family met co-religionists originally from Morocco, already established in the rubber trade. They had carved out a niche amidst Europeans, native Indians, Afro-Brazilians, and a pastiche of others. Perhaps such comfort in a multi-ethnic setting is a historical legacy of the Sephardic centuries spent in the Ottoman lands after 1492.
Equipped with contacts, well prepared by culture and tradition, Licco added his personal traits to the many textured mix that is Brazil. Did he have a secret for success? Minev doesn’t spell it out on these pages, yet the message lurks between the lines. For one thing, the narrator doesn’t preach, cajole, boast, or even advise. Absent is much if any rancor. An upbeat outlook is implicit, manifested not by intoning some ‘think positive!’ mantra but instinctively, by deed. The book’s hero maintained a sense of humor despite all the challenges thrown his way by the utter strangeness of the Amazon. There’s no dogma here, and so we infer that Licco navigated life’s shoals with a blend of flexibility, optimism, and fairness. He never forsook his origins, but he would not let that background constrain his dealings with others, be they Christians, Muslims, or other Jews. Identity, family, community, and an understated but abiding faith were his pillars.
Addendum: At the website of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum there is a short piece of film footage showing Bulgarian Jewish forced laborers in 1941. Licco Max Haim served then in the 1st Jewish Labor Battalion, deployed to build a road through difficult terrain north of Sofia. When the unit’s Bulgarian commander learned that Haim possessed a movie camera, the officer asked him to make this film. At the time that too amounted to a bit of luck. Conditions remained relatively benign for the Jewish conscripts during 1941, but worsened considerably over the next three years. A copy of the film remained in possession of Haim’s family. See “Forced Labor Battalion in Lakatnik, Bulgaria, Summer 1941” at http://www.ushmm.org/online/film/display/detail.php?file_num=5810
Steven F. Sage, Ph.D., is a researcher at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum