Monday, April 26, 2010

The Murder of Vlado Herzog

In a comment, posted yesterday to this blog, Michele wrote, “It seems so many of the recent posts in your separate countries are tragedies--South Africa murder, ash and fire over Iceland, rain and death in Brazil, riots and corrupt government in Thailand.”

I think you make a good point, Michele. And in this blog, readers rule. So next week, I promise, I’ll post something lighter.
But that will be next week.
By the time I read your comment, I'd already prepared my post for today.
It’s an insight into what life was like in Brazil a generation ago.
And is, alas, another tragedy.

The year was 1975. I’d been living and working in the country for almost two years. The military dictatorship was at its height. One of my colleagues, Clarice Herzog, was married to the journalist Vlado Herzog.
Most people knew him as Vladimir, a name he’d chosen to use professionally. He 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" (after Vietnam’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.
But dare they did. The following day, the evening 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 marks of hanging 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.

Leighton – Monday


  1. I think that when considering tragic situations like the death of your friend, it's critically important to be dispassionate about the facts and circumstances of that death. I have no independent knowledge of this case, and agree that the circumstances as you present them are highly suspicious; that said, as a forensic pathologist for more than 20 years, I have to say that you make two assertions about suicidal hanging that aren't accurate.

    It is physically possible to kill oneself in that position; what's more, it's likely that the body didn't start in that position, but ended there. Secondly, in a hanging, the ligature sometimes starts off below the Adam's apple, then slips to a point above it. Also, sometimes a belt will create the impression of two marks because of the imprints caused by the upper and lower edges.

    I don't mean in any way to suggest that Mr. Herzog wasn't murdered, just that the injuries could be consistent with a hanging suicide.

  2. Thank you, Jonathan, for your very valuable input. I had always been told otherwise (i.e. that it was impossible) and am grateful that you took the time to set me right.

    I will also pass your comments along to Fernando Pacheco Jordão, who worked with Vlado and wrote a book about the incident. He was my source for the "impossible" part.

    BTW, it's quite clear that you know your stuff, and I don't contest it, but could it be possible that another pathologist could have drawn a different conclusion from the same evidence?

    There's no doubt about the murder, though. One of the guys involved confessed.

  3. Oh, it's absolutely possible that another forensic pathologist could reasonably disagree - less about the position of the legs, I think, than interpreting the ligature mark, on which I'm (somewhat foolhardily) commenting on based on a vague description rather than on photos.

    Again, I'm in no way disagreeing with the interpretation - I don't have the database necessary to make the call - just noting that I didn't feel those two facts seemed solid.

  4. Leighton - This is another of your posts that will haunt me. It is not the picture of the hanged man; we are less horrified by reality because television and movies have made images of death commonplace. That picture is horrifying and infuriating. A human being, with all that made him human gone,is left as if he is part of a Halloween decoration, s form barely stuffed with straw. It is a picture of a man reduced to nothing.

    The picture of his wife and children are also, sadly, commonplace in this media driven world. These little boys haven't grasped, yet, how their world has changed. In 1975, they are the descendants of the children of the dead soldiers of Vietnam and they are the forerunners of the children who have lost parents in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of these children are the silent and confused witnesses at the funeral of one of the people they loved most in the world. The media is often taken to task for their insensitivity but the faces of the innocent victims are the best reminders of real loss. Eventually these children will understand the honor and nobility of spirit that infused the decisions of their parents. They will learn of the glory awaiting the spirit of the person who lays down his life for another. But these pictures are those of loss, the loss of love, the loss of safety,the loss of security, the loss of part of themselves, the loss of innocence and they are all too common.

    It is the final picture that is a shot to the heart. This is a man who would be passed unnoticed on the street, just another man going about his day. He is fortunate in his life because he has had the love of family and friends and the respect of colleagues. But in the end he is alone because his conscience, his principles, are not those of an ordinary man. The last picture is a portrait of a giant and it is the recognition of the world's loss of a decent man that brings grief 35 years later.

  5. Jonathan - I have no medical background but it seems that in focusing on the manner of death, you have overlooked the point of the story.

    Vlado Herzog was a man who chose to place himself at the mercy of his captors rather than reveal the names of his friends. He most certainly knew that he would die because of that decision. This was a man of astonishingly strong principles. Would he not have even more staunchly upheld the principles and commands of his religion?

