Bob in Argentina

Bob, a graduate student in the Master of Liberal Studies program and a vice president in Goldman Sachs’ Investment Banking Division, is participating in a 10-day trip to Argentina with the Human Rights Education Program.

Two perspectives on hope

The Grandmothers of the Disappeared and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo:

As you will see in this blog, the word “Disappeared” is used as a noun, as an adjective and as a verb, and it has a very specific use and meaning in the context of what took place during the junta.

Sure, you could use “dead,” “presumed dead,” “missing” or any other variety of terms, but Disappeared has its own special meaning in Argentina because the victims literally disappeared, most often never to be found again. Is there some level of hope in the use of that word? Yes and no.

As time passes, the chances of locating one of the Disappeared fades to zero, mostly with no tangible evidence of what ever happened to that person. But for our first group, The Grandmothers of the Disappeared, hope is alive and well.

The Grandmothers of the Disappeared: A Current and Ongoing Hope
The first Wednesday meeting was with the Grandmothers of the Disappeared. Like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, they all have sons or daughters who were disappeared, but they were disappeared either with small children or expecting children at the time of their disappearance.

As such, the goal of the Grandmothers of the Disappeared is to locate their grandchildren, many of whom were adopted out to military families. 92 of the 500 lost grandchildren have been found, with two new ones found the week before we arrived in Argentina, so the Grandmothers’ mission is an ongoing effort that is still producing results.

By way of background, the Disappearances took place during the tyranny of the military junta, which came to power in 1976 in Argentina’s sixth military coup. The junta lasted until 1983, when democracy was re-established, primarily precipitated by Argentina’s ill-fated occupation of the Falklands (Malvinas in Spanish) in 1982 and their subsequent defeat by Great Britain only 72 days later, a complete disaster for the Argentinean navy. The invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas was staged to distract the Argentinean people from the continually weakening economy, but ended up being the “fortunate disaster” that brought down the military dictatorship.

The Grandmother whom we met was Mrs. Roa. She is one of about 40 current members, but they are getting older and fewer as the months and years pass. Mrs. Roa stated that their primary mission is to locate the stolen children of the Disappeared because they believe that it is a basic human right to know your own identity.

Mrs. Roa’s son and daughter-in-law were abducted along with their eight-month-old daughter, who was raised by a colonel and his wife. They changed her name and altered her birthday to alleviate any traces of her pervious identity.

Mrs. Roa, though, is one of the fortunate Grandmothers of the Disappeared: she was reunited with her granddaughter, Claudia Victoria, eight years ago when a random tip came from a janitor who retired and felt that he could reveal the sudden appearance of this child 24 years ago in the building where he worked.

It is, of course, very fortunate that he called Mrs. Roa with this information, but I cannot understand how and why someone could sit on a piece of information like that for such a long period of time solely for the sake of job preservation. Nonetheless, they are reunited, and that is the important part.

Claudia changed her name back to “Claudia” and had many questions about her parents and her newly-found family. Her father and mother were both psychology students at the university and were politically active. When they were abducted, he was 23, and she was 21. Neither was ever seen nor heard from again.

I asked Mrs. Roa if she speaks with Claudia about her adopted family, and her response was short and simple, “no, never.” From the beginning of their reunited lives, Mrs. Roa has always maintained a pledge to not ask about the adopted parents and considers that a part of Claudia’s life that is none of her business.

I also asked if Claudia had been reunited with her other grandmother, but Mrs. Roa knew her and said that her daughter’s abduction was too much for her and she had taken her own life two years after the abduction. However, she was reunited with her maternal grandfather, who is now 80.

Even though she found her granddaughter eight years ago, Mrs. Roa is still at the office of the Grandmothers of the Disappeared because each of the Grandmothers feels joy and solidarity with the other Grandmothers every time a grandchild is found. Although 25 years have passed since the end of the junta, hope is still very alive for the Grandmothers of the Disappeared, with two fresh victories, just one week ago.

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo: Strength and Solidarity When Hope Has Faded

The second meeting was with the best known and most politically active groups for the Disappeared: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. We met with five of their members, including their current president, and they went through their respective stories, each horrible and moving. They look like anyone’s sweet little grandmother, all very handsomely attired as if going to a business meeting, but this is their business and it has been for the last 32 years.

The fifth to offer her story was Mrs. Morea, the quiet, small lady in the green sweater at the far right of the panel. She told her story, or even worse, stories, and by the time she was finished, she was sitting before a sea of speechless faces. Her story was awful, and it got more horrific as the details unfolded.

The military police arrived at about 1 am on July 28, 1976, and they always came in plain clothes and Ford Falcons. They took Mrs. Morea’s daughter, Susanna, along with her husband and his mother. Since both her daughter and son-in-law were architects, Mrs. Morea went to police repeatedly to ask why they had been taken, but the consistent response was that they knew nothing.

After the fall of the junta, a mass burial site was discovered about 30 kilometers from Buenos Aires at a place called Fatima where the “Massacre of Fatima” had taken place. A group of forensic anthropologists were sent to the site, and Mrs. Morea’s daughter’s bones were the first case of positive DNA identification from the Massacre. Shortly thereafter, the son-in-law’s remains were also identified, and they had a proper funeral and burial for the two, now next to each other for eternity.

