Do you know the history of the Barbacena Hospital Colônia?
Founded in 1903 in Barbacena, Minas Gerais, the psychiatric hospital was designed to house 200 patients – a reality maintained for a short time – since it had no medical criteria for admission.
In other words, from a hospital, the place became a “deposit for the unwanted” and the city was nicknamed “City of the Mad”. The place also kept patients who were sent by their relatives for getting pregnant before marriage, “rebellious” women, black people, homosexuals, handicapped people, people with introspection, among others.
Daniela Arbex, journalist and writer, portrays Colônia’s journey of over a century from the perspective of the survivors she interviewed over the months.
Are you curious? Read on and learn more about the history of these people and the hospital with the book summary of the “Holocausto Brasileiro”.
A must-read for life, the book “Holocausto Brasileiro: Genocídio - 60 mil mortos no maior hospício do Brasil”, in a free translation “Brazilian Holocaust: Genocide - 60 thousand dead in the largest hospice in Brazil”, by author Daniela Arbex, has 280 pages divided into 14 chapters and was released in May 2013 by Editora Intrínseca.
It was recognized as Best Book-Reportage of the Year by the São Paulo Association of Art Critics (2013) and second best Book-Reportage at the Jabuti Award (2014). In addition, “Holocausto Brasileiro” was adapted into a documentary by HBO and a TV series by Globoplay.
With an accessible writing that invites the reader to continue reading all the time, the work is a compilation about the life of the survivors of the insane asylum popularly known as “Hospital Colônia de Barbacena”.
The author painstakingly portrays the history, giving back name and identity to those who had their freedom and private rights stolen from them, and removing from oblivion an event that took place in the last century.
Born in Juiz de Fora/MG, Daniela Arbex has a degree in Social Communication from the Federal University of Juiz de Fora and started her career at the Tribuna de Minas newspaper, where she was a reporter for over 23 years. She is currently a writer and has sold more than 250,000 copies of her books.
She was elected the best investigative reporter in Brazil in 2020 by the Troféu Mulher Imprensa, and also holds 20 other awards, including three Esso awards and the American Knight International Journalism Award.
She is the author of the best-seller “Holocausto brasileiro” and of the books “Cova 312”, winner of the Jabuti Award in 2016, and “Todo dia a mesma noite”, where she tells the untold story of the Brazilian nightclub Kiss.
When reading the biography of the Brazilian Holocaust, you will find stories of survival, courage, and overcoming. After all, we can understand the before and after of the survivors of the Barbacena Hospital Colônia.
Besides scholars in Medicine, Nursing, Psychology, and Law who will have access to a content with examples of Human Rights violations and a dark chapter of Brazil, the book is indicated to those who have History as one of their favorite subjects or are simply curious.
So, if you fit these criteria, it will be an extremely profitable read. Finally, we advise you to be cautious when reading the experiences presented during the book, since there are reports of violence that took place inside the concentration camp.
During the biography, Daniela Arbex describes in detail the events of the Barbacena Hospital Colônia through the testimonies of the survivors and the institution’s documents.
Thus, the history of the so-called “Brazilian Holocaust” begins with the Fundação Educacional de Assistência Psiquiátrica, inaugurated in 1903 on a site that housed other hospitals with tuberculosis patients.
Being quite different from the institution we will learn more about below, this former organization was an extremely opulent place, where inmates were fed on porcelain plates and silverware.
The author mentions that the Colônis, as it is popularly called, was initially designed to house 200 patients and maintained almost non-existent medical criteria. This meant that, from a psychiatric hospital, the place was transformed into a “deposit of the unwanted”.
The patients sent to the institution were black people, shy people, alcoholics, women who got pregnant before marriage, beggars, homosexuals, handicapped people, or any other person judged as undesirable, even visually.
According to Arbex’s research, 70% of the inmates of the Barbacena Hospital Colony were not diagnosed with any mental pathology. Records such as that of a woman named Maria, admitted in 1911, explain that she was admitted because she had “sadness”.
In addition, the author reports that, when the hospital was founded in 1903, it also acquired a huge piece of land near the institution, which was later used as a cemetery.
Daniela further argues that the intention was never to cure the patients and that black people, suicidal people, or those seen as “crazy” could not be buried with other “ordinary” individuals. The Peace Cemetery, as it was named, is currently decommissioned due to excessive organic material.
Founded in Barbacena, a city in the countryside of Minas Gerais, the hospital was the final stop of a train, called the “crazy train”, a term coined by Guimarães Rosa when he worked as a volunteer doctor at the psychiatric hospital.
The train would pass through the surrounding area of the state and inland to pick up future patients, usually children left by their mothers because they believed their children needed treatment or people who got drunk in the inner night and were thrown out by the police.
These individuals were sent in freight cars, similar to what happened in concentration camps, especially the most famous one in history, Auschwitz.
A curiosity reported by Daniela Arbex is that there was a dispute between Barbacena and Belo Horizonte for the title of Minas Gerais’ capital. As we already know, Barbacena was at a disadvantage and, as a “consolation prize”, the city received the Colony Hospital. This was an entirely political event.
The author says that even the vacancies to work in the hospital were part of a political strategy, since it was enough to deliver a letter from a politician of the meeting to get a job there.
