Argentine Jews Start Recovery From Tragedy
It is with pain that 92-year-old Samuel Rollansky thinks of rebuilding. The bomb that ripped through the heart of Argentina’s Jewish community not only killed almost 100 people--it also destroyed Rollansky’s lifework, one of the world’s most precious collections of Jewish historical books and papers.
“As Jews, we are accustomed to having to start over,” he said quietly, cradling a volume of “Master Works of Yiddish Literature,” which he published more than 30 years ago. “It is an obligation. As the poet H. Levick said: ‘I fall, I get up. I fall again, I get up again.’ It is not a matter of ‘Can we rebuild?’ but that we must.”
Even as the government on Wednesday issued its first arrest warrants in the case, the largest Jewish community in Latin America was beginning to emerge from the shock and despair that engulfed it after a car bomb on July 18 destroyed the Buenos Aires headquarters of the community’s social services.
And as Argentina’s Jews look to the long process of recovery, they are assessing the permanent psychological damage, fears and uncertainties.
In these post-crisis assessments, some Argentine Jews speak with new bitterness. They watch in dismay as non-Jewish Argentines take their children out of schools near Jewish offices. They see new outbreaks of an anti-Semitism that, one way or another, has long existed in Argentina. And they feel a growing apprehension that the investigation into the bombing will never turn up those truly responsible, leaving open the possibility of another attack.
“Terror not only managed to kill 100 people, wound 200 and leave a crater in the middle of the city,” said Ruben Beraja, a banker and community leader. “Terror also managed to install a certain amount of fear. The spirit and color of the city has been changed. Look, (many) days have passed (since the bombing) and we are still trapped by trauma and shock.”
There are outward signs of recovery.
The frenetic pace has slowed at the Marc Chagall Cultural Center, which became a makeshift command post for teams of counselors and rescue workers and where some 500 relatives awaited tragic news during the first days after the explosion.
The ruins of the seven-story building--the terrorists’ target--have been mostly cleared away. All but 10 victims have been identified and buried; DNA testing is expected to give names to the last 10.
With the help of Israeli experts, Jewish schools are instructing their teachers to incorporate the bombing into their curricula, and enhanced security now means leaving cellular telephones and electronic date books at the front desks of many synagogues.
“The pain is enormous,” said Enrique Klein, a publicist who was badly hurt in the 1992 car-bombing of Buenos Aires’ Israeli Embassy, which almost killed his wife. “But that doesn’t mean you cross your arms. You have to keep fighting.”
Jews fleeing pogroms and prejudice began migrating to distant Argentina from Russia and Europe in the latter half of the 19th Century, colonizing vast, vacant pampas as farmers and merchants.
By 1882, the first rabbi was recognized by the government; by 1898, three newspapers were being published in Yiddish. The Jewish exiles’ first rural colony was called “Moisesville"--Moises is Spanish for Moses--and populated by thousands of Jewish gauchos, or cowboys.
Descendants of the first Jewish settlers became part of Argentina’s prosperous middle class. Many Jews today, despite Argentina’s persistent current of anti-Semitism, hold prominent positions in government and business. The community numbers about 250,000, having declined in recent years because of migration to Israel and the United States.
This history was meticulously detailed in the largest library of Judaica in Latin America, a compilation of 70,000 books, diaries, original birth and death certificates and other papers housed under the Jewish Scientific Institute and founded by Rollansky.
Many of the priceless works were destroyed in the bombing. “I have lived to see my own funeral,” Rollansky tearfully told reporters on July 18.
Later, in an interview at his apartment in the center of the Once neighborhood, established as Buenos Aires’ first Jewish ghetto at the turn of the century, Rollansky recalled how he began collecting the materials after his immigration to Argentina from Poland in 1926.
Among the items housed in the library and archives were original, irreplaceable works of 16th- and 17th-Century literature, 19th-Century Hebrew magazines, phonographic recordings of Jewish tango stars, files documenting the Jewish immigration to South America, World War II memorabilia, a model of a Nazi concentration camp..
“A diabolical bomb, placed by diabolical people, destroyed some of the most peaceful and noble work imaginable,” Rollansky said.
Many Jews fear that one of the lasting aftereffects of the bombing will be a new wave of subtle and not-so-subtle anti-Semitism.
They cringed at hearing people refer to the “innocent victims” of the bombing--the non-Jewish passersby or workers. Parents have reportedly withdrawn 50 children from La Salle Catholic school across the street from the Chagall Center in the last week; fearful residents have staged protest rallies over the possible location of an Egyptian Embassy in their neighborhood.
“We have seen the best, and the worst, come out,” said Edgardo Knopoff, 32, a psychoanalyst. “There have been expressions of solidarity and support, and there has been discrimination. Sometimes this kind of (overt) fear exacerbates a fear that is latent in society.”
Knopoff and others blame the bombing, in part, on the “country’s sickness.” They say a government that has not done enough to eradicate anti-Semitism, and a society that tolerates extremist hatreds and prejudice, helped to create a climate that permits attacks on Jews.
Although an Islamic fundamentalist group claimed responsibility, the 1992 embassy bombing was never fully resolved, and no one was ever arrested. Despite assurances from President Carlos Saul Menem that this time will be different, and the government taking concrete steps in the prosecution of the case Wednesday, many Argentines have their doubts.
“We took the first case as isolated,” said Fabian Triskier, 30, a psychiatrist. “Now we are convinced a third attack could come.”
Triskier, Knopoff and psychologist Alejandro Stilerman, 36, are members of a volunteer health team that has worked practically around the clock to counsel victims of the bombing and the relatives of the dead. With the crisis easing, they were able to take time to sit down and speak to a reporter last week.
Smoking furiously, the three said the bombing and its consequences have forced them to re-examine their own religious commitment. Knopoff said he had not been to synagogue in 10 years. “Now,” he said, “I don’t know. I want to analyze this.”
The counselors said they found poignant solace from another ugly chapter of recent Argentine history: Argentines who lost children or other relatives in the “dirty war” gave words of comfort and advice. That war was a campaign of terror by the Argentine military and fascist groups in the late 1970s and early ‘80s that killed thousands of dissidents, students and others.
The earliest major incident of anti-Jewish violence in Buenos Aires was recorded in January, 1919, when angry mobs denouncing “Bolshevism” hunted down and beat Jews, looted Jewish-owned businesses and burned two Jewish libraries. The Semana Tragica (Tragic Week) left a toll of one dead and 71 injured, Ricardo Feierstein said in his 1993 book, “Historia de los Judios Argentinos.”
The mobs were led, Feierstein said, by the sons of some of Argentina’s wealthiest families, who wanted to protect their vision of a national identity--conservative and Roman Catholic--that the Jews, portrayed as foreigners and leftists, threatened.
Jews continued to be attacked in the decades that followed, especially under the government of Gen. Juan Peron, who welcomed Nazi fugitives to Argentina after World War II. As recently as January of this year, the chief rabbi of Buenos Aires, Salomon Benhamu, was beaten by a gang on his way to synagogue.