When the perpetrators of the massacre were on trial, Mrs. Morea found out that her daughter and son-in-law had been tortured with electricity, rape, and sleep deprivation for twenty days, and then killed. Further, it came out in the trial that the daughter’s mother-in-law had been taken on one of the Death Flights, where they simply loaded up the planes, flew out to sea, and threw people out.

Of the five military perpetrators of the Massacre of Fatima, one fled the country, one was already dead, two were convicted, and the worst one was set free due to “lack of evidence” and his claim that he was not on duty. He may be retried, but that is presently pending further investigation.

For her daughter’s funeral, the best friend flew in from Italy and broke it to Mrs. Morea that the daughter had been pregnant at the time of her disappearance, but had lost the baby during electrical shock torture. The only point of happiness in her story is her other daughter’s story, which, however, holds its own tragedy. That daughter’s husband was also one of the Disappeared and was never found, but she was pregnant at the time of his Disappearance, and Mrs. Morea is left with her daughter and a grandson, who is now 31.

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo are exceptional and strong women who all say they received great support from their husbands. When they began their civil disobedience back in the 1970s, they were often derided with catcalls of “las Locas” (the crazy women) by passersby, but have since gained great respect in Argentinean society as a model for strength, tenacity, and political activism.

You can see them circle the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday at 3:30 p.m., still wearing their white head shawls that have covered their heads since their first march in 1977.

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The Jewish Tour and Holocaust Museum: Addressing hope

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.

Memorial site
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.

Gina’s story
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.

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Argentina through different eyes

By way of getting started, please keep in mind that these observations are my observations as a function of my experiences as conveyed from my first-person perspective. I am not a professional driver and this is not a closed course, but we live in a world of disclaimers, so please just keep in mind that I speak only for myself. Thusly disclaimed …

A pollution protest
Sunday was a beautiful cold winter day, and since it is 107 back home, no complaints here. We met with (translated) The Alliance for the Delta and River in the northern suburb of Tigre (Tiger). They have a twice-a-month protest against the ongoing and intensifying pollution of the Rio Plata and the smaller rivers and streams of the river delta.

There are about 12,000 polluters, and it is visibly obvious in the water quality and amount of floating trash one sees in the area. One of the organizers had a picture of the boat ramp in front of his house that was a sea of floating garbage that filled the foreground. Truly horrible.

We were not there for the purpose of joining their march but ended up doing so just because it happened that we were there when the march started and they very much appreciated our participation. The policeman even stopped traffic to let the group pass to the roundabout, which I thought was nice. Passers-by honked in solidarity and support, and it was a very positive experience despite the negative focus of the protest.

I asked the fairly obvious question of “So I assume there is no equivalent to our Environmental Protection Agency?” and was surprised to hear, “Sure, we have one … but they do not do anything. They are controlled by industry and real estate developers.”

Related to the latter, there is a new gated ultra-high-end residential development under way called “Colony Park,” where they displaced generations of people who were living there but did not own the land and clear-cut the trees in the area. It sounded like some bizarre coincidence that they would give something an English name and use the word “Colony,” which is exactly what is taking place there – a de facto colonization of the river delta and displacement of the previous inhabitants because they simply did not have title to the land upon which they lived.

A subsequent river tour after lunch confirmed the extent of the pollution in an otherwise beautiful setting where people have hundreds of island communities. The houses on these car-less islands range from shacks to very nice multistory homes, but there is an obvious sense of community. The pollution truly is a shame, where these people swim, water-ski and fish every day.

Argentina’s ‘Disappeared’
Yesterday (Monday) was dense and intense; we started out at the Institute for the Memory of the Disappeared and met with a woman who was kidnapped and released when she was 16 and pregnant, only to have her mother abducted and subsequently killed along with two French nuns who were protesting the Disappeared.

Went on to the former Naval Academy, where many of the detainees were taken, tortured and incarcerated before being killed and dumped in the ocean, which was the disposal place of convenience because the airstrip is close by. They would load up the dead, go out 50 miles or so and throw them out of the airplanes. A few would occasionally wash up; most didn’t.

After that, we went to the seaside memorial, which is located on the river-sea, with Nanina, whose husband was disappeared in 1977 at age 27. We threw flowers in the river with her, and it was a cold and rainy day, an interesting juxtaposition to yesterday’s beauty, but the bleak setting was so much more appropriate for the things we saw on this day. No one missed the fact that the drizzle stopped just long enough for us to walk with Nanina to the pier and recommenced immediately and much heavier once we were done. Very fortunate and completely haunting.

Today takes us inside the Israel Embassy, on to the Jewish District, and concludes fairly early after our tour of the Holocaust Museum. We get to hear the details of some very strange events today about how Peron threw the doors open for Klaus Barbie, Josef Mengele, et al, right after WW II. The German connection here is interesting insofar as there has historically been a large German population for many years prior to WW II, but Argentina and other parts of South America became a Nazi safe harbor after the war.

I may have to decompress with a good steak and some nice Argentinian red after yet another intense day. This is an amazing opportunity, thanks to the doors that have been opened for us being on an academic trip, but it is almost like I was in a different place when I was here nine years ago – but I recognize the landmarks. I still find this place to be a fascinating mix of interesting, beautiful and intriguing, but as a function of what I have seen, it is through different eyes.

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