In this way, it is assumed that the employees of the Colony were unfit for work. After all, how many of them ever held a syringe or administered medicine?
Daniela explains that psychiatry at the time was ineffective and basically experimental.
She describes the procedures that consisted of only two pills – one pink and one blue –, electroshock, lobotomy and cold baths, with the intention of containment and intimidation, with no therapeutic properties.
The author also reports that from the moment the patients crossed the hospital gate, they were dehumanized. In addition, those who arrived without documents were renamed, and those who were “abandoned” by their families were given the nickname “Ignored One”.
As the number of people interned increased, the rate of indifference grew in parallel. According to Daniela Arbex, the Hospital Director suggested that the patients sleep on “floor beds”.
The beds were just a heap of grass, collected by the employees to dry first thing in the morning, which accumulated urine, feces, and insects. Diseases were inevitable.
When it was getting colder, people would gather on this grass to warm themselves. However, those who remained below could not bear the weight and died there.
During the summer, the daily death toll reached sixteen people. In winter, this number increased to about sixty people a day. Hence the subtitle of Arbex’s biography: 60 thousand dead in the largest hospice in Brazil.
With 5,000 patients in the place in the mid-1930s, it is estimated that there were two employees for every group of 400 patients. Despite the more than enough money sent by the government, the hospital's structure was precarious, remarks the author.
Today, the Hospital Colônia houses the Barbacena Psychiatric Hospital Center and has 171 long-stay inpatients. After all, even with the end of the institution, these people are still hospitalized because they have no family ties and nowhere to go.
Francisca Moreira dos Reis, a kitchen worker, was one of the candidates for a nursing attendant position in 1979. She and other women, who had never done anything like this, participated in an electroshock session with randomly chosen patients.
She was shaken by what she saw during the practice and eventually gave up the profession. According to Daniela, Chiquinha, as she was affectionately called, had known about the Colônia since she was ten because her mother worked at the hospital.
When she was hired in 1977, she arrived in the kitchen and tells about her first memory on the job, when she asked an employee about the day’s menu and received the answer: beans, boiled egg, and white noodles.
Besides the food being not very nutritious, Chiquinha also says that the quantity was not enough for the 4800 people and what they did was to thicken the broth with manioc flour, besides adding very little spices, which made the food almost unpalatable.
Orphaned by her father and mother, at the age of eleven Sonia was sent to the Colônia by the police for playing pranks in the street. She stayed in the psychiatric hospital for over forty years and was known as a patient who cured the sick without medicine. In one of these practices, she helped Terezinha and they were never separated again.
During her stay in the Colônia, Sonia suffered physical violence, was locked up in a humid cell, and was left without water for several days. She also revealed to the author that her blood was taken without her consent so that it could be applied to lobotomy patients.
In 2003, Sônia and Terezinha left the hospital hand in hand to live in a therapeutic residence in Barbacena. Only at the age of fifty did they know the meaning of the word respect.
They both got documents and were included in the Benefício de Prestação Continuada, granted by Lei Orgânica de Assistência Social, in a free translation, the Organic Law of Social Assistance. Sônia acquired the habit of buying shoes, her white hair was dyed, she bought dresses and used to wear more than one at the same time, she developed diabetes due to soda and her dream of flying to Porto Seguro came true.
The author Daniela Arbex included several stories in the book and one of them tells the story of Luizinho, a black boy who, in the mid-1950s started “showing signs of weirdness”. According to his mother, the boy was quiet, did not play barefoot in the street like other children his age, and preferred isolation.
The news of a medical treatment reached the ears of Donana, Luiz’s mother. Thus, as Arbex recounts, she decided to authorize the referral of her son to the hospital, convinced that the boy suffered from some psychological disorder.
On the appointed day, when the children were being picked up by the train that passed through the state, Donana dressed her son in his best clothes: a long-sleeved white blouse and pants, an inheritance left by his deceased father. She straightened the boy’s curly hair and said they would meet after a while.
As Daniela writes, this was the last time Luiz saw his mother. When I interviewed him, the seventy-eight year old man was hospitalized for being shy and never got a diagnosis of insanity.
During his years in the Colônia, he was beaten, enslaved, and started to build, for free, houses for a hospital employee. Luizinho’s mother died at the age of seventy-five with no answer.
On the day of her death, Donana left her son’s bed tidy, as she had done for the past thirty-two years. With the death of their mother, the author relates that Lilia, Luiz’s sister, was sent to an asylum, where she became blind and had early dementia. The reunion of the two brothers happened after sixty years.
The book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, by Viktor Frankl, tells the story of the author and psychologist as a prisoner for three years in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany.
If you are searching for some purpose in your life or need to face adversity, the work “The Second Mountain” by Canadian author David Brooks is a must. In it, the author brings the reflection that commitments are necessary for the meaning of life. Thus, commitment to family, to a cause, or to society will help you find your meaning of existence.
Finally, the book “Long Walk to Freedom” tells the story of Nelson Mandela, the leader of the movement against Apartheid, and covers all the experiences and achievements of the former South African president.
Throughout the book, Daniela Arbex describes several facts that occurred with the patients admitted to the Colônia. In this sense, we have separated some essential lessons provided by the survivors:
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