Two weeks ago, Mario Sandoval, a professor at the Sorbonne’s Institute of Latin American Studies, was finally extradited to Argentina after a seven-year legal fight.
In a former life, he had been a police officer during the military junta then assigned to unit 3.3.2 at Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada, the naval college known by its initials Esma.
There, between 1976 and 1983, it is estimated that many of its 5,000 political inmates were tortured, drugged, undressed and thrown into the sea.
Jews were represented disproportionately amongst these desaparecidos — the disappeared ones. Many, but not all, were associated with leftist movements, but they were singled out for exceptionally harsh treatment in Argentina’s “dirty war” simply because they were Jewish.
Those who survived later testified about commonplace antisemitism and an admiration for Hitler.
One guard, nicknamed “El Zorro”, beat anyone with a Jewish-sounding name. Inmates were told that they no longer possessed a name, only a number.
While some prisoners worked and were even shown films for entertainment, others were tortured in adjoining rooms. Prisoners were forced to write to their relatives that all was well.
Mario Sandoval was known as Churrasco (Steak) because of his penchant for tying prisoners to metal railings — and electrocuting them.
All carried out in the name of Christian civilisation and Western values. The legacy of Nazism dies hard.
One survivor of Esma, Miriam Lewin, from a Polish Jewish family, is today a leading investigative journalist in Argentina She wrote that “every Wednesday, a group of prisoners disappeared, supposedly taken to Patagonia. As Jews, we deceived ourselves in order to stay alive with the illusion of a better destiny”.
Ms Lewin collaborated with the Italian photographer Giancarlo Ceraudo to produce the appropriately named book, Destino Final, about the desaparecidos — and this led to an attempt to identify the aircraft and pilots who took part in the death flights.
Ms Lewin and Mr Ceraudo identified five Skyvan PA–51 aircraft whose task was to deliver the post — and to drop bodies. One of these aircraft is reportedly stationed in the UK.
One photograph in the book features Vera Vigevani Jarach, whose daughter disappeared, probably carried to her death on board one of these flights.
Jarach was born in Milan but as a child fled Mussolini’s Italy, shortly after anti-Jewish legislation had been passed.
Esma ran a maternity unit for babies born to inmates. The mothers were then killed and the babies given to “good” military families. Nearly two decades ago, Guillermo Pérez Gomez was confronted by a young woman who told him: “I am the daughter of desaparecidos. I am looking for my brother. I think that he might be you.”
After several confrontations, his “father” admitted that his real mother was Jewish and had given birth in prison, and that he knew all about her murder. Mr Gomez was then reunited with his grandmother, then in her nineties, and decided to revert to his real surname Roisinblit.
For decades, the abuelas (grandmothers) of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo — an association of mothers — have been searching for their murdered children and their stolen grandchildren. In recent years, they have been helped enormously in their quest by the advent of DNA technology.
They campaigned strongly against the decisions of democratic governments after the fall of the military junta to grant immunity to the practitioners of the dirty war. Only in 2003 were such amnesties overturned and prosecutions for crimes against humanity could then be pursued.
The Esma trial of 68 people began in 2012 and took five years to complete: 29 were jailed for life and another 19 between eight and 25 years. Several witnesses testified to the prevalence of antisemitism.
One area of focus during the trial was the role of the Catholic Church in hiding detainees from international human rights inspectors.
There was already widespread awareness of the role of Christian von Wernich, the Buenos Aires police chaplain found guilty a decade before of being complicit in seven homicides, 42 kidnappings and 32 instances of torture. Among those testifying agaist the priest was Jacobo Timmerman, the Jewish editor of La Opinión whose reporting of the repression led to his imprisonment by the Argentina junta in the late 1970s.
Esma today is now a museum of remembrance to which those who never lived through those terrible years are asked to reflect on why so many like Mario Sandoval obeyed without hesitation and went the way of the beast.
Jewish Chronicle 2 January 2020