“Like their fellow citizens, Argentina’s more than half-a-million Jews have greeted the seizure of power by a military junta with a long sigh of relief. They hope that the long nightmare of the past three years or so under the Peronist administration has ended,”
So wrote a JC special correspondent from Buenos Aires in April 1976 . The misplaced hope was the culmination of a longing for law and order amid the instability of the Peron administration. The Montoneros guerrillas who took their inspiration from the Argentinian-born Che Guevara were increasing their attacks on the police and military. A thousand people had been killed since 1969, many more injured, the Sheraton hotel bombed in the Argentinian capital and business executives in the car industry targeted.
The Catholic Church in Argentina enthusiastically welcomed this new regime as the defender of God, the motherland and the family. Archbishop Adolfo Tortolo, the army’s spiritual mentor, was grateful and certain that the military would stop what he perceived to be the moral disintegration of Argentinian society.
After all, the junta’s head, Jorge Rafael Videla, commented that a terrorist was someone who spread ideas ”contrary to western and Christian civilisation”.
Within a few years, up to 30,000 people had been ”disappeared”. This included a disproportionate 10 per cent who were Jews – both assimilated sympathisers with the Montoneros and apolitical liberal members of the Jewish community. If the left had been the central target of the military’s policy of torture and execution, Jews – that “unpatriotic tool of the White House and the Kremlin, the agents of unbridled capitalism and unscrupulous communism” – came a close second.
The bodies of the desaparecidos were never found – hence no legal case could be brought. The Argentinian military pioneered new methods such as ”the death flights” in which drugged victims would be dropped far out to sea. Inhabitants of the Paraná Delta, north of Buenos Aires, reported ”bodies falling out of the sky”. The babies of executed parents were handed over to ”good” military families.
The military leadership and the Catholic hierarchy had been inspired by the ideology of Vichy France and Franco’s Spain – and acted accordingly. Initially, the Republican White House of Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger supported this military dictatorship with the intention of suppressing leftist revolts and limiting Soviet influence in its own backyard. Funding, military parts and assistance was stopped only in 1978 by President Carter.
While there were ties between the Montoneros and Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, the regime suspected ”Zionists”. When the Jewish editor of Opinion, Jacobo Timmerman, was arrested, his interrogators questioned him about an imaginary meeting that had taken place between Menahem Begin and Montoneros journalists in Buenos Aires in 1976. This had emerged because Begin’s book, The Revolt, had been discovered in a Montoneros hideout. It recorded the Irgun’s campaign against the British in Palestine in the 1940s. Interrogators often quoted from the Tsarist forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and believed that the Jews wanted to establish the Republic of Andinia in Patagonia. ”How many troops would the Israelis send to the new state,” asked Timmerman’s tormentor.
Anti-Semitism was such a feature of closed detention centres that a section on it was included in the official 1984 report of that period, after Argentina had returned to democracy. Nazi regalia and portraits of Hitler were often observed and anti-Semitic taunts often heard. Swastikas were painted on the backs of Jews while others were ordered to walk on all fours like dogs, bark and lick the boots of their torturers.
Timmerman records that Jewish prisoners were given reduced food rations, while visiting rabbis were humiliated by guards. In July 1977, Nora Strejilevich was packing for a trip to Israel, when people entered her home searching for her brother Gerardo. After searching the whole house, removing books and documents, they arrested her. Here is an extract from an interview she gave:
‘‘They threatened me for having uttered Jewish words in the street (my surname) and for being a bloody Yid, someone whom they would make soap out of. They took me straight away to the torture room where I was subjected to the electric prod… They kept asking me for the names of the people travelling with me to Israel… One of them could speak Hebrew, or at least a few words, which he could place in the correct order in a sentence. He tried to find out if there was any military training in the kibbutzim. They asked for a physical description of the organisers of the study tours, like the one I was on (Sherut La’am), a description of the building of the Jewish Agency (which I knew very well), etc. They assured me that they were primarily concerned with ‘the problem of subversion’ but the ‘Jewish problem’ was second in importance and they were gathering information for their files… (file No. 2535 CONADEP report)
Nora Strejilevich was released after a few days, but she never saw her brother again. Within a year of the military takeover, the president of the DAIA, the main communal organisation, was making broad condemnatory remarks about anti-Semitism in Argentinian society. His 22-year-old son was then kidnapped. Only the intervention of President Carter’s Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, procured his release. The young man had been badly beaten. His father put him on the next flight out of the country.
The 17-year-old daughter of the head of the DAIA in Cordoba, was similarly taken. She never returned. Cordoba’s La Perla camp was said to be particularly vicious towards Jews.
After this, official Jewish organisations in Argentina became more restrictive and circumspect in their public comments. They were selective about which issues to espouse and which to downgrade. Jews arrested for non-Jewish reasons were often deemed to be outside the authority of such representative bodies. Yet antisemitic innuendo was directed at even the most assimilated Jew during interrogation.
Some Jewish prisoners even hid their Jewishness behind traditional Catholic names. Esther became Maria. As in South Africa and in the Soviet Union, communal organisations were later accused of an insular cowardice by those who suffered and survived.
Others, such as the courageous American-born conservative rabbi, Marshall Meyer, a disciple of Abraham Joshua Heschel, was less concerned for his personal safety. As was Pérez Ezquivel, a Catholic human-rights activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980.
The campaign to rein in this brutal, primitive regime was not characterized by mass demonstrations by Jews in European capitals, but by quiet negotiations.
The cause of his colleague, Jacobo Timmerman, was certainly espoused by the former Jewish Chronicle editor, Geoffrey Paul, in the pages of this newspaper, but the deaths of so many Jews – no matter how distant from their Jewishness – remains a political stain on the Jewish conscience.
The official Argentinian CONADEP report on this terrible period in recent history is called Nunca Más in Spanish. It translates as ”Never Again”.
The Israeli government later set up the Comisión Israeli por los Desaparecidos Judios en Argentina, which collected the testimonies of family members whose loved ones fell victim to the regime – in order that they should not be forgotten.
Even today, aged grandmothers – the Madres de Plaza de Mayo – still look both for their missing children and their kidnapped grandchildren. Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet wrote:
The weeping cannot be seen, like a plant
Whose seeds fall endlessly on the earth
The questions remain. How indeed could this have happened?
Jewish Chronicle 17 March 2016