    According to Jewish law, suicide is forbidden. No one has absolute ownership of his own body. A person does not have the right to extinguish his soul. Would the rabbi, who knew Herzog well, have allowed burial in a Jewish cemetery if he believed that suicide was the manner of death? The stricture against suicide is so strong in the Jewish faith that very few Jews committed self-killing either before arrest or in the camps while under Nazi domination.

    Vlado Herzog was a great soul. I don't see the last photograph as a picture of despair. I think it is a portrait of resignation. If he wasn't feeling fear, he would not have been human; this picture is a profile of courage.


  6. Beth, I'm not addressing the death of Vlado Herzog as a "story" at all. His death continues to resonate, almost 40 years later, and I feel that any comment I might have on it would be superfluous.

    However, how we consider the facts of his death is important, because that may affect how we look at the deaths of others, including deaths that are still to come. Leighton or other readers of the blog may find themselves in a position to consider other deaths in custody, and I think it's important that he/they have sound information on which to base their conclusions.

    I don't mean to detract in any way from the importance of Mr. Herzog's life and death; if you felt I did that, I apologize sincerely. I just wanted to shed a bit of light into the complexities of such situations.

  7. As an American and well read and well informed..I am sad to learn all the details of the death of Valdo Herzog I am Grateful that he received a proper burial Susan,Vermont

  8. First of all, I am a mystery writer and reader, as well as a journalist, so the coverage of world tragedies in no way bothers me, aside from the human element. I love the global aspect of your blog. In fact, it's what keeps me coming back.
    But thank you for quoting me.

    "The beginning of the end for Brazil's military dictatorship." Even in death he exposed their evil. As journalists, we dream of being so important, but not so tortured.

    I am sorry your friend lost his life. I am grateful for his sacrifice. Thank you for continuing to educate us about your fascinating country.

    Oh, and Yrs and Cara have kept it light this week. No need to under-burden us. ;)


  9. I am a novelist and sports writer, now living in Sri Lanka the past six and a half years for family reasons. I first learnt of the Vlado Herzog story through a Brazilian former model and her British archaeologist husband then in South Africa. Between July 1979 and Septmber 1981 we became good friends when she told me of the horrendous torture that was carried out in the basement of Tutóia Hilton.
    Whether Ava was speaking from first hand experience I am uncertain, but in doing research for a novel, I found most of what she told us those nights unerringly acurate and wondered if her light limp was the result of the experience of being placed on something called the parrot perch. The woman she talked about, Tania Elsabe dos Santosh She was placed in a cell with no chair, there were rats and she was raped by use of a dildo while on the parrot perch. Research shows the parrot perch form of torture did take place and rape was common.

  10. Hi Chesters,

    Thank you for dropping in to comment.

    For those of you unfamiliar with it, the pau de arara (parrot perch)is a device designed to cause severe joint and muscle pain, as well as headaches, and psychological trauma.

    Here's how it works:

    A metal bar is placed over the victim's biceps and behind the knees and then her/his ankles and wrists are tied together. The bar is then suspended between two metal platforms.

    It is believed to have originated with Portuguese slave traders, which used the pau de arara as a form of punishment for disobedient slaves.

    The device was often used as a restraint for a combination of other torture techniques, such as water boarding, nail pulling, branding, electric shocks, and sexual torture.

    It is outlawed now, but some say it is still in use by some of the Brazilian police forces.

  11. This photo of the journalist naked is a fake. I was a prisoner at the Doi-Codi. The cells did not have this kind of doors (they were bars from the roof to the floor) and this wasn't their beds either.

  12. Hi Leighton thanks for the article. I stumbled upon your blog while researching Vlado. In your research, did you ever come across any photos of Vlado at TV Cultura in Sao Paulo? I would love to have a better understanding of what the TV station looked like, his office, the technology TV Cultura had back then, etc..Would appreciate any input.Thanks!

    1. I regret to inform you that Leighton passed away in July 2013. He was a wonderful soul who would have been happy to help you.

  13. So courageous of you to spit your venom anonymously !!!
    Who are you ? One of these few survivors from the military junta ? Or another "democrat" who denies others their political beliefs ? Or maybe just a plain idiot and I think it is more the latter...
    People like you just plain shame humanity.
    I even don't feel sorry for you.... For me you even not worth the name : Human Being !