Editor’s View

The phone rang. I groggily answered the call, feeling the effects of a late night out with new Brazilian friends. My grandmother had died.

I decided not to return from Rio de Janeiro, where I was studying, for the funeral in Washington, D.C. Instead, in a few months I would travel with my family to Buenos Aires and meet my grandmother’s only other direct relatives.

My parents and siblings had already enjoyed the first of several late night “welcome to Argentina” steak dinners when I arrived in Buenos Aires. During the ride from the airport, they were practically bursting with newly-gleaned family history. In the 1920s, my mother told me, three of my grandmother’s siblings immigrated to Argentina in search of a better life. After a few years in Buenos Aires, one sister, homesick, returned to Europe. It was a terrible mistake. The Nazis murdered her along with the rest of the family–except my grandmother, who survived Russian labor camps, and the two brothers in Argentina. After being seperated from her brothers for 34 years, my grandmother finally made the trip down to Buenos Aires in the early 1960s. But only one brother was still alive.

My father, who never knew most of his mother’s Argentine relatives even existed, was probably the most excited by the family reunion. With the older ones, to whom he bore a striking familial resemblance, he spoke in an almost gleeful Yiddish about my grandmother.

Christmas day was spent at the Hebraica Club, a Jewish retreat outside of Buenos Aires. We swam, talked, and took walks. One evening, after the older relatives went to bed, I lounged with some family members on the balcony of the small apartment and savored a dulce de leche desert. Andrea, a relative in her 40s, was curious about my father’s knowledge of the U.S.-backed dictatorship in Argentina. In the 1980s, during the final years of the dictatorship, my father had been counsel to the U.S. mission to the United Nations.

“Did you know that thousands of innocent people \xe2\x80\x98disappeared’–were murdered really–during the dictatorship?” she probed in Spanish, staring intently at my father. I translated Andrea’s words into English. My father, whose knowledge of Latin America was limited, took his time to respond. Andrea filled the silence with terrifyingly detailed accounts of stadiums converted into torture chambers, government officials pushing people out of airplanes, and fellow university students who left in the morning for school and never returned to their families. She explained why she feels a deep empathy for the women dressed in black who still march weekly in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo demanding accountability for their children, the desaparecidos, who disappeared without a trace decades before.

As the son of Holocaust survivors, the subject of brutal repression was not new to my father. He also knew vaguely that the Argentine government had perpetrated human rights offenses during the dictatorship. But the extent of Argentina’s brutal past came as a surprise. At last, my father gently asked Andrea how this had come about and who was responsible.

“The military did not want to hear dissenting voices,” she said, and “the U.S. government supported them.” My father squirmed.

Acting as a translator, I felt, for the first time, the division that separated our two families. Beyond losing personal contact, we had been oblivious to the circumstances that shaped the lives of our Argentine relatives. Like most American Jews, we had turned a blind eye to this period of persecution in Argentina.

Eventually, Andrea exhausted herself with stories of the terrors. I could sense my father, sitting next to me, relax. He stood up, and tried to rouse us with an upbeat Yiddish song his parents had sung to him. None of us knew the words.

Comments are closed.

WordPress Backup
Read previous post:
Facing Hard Times

Editor's View