Sergio Perelberg

Sergio Perelberg

16 June 1942
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
03 August 2022
London, United Kingdom
Words by
Rosine Perelberg Sergio's wife

The messages have flooded into our house. They have much in common in what they say: That Sergio was larger than life, a luminous man. They speak about his zest for life, his passion, his love and dedication to his family and friends, they mention his loud laughter, they emphasise his kindness and friendliness. Also, his deep commitment to being a political man, involved in the world in which he lived.

his loud voice, and laughter, handsome rugged face, and huge charisma

Sergio was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1942.

His mother, Clara Pochachevsky, was a child psychiatrist, one of eight women in a class of three hundred medical students, thus one of the first woman doctors in Brazil. During the week she worked with children in an NHS hospital in Rio. On Saturday mornings the doors of their house were open for free general medical consultations in her neighbourhood. She was much loved and respected. She sadly passed away when Sergio was just fifteen. Sergio’s younger brother Mario Igor would also become a doctor, and tragically passed away at the age of twenty five.

His father was a first generation immigrant. Sr Manuel Perelberg  was the youngest boy in a family of eight siblings most of whom had come to Brazil to escape the pogroms against the Jews in Eastern Europe. His mother Tuba (Sergio’s grandmother) and her two younger children, Manuel and Esther, were to follow later. There is a story that ran through the family that as the three of them were fleeing from Kalitz, and about to cross the river Dniester the man operating the boat said that the boat was full, there was no space for both children, why didn’t she leave the boy behind. The formidable grandmother Tuba gave her earrings to the boatman saying no child of hers would be left behind.

So, the Perelberg family arrived intact in Brazil, where they flourished and made important contributions to the community there. This was Rio de Janeiro in its best epoch. The Jewish immigrants who arrived from Eastern Europe were able to integrate into community life, raise their children, give them an education. Sergio went to study in the Sholem Aleichem school, known for its leftist outlook, and when not at school would play in the streets of Grajau with other children. He also played basketball in a nearby club. He was never particularly good in any of these sports, but enjoyed his friends, so many of whom became lifelong friends, who I was to meet later. Kinderland was a holiday camp where many of the lifelong friendships were established and many of these friends are now with us here via Zoom. I was to go to the same camp nearly a decade later, where I made friends with many of his younger cousins. I always said that one of the benefits of marrying him was that many of my friends then became my cousins too.

After his mother died, when Sergio was fifteen, his father eventually married again. Margarida was the mother-in-law I loved. She was a Sephardi Jew and knew how to make these wonderful foods especially for me when I visited them. The couple had two beautiful girls Tania and Katia, whom I got to know and love when they were very little, and who are here today from Brazil and the USA, as well as Tania’s husband Irlam. Irlam shares Sergio’s birthday.

Sergio went on to study Civil Engineering but, perhaps like his mother, was deeply concerned with social issues. In the first year of university, he spent less time studying his trade and became involved in the project Paulo Freire teaching people to read in poor communities in Rio de Janeiro.

Paulo Freire believed that “There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the “practice of freedom”, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

Instead of the textbooks that were used at schools to teach people how to read, which would say “A for apple”, “B for ball”, “C for car” and so on, his method would say “t” for trabalhador (worker) , “e “ for exploitation., “ f “for freedom, “r” for???? (revolution, of course) and so on.” Sergio became deeply involved with this work and took time off from his university studies.

He worked in twenty three countries, mostly in Africa, in socially meaningful projects

The 1964 military coup d’état in Brazil put an end to Freire’s effort. Freire was subsequently imprisoned as a traitor. His method of work in communities was abandoned, and Sergio found his way back to university where he completed his studies as a civil engineer, and later undertook a masters in soil mechanics.

When I first met him, I was fifteen, and he was not like anyone I had seen before, with his loud voice, and laughter, handsome rugged face, and huge charisma. He waited a year though, until I was sixteen to phone me and ask me out. Throughout that year I kept tabs on him and asked anybody who might know him for news. The rest has been our history and fifty three years of marriage. Daniel’ s arrival completed our life, and we became a family. Sergio travelled all over the world doing engineering, building ports, bridges, roads. He worked in twenty three countries, mostly in Africa, in socially meaningful projects. At times our communication was via radio amateurs. I remember a time when he was in Bioko, and a radio amateur phoned me from Belgium as he had been contacted by another radio amateur in Holland with a message from Sergio that all was well. After this we were promoted to satellite phones. He would carry this box with him and had to pinpoint when the satellite would pass over his location in order to phone me.

Sergio had a lifetime of experience of encountering and navigating between different cultural frameworks, in his work in Africa, North and South America, Asia, and Europe.

Amongst the many interesting projects that Sergio led, a particular one that comes to mind took place in Guinea Conakry (West Africa). This is an example of a project where three teams, derived from three different cultures, namely Britain, Brazil and Guinea, had to work together so that a road could be built. The languages spoken were English, Portuguese and French and it had turned into a Babel Tower.

There were economic and social implications to this one hundred and thirty two kilometre road in that, once built, it would link the Forest region, the most underdeveloped part of the country, to its capital and to the border with Ivory Coast,. The road would thus go from Seredou in the Southern region to the border with Ivory Coast, passing through N’Zerekore, the third most populous town in the country.

The Forest region has a population of more than one million, and prior to the construction of the road, it was practically isolated during the rainy season that extends from July to December/January. There was an urgency for this work to be completed. The European Union financed the project, which was in fact the last segment of a trunk road that, once completed, would connect the two capitals of Guinea and Ivory Coast, which are approximately eighteen hundred kilometres apart.

talking was the easiest tool for Sergio

I remember Sergio telling me that his first discovery, when arriving at the camp, was that for a long time there had been no face to face contact between the teams, and this included the Chef de Mission. All contact was made through memos and letters. Several letters per day had passed between the contractor, the consultant and the Chef de Mission, copies of which were sent to the client’s representatives. It is worth mentioning that the three offices were not more than one hundred metres apart. Sergio’s first intervention was to institute that no more letters would be exchanged. The teams would have to meet face to face and talk. You will all know that talking was the easiest tool for Sergio and one he would be familiar with.

Sergio was able to create a safe environment where people felt confident that they would be heard with respect, that their voices would not be shouted down by anybody. It was because people began to feel able to express their beliefs freely that the project moved forward, and the conflict was eventually resolved.

Letters from Africa

By then we had been promoted to faxes, and he sent Daniel and I the most interesting faxes with stories of his daily life, drawings of what he was doing and of the animals and plants around him. I have often said that there is a very lovely book there that could be called “Letters from Africa”.

Later, Sergio went on to do a masters in Systemic Consultation at the Institute of Family Therapy, where he was supervised in his dissertation by David Campbell.

Life with Sergio has been full of adventures. Each morning when I would wake up he had already been perusing the national and international papers, from Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post, to The Times and The Guardian, and of course the Brazilian papers. He entered into fierce discussions with what he read.

During the last three years Sergio struggled with various illnesses that progressively weakened him. But he was a fighter and faced each of them with his will to live. He did not wish to leave us and mourned the time that he would no longer have with us. Our friends and family surrounded us with their support and love. Judith Perle, Renee and Thomas Salamon have been with us at each step of the way. Since March 2020 Thomas has brought us challah every Friday – our challah man.

Daniel and Alexandra have been a huge tower of strength. They have stayed with us throughout the past week at home. We were all with Sergio when he passed, Daniel and I holding his hands.

Evelyn came into our lives a year ago and stayed. Gloria was there in the night when he left us. He will be missed by very many.

My partner in this voyage has left.