Graeme Wood

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Humid, All Too Humid

The Walrus, April 2008

Kultur, Jammed

Paraguay’s holdout German colony

Nueva Germania—In a grubby plastic chair in front of his family’s shack, a shirtless Wilhelm Fischer swats blackflies from his face between sips of yerba maté tea. He’s boasting in perfect German about the hardscrabble years he spent clearing enough land to eke out a living raising chickens and cows. “This was all forest,” he says proudly, pointing to the grassy paddock beyond the barbed wire. He leans down and whispers something to his daughter, Berta, in the local creole. But she and her mother, Delia Domínguez, a Guarani Indian cheesemonger, speak excellent German as well. Like Willi, Delia has barely left the steamy Paraguayan hamlet of their birth, but she longs for the hills of Saxony, the snow-covered banks of the Elbe — the land of her husband’s gullible ancestors.

Fischer’s forebears came to Paraguay more than a century ago at the cajoling of Elisabeth Nietzsche, the sister of the philosopher, and her husband, Bernhard Förster. Late-nineteenth-century Europe had grown too fond of Jews for the Försters’ extreme anti-Semitic tastes, so they decided to found a new, pure Aryan society. In 1887, the couple lured fourteen like- minded families across the Atlantic and up the Aguaray River, into territory inhabited by a few Indians and a truly astonishing variety of biting insects. Though wholly ignorant of South America, Förster had decided this was where they would preserve their Kultur: Paraguay had the soil, and German farmers would provide the blood.

 

It was a blind date on a civilizational scale, and it failed utterly. Within a couple of years, a quarter of the Nueva Germanians had fled or died of lockjaw. Elisabeth eventually returned to Germany, and her husband, now a hunted man among the colonists, swallowed strychnine in a hotel outside Asunción in 1889. Hitler, an admirer, later ordered a bag of real German dirt scattered on Bernhard’s grave.

Nueva Germania lost more settlers over the next hundred years — some to other Paraguayan colonies, some to Europe, and some to the Russian front in the Second World War. But others stayed, learned Spanish and Guarani, married Paraguayans, and eventually figured out how to grow manioc and maté. Teutonic culture has survived mostly in wispy memories. Señor Neumann, the owner of the town’s only restaurant with a glass door to seal out the heat and mosquitoes, speaks no German and doesn’t know what Oktoberfest is. Señor Kück, an old farmer, tells me the town celebrates one German festival, but it turns out to be Semana Santa (Holy Week).

The Fischer clan, however, lives in Tacuruty, a neighbourhood of about a dozen families who have held fiercely to their German roots. (Tacuruty is what the Guarani call the ubiquitous anthills — big red dirt cairns, in country and town alike, as if to remind you that humans are only guests of the insects here.) Willi has the bristly facial hair of a Prussian aristocrat, and though he spends all day working in the sun his complexion resembles Boris Becker’s. To the Försters, he might have seemed a prime specimen of the Aryan Übermensch — except that he fell in love with Delia.

The FischersDelia, whose skin is café au lait, slurps Willi’s maté while he speaks, then passes it back to him. The pair, who met in Nueva Germania’s tiny high school, weathered disapproval from both Paraguayans and Germans, who “don’t want the cultures to mix,” she says. “Some Germans say the Paraguayans are animals, that they have no shame,” and the feeling is mutual, according to Delia. Nevertheless, she and Willi married eight years ago, and she now lives in Tacuruty with their daughter and the extended Fischer family. She smiles defiantly and says she’s proud she can cough out the harsh German gutturals — the first Guarani in town to learn, according to her mother-in-law — and that Berta, who peeks around mummy’s legs clutching a blond doll, will speak German, Spanish, and Guarani.

Some Germans, even some of the older ones, seem resigned to the Paraguayans’ finally appropriating the German language as their own and integrating themselves into the community. Eighty-one-year-old mother of nine Rosa Haudenschild, whose father was born in Nueva Germania barely a year after the colony’s founding, says reduced numbers have occasionally forced Germans to seek out Mennonites to marry, or Paraguayans. “Sometimes there are problems” in such marriages, she says. “But sometimes there are problems with the Germans.”

Delia’s attempts to prove her Germanness are showing mixed results. She brags that the family eats German food, but she’s never heard of schnitzel. She sometimes listens to German music — Johann Strauss, the Försters’ Euro-pop — and they dance “German” dances, she says, “like the waltz, and the paso doble.”

Between sentences, Delia gulps in air, a troubling sign in a community where consumption vies for victims with leprosy and sandfly fever. She’s more concerned about health and poverty than about the Aryan dreams of Willi’s predecessors. She shows off the telephone-book-sized block of grimy white cheese she’s selling. The money she gets for it will constitute a big part of the family’s dollar-a-day income.

All the families that had their papers in order have long since left the colony, according to the Fischers. They themselves tried decades ago to “return” to Germany, but the embassy required them to prove their heritage. Having no documents, the Fischers were turned away, ironically, for not being German enough. Delia is the only member of the family who still wants to move to the fatherland. Eduard, her sixty-four-year-old father-in-law, vows to stay put with her and his German son. A slightly alarming, aggressive paranoia flashes behind his thick glasses as he surveys his family’s Lebensraum, marked off with barbed wire and guarded by two mean hounds. He is content, because no strangers or bandits can come on his property. “We are all Fischers here.”

– Published April 2008

Graeme Wood is a staff editor at The Atlantic.

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