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The Uncivil Servant in Argentina: Memories of the Junta

Mitchell Abidor
May 18, 2014
by Mitchell Abidor Memory is an important word in South America, the memory of the crimes of the military dictatorships of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Argentina which suffered under a vicious military regime from 1976-1983, has established — like many of its neighbors — a number of sites aimed at reminding visitors of the torture, murder, and disappearances of those years. WP_20140503_054Most strikingly, ten years ago they converted the main torture center, the Naval Mechanic’s School (ESMA) in Buenos Aires, into a Museo de la Memoria, with the complex’s many buildings turned over to a variety of human rights groups. Unfortunately (and sadly typical for Argentina), on the day we visited the museum, we were informed that the guide — visits are allowed only as a group with a guide — had called in sick and there would be no tours. (The backup plan for absenteeism was simply to close the place.) Two kilometers away, on the banks of the Rio de la Plata, is the moving Parque de la Memoria, where walls covered with the names of some nine thousand desaparecidos, the disappeared, alphabetically listed by year, allow the visitor to see and feel the scope of the disaster. Along with the names is listed the age of each at the time of their disappearance, as well as a notation alongside the name of every woman who was pregnant. Whole families, as well as a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old, are included on the list. For the year 1976 alone there are over 165 columns of names. The weight of the terror is almost palpable. Meanwhile, in the southern part of the city, the government is conducting an archaeological dig at the site of the Club Atletico, which was torn down by the dictatorship so it could build a highway. The area, decorated with photos of the five hundred people believed to have been killed there, is called the Park of the Thirty Thousand Comrades. For a visitor who came of age politically in the late 1960s, these sites are especially chilling: these young men and women were all my age. They saw and hated injustice, had similar beliefs to mine. That photo taken at ESMA of an exhausted, frightened, 23-year-old Fernando Brodsky — who was never seen again — could have been any of us. Ten per cent of the identified disappeared were Jews. Something else is striking when at these sites: They are right in the heart of the city. Unlike the Nazis, who placed their major killing centers away from the homeland, out of sight of the German people, the Argentine junta placed theirs in the midst of everyday life. The two centers we visited, far from being hidden away in some forgotten corner of Buenos Aires or its suburbs, were right there: the ESMA on the busy Avenida del Libertador, with cars flowing by day and night and a sidewalk right in front of it; the front door of the Officer’s Casino, inside which five thousand people were tortured and disappeared, and from which the Death Flights took off that threw bodies into the Rio de la Plata, is perhaps fifty meters from the sidewalk. The green Ford Falcons used by the teams of kidnappers could not have passed unseen. Similarly, the Club Atletico, though now destroyed, was on yet another main street, the Paseo Colon — and again, thousands and thousands (and thousands) of cars would have passed by as people disappeared through its doors, many never to be seen again. A visit to Buenos Aires, to these places of memory, raises disquieting moral questions. The German excuse that “we didn’t know” does not apply in Argentina, and indeed, no one attempts to use it. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo began their walks around the plaza in 1977; the Ford Falcons could not be missed; and a country doesn’t lose figures like the great investigative journalist Rodolfo Walsh, who vanished in 1977 a day after posting his scathing Open Letter to the Military Junta, or the writer Haroldo Conti, without knowing that something is seriously wrong. There were two common attitudes: either, “I don’t want to know anything,” or, “If they were arrested it’s because they did something.” The predominant reaction was silence. Our porteño friends Jorge and Cynthia told us that people reported hearing screams coming from the ESMA when they walked by it, but you don’t need to have heard the screams to have known what was happening. To what extent, then, can we hold, not just the military, but the Argentine people responsible for the horrors of those years? That the military acted so brazenly is a sign of how certain they were of their strength and how certain they were that no one would dare do anything to stop them. They made a calculation: How many heroes does a country have, willing to confront unjust authority at the risk of their own lives? The answer, in Argentina as in in all countries, is very few. It’s safe to say that most of the disappeared were people who truly were opposed to the military, who truly believed and fought for a more just Argentina, and they were annihilated. Of those not directly involved in the fight, few, indeed, uttered a word. And among those who did, like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the fact that they were highly visible did nothing to spare them the fate of their children — some of their members, too, disappeared. The Catholic Church’s complicity in these murders is still something that rankles, and the Pope is hated by many for his silence, and what some consider his collaboration, during this period. The official Jewish community did little better: When the relatives of disappeared went to the offices of the official Jewish organization the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, they were told that had they given their children a Jewish education they wouldn’t be in this mess — which didn’t prevent the Asociación's president from pulling strings and having his own son released when he, too, was kidnapped. Only a couple of rabbis, the Reform rabbi Roberto Graetz and the American-born Conservative rabbi Marshall Meyer, were vocal in speaking out and lending support to the families of the disappeared. Graetz had to flee Argentina for Brazil when he got word that he was about to join those he defended, and Meyer, one of the few heroes of the era, was doubtless protected by the fact that he was American. What a visit to the memory sites reveals is both the horrors of what was done to the disappeared and the horrors of what was revealed about the Argentine people, indeed about all people. For all the country’s vaunted machismo, it was made clear that there, as elsewhere, injustice reigns because people are unwilling to put their lives at stake to defend their rights. To especially reproach the Argentines for their silence is unfair, since any attempt to interfere with a kidnapping could result in death; but to say that their silence played no part in the continuation of the reign of terror would be untrue. The military was finally forced from power in 1983 after it lost whatever can be called its legitimacy as a result of its absurdly failed war in the Falklands in 1982, which cost 649 dead. That same false legitimacy could have been exposed earlier, but wasn’t, when as many as thirty thousand people were murdered by the agencies of state terror. The official report issued about the military editorship was entitled "Nunca mas" — never again. And certainly it’s unlikely to ever happen again in Argentina. The memory sites are used to teach children about what was done in the name of the Argentine nation, and though in Chile there are still those nostalgic for Pinochet, no one in Argentina longs for the return of General Videla. But a visit to the torture sites is a reminder as well of how easy it is for any civilized country — and make no mistake, Argentina, which has produced some of the greatest literature of the past century, some of the greatest musicians, with its pretensions to be the Paris of South America, is a civilized country — to descend to the lowest depths; for people to see cars going up the driveway to a building, see the passengers hustled out of the car, and then never be seen again. The evil can almost always count on the indifference of the many and the silence of the good. Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.