Today is Tuesday, and I had pictured this day as one of the “easier days,” due to the topic. Of course, you are probably wondering why I would consider such as topic as “easy.” By way of background, my undergrad at Texas was a B.A. in German with a focus on German culture, so I already have strong awareness and understanding of the Holocaust – this is a topic that is not new to me. I had no idea, though, that a big surprise was waiting for me at our last stop.
The tour began with a visit to the previous location of the Israeli Embassy. I say “former” because it was obliterated in 1992 by a bomb that claimed the lives of 29 and left over 250 people injured. The site is now a memorial with one tree planted for each victim. It was located on a corner, and you can see where it was because on both sides are buildings, each with a blank wall that used to abut the embassy.
There was a very disturbing observation on the way to the site, just around the corner from it; that is, right when we were about to turn the corner off the main boulevard, the 9th of July Boulevard, a few of us noticed two swastikas spray-painted on street signs flanking the Colombian Embassy. Our guide, Mathias, who is Jewish, was incredulous when we brought it to his attention, incredulous to the point where he was asking us, “Are you sure, really sure, it was a swastika?” Still in disbelief, he saw the digital image on Dr. Halperin’s camera, confirming what we had witnessed. Mathias was noticeably shocked, but we moved on with our tour and headed for “Once” (11 in Spanish, pr. “own-say”), the Jewish District.
As it turns out, there is a good deal of tension between Argentina and Colombia, as there is between Peru and Colombia against Venezuela, Argentina against Chile, and so on and so on. South America is a continent where tension and conflict describe its history, define its present, and will write its future.
The Jewish District
The next stop was A.M.I.A., the Jewish Cultural Center, which is now strongly fortified after a horrific act of terrorism killed 87 and injured over 100 in 1994. You now enter two at a time, passport in hand, and pass through a metal detector. Despite the center’s history, it is a vital and thriving focal point for Buenos Aires’ Jewish Community, made only stronger by this hideous act of hate.
Afterward, we did a walking tour of Once and visited two beautiful, yet very different, synagogues, the first serving Jews of mostly Middle Eastern descent, the second having a congregation of mostly Eastern European Jews; Hebrew or Arabic spoken in the former, and mostly Yiddish spoken in the latter.
Our last stop was the Holocaust Museum, which we toured and saw the history of Jews in Argentina and a wall with the picture of their Holocaust survivors. One interesting exhibit was a list of the Third Reich’s elite who were welcomed to Argentina by Peron’s government after WWII, e.g., Adolf Eichmann, Klaus Barbie, Joseph Mengele, etc. There was even a copy of Eichmann’s Argentinean passport with his photo and new name, Ricardo Klement; very eerie.
We then went upstairs to hear the witness of a local, English-speaking Holocaust survivor, Gina Ladanyi, a sweet and tiny 87-year-old with piercing blue eyes that have seen horrors that are almost unimaginable, yet very real.
Gina grew up on the Germany-Poland border with a German Jewish mother and a Polish Jewish father. Upon annexation of Poland by the Nazis, she and her family were rounded up into one of the ghettos in a town that was also the site of Himmler’s office for the implementation the Final Solution. Food was very scarce and was distributed first to the Germans, next to the Poles, and lastly to the Jews, if there was anything left. They were so hungry that her brother, whom Gina described as “very clear-eyed, easily passing for German,” would take off his required yellow star, sneak out and get food from a nearby village, and return to feed the family. This worked well for a while, but he was eventually caught and immediately sent to Auschwitz. Shortly thereafter, her family received a letter from the Germans that he had died from tuberculosis, which they all knew was a lie.
The only thing that saved Gina from being “relocated” was the need for German-speaking girls to work in the offices. Her job was to make the identification cards: green for Germans who could move about freely; red cards, which when presented would allow the Germans to take that person anywhere in the city; and black cards that meant this person could be moved anywhere, with ‘anywhere” usually being Auschwitz.
Gina knew most of the people to whom the card were being issued and did a lot of switching – for example, when she knew someone had a family, they would get switched to red. If discovered, she would immediately be sent off, but she never got caught.
She was eventually relocated to a work camp in Czechoslovakia where they made German uniforms. She was loaded into a boxcar and had to stand for three days since there was nowhere to lie down or even sit. At the camp, they endured a 12-hour workday with the most minimal nutritional subsistence, usually bread; just enough to keep them barely alive. Sixty-three years later, she still will not eat bread.
Although extremely fatigued and malnourished, they could not stop working without extreme punishment, so Gina would continually sabotage the machines to give her colleagues a break, knowing that she could explain in German that it was the “unreliable machines’ ” fault. The Germans would help fix the machines while the girls got a brief rest.
When asked why she would change the I.D. cards and sabotage the machines at the work camp when she knew she was risking her life to help others, she simply replied, “Why not? When your situation is utterly hopeless, what else can you do? When it is so bad, what will happen will happen. I am a fatalist.”
Gina survived the work camp for four years, and it was one of the last ones liberated. She saw the prisoners who were liberated from the death camps and described them as “walking skeletons.” She learned that her father had almost survived but had perished on a Death March only two weeks before liberation. He was 47.
She ended up in the American sector and worked for the Americans for two years, which is how she learned English. She knew she had an uncle, her mother’s brother, who was living somewhere in Argentina, but Peron was not accepting Jews after the War, so she headed to Brazil to find some means to sneak into Argentina. If you could just get into Argentina, Peron’s government would not deport you. You just had to get there.
She found a boat for Argentina and made friends with a Hungarian Jew who had survived the Budapest ghetto and also spoke German. They have now been married for 60 years, with children and grandchildren.
She has more or less gotten over the Germans and has been back to Germany, but she will not return to Poland for reasons that are her own. They are her reasons, and the price she paid to earn these reason is unimaginable. Her only regret of a current nature is that it brings her great pain every time she reads that this Nazi or that Nazi “died in his bed last night,” never having come to justice, or at least not to justice on this earth.
If you ever have the opportunity to hear a Holocaust survivor give witness, absolutely do not miss the opportunity. They are very old, and there shall be some point in the near future where the last one passes on. They are a living piece of history that you can still experience.
My final question for Gina was about in which language she dreams. She said that they speak German at home and she always dreams in German, not Polish, Spanish, or English. German. I saw her walking down the street with her cane after the meeting, slowly but very steadily, just like the cane my grandmother had near the end of her life. Meeting Gina was an incredible experience, and she made me miss my grandmother. A lot.