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Jewish Journal

JewishJournal.com

March 30, 2006

Snatched Away

How Argentina's Dirty War Shattered One Family and Cost the Children Their Jewish Ties

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/snatched_away_20060331

Federico and Hilda Alvarez Rojas, in 1962, shortly after their wedding. Junta operatives abducted them in 1976, as their children watched.

Federico and Hilda Alvarez Rojas, in 1962, shortly after their wedding. Junta operatives abducted them in 1976, as their children watched.

It was after midnight when Alejandra Alvarez Rojas, sleeping in her bedroom, was awakened by the ring of the doorbell. Who would be coming at this hour? The 13-year-old knew that her parents had weird friends: political activists, fellow scientists, bohemians. It could have been any of them knocking at her family's 13th-floor apartment in Buenos Aires' fashionable Palermo district.

Then she heard the sound of people rushing into her home, an explosion of mayhem: breaking glass and crockery, bookcases tumbling to the floor, dressers smashed, furniture and possessions being tossed around, floors and walls being ripped out.

Through the partly open door, Alejandra could see more than a dozen men, submachine guns at their waists. They were wearing berets, blue jeans and civilian shirts and jackets, but they acted military. One had what looked like a string of hand grenades around his neck. Another gave orders to the others: their jefe, probably.

Alejandra could hear her dad, Federico, trying to reason with the intruders. But the men went right on trashing the apartment, tearing through papers, documents, books on the shelves. Searching for ... for what?

"They are holding both my parents together in the living room," recalled Alejandra in a recent interview about the terrifying events of that night 30 years ago. "They ask them questions and then come into my bedroom and ask me the same questions: Where my parents work, what they did, what am I studying at school...."

She didn't know it then, but her family was about to fall victim to Argentina's Dirty War, which began 30 years ago last week when a military junta took power. Her parents -- both intellectuals, one of them Jewish -- were particularly likely victims. But none of what happened that night made any sense at the time.

Alejandra heard her parents being threatened and struck.

"At some moment, I remember perfectly, my mom starts sobbing. I hear one of the guys say, 'Get that loca out of here, because if you don't, I'll put a bullet in her head.' From then on, I know it is going to be very ugly. Then one of the guys comes into the room, looks at me and says, 'OK, change your clothes. Get dressed. You're coming with us, too.'"

But the jefe countermanded him. "No, no, not her."

He took the money from her mother's purse and put it into Alejandra's hand: "He tells me to take care of my little brother and sister. They warn me not to leave the bedroom until I hear the front door close, after everyone has left. I obey exactly, because at 13, you obey whatever an adult tells you to do, especially when you're scared."

Her 10-year-old sister, Fernanda, slept through the whole ordeal. But her 2-year-old brother, Emiliano, awoke and called for their mom. He kept calling and calling: Mamá! Mamá!

"I don't know what to do," said Alejandra. "After they close the door, I get off my bed and try to wake up Fernanda.... She wasn't aware that anything has happened. So I wake her up and tell her that mom and dad have been taken away."

Alejandra wondered when she would see her parents again.

In the 1970s, Federico Alvarez Rojas was a rising young scientist with an international reputation. At the place where he worked, the Argentine Atomic Energy Commission, he was the scientists' union representative. He was also a member of the Socialist Workers Party, advocating nonviolent means toward a more just society.

His wife, Hilda, was sympathetic to Federico's political activity, but was not herself involved. She was a computer programmer who had filed a claim against the Argentine government, alleging that she had been fired from a previous job because of anti-Semitism.

Of the 30,000 who perished during Argentina's Dirty War (1976-1983), about 1,900 were Jews -- or more than 6 percent of the victims, even though Jews numbered only about 1 percent of the population. Argentina's approximately 300,000 Jews suffered in greater proportion, because so many were members of that country's intellectual elite and its left-wing. Jews were heavily involved in political activism and in professions that were especially targeted: teachers, lawyers, labor organizers, journalists, scientists, psychologists, social workers and writers, as well as students. In some ways, the Dirty War can be seen as a campaign against the political intelligentsia, in which Jews were prominent.

Some members of the Jewish community responded heroically, but others remained silent out of fear as their friends and even family members vanished. They didn't want the same thing to happen to them.

Many in Hilda's generation of liberated, leftist, Argentine-born Jews had left Jewish religious observance behind. It's fair to say that she was either nonreligious or even anti-religious, although she clearly retained the intellectual secular humanism characteristic of many nonobservant Jews.

Where her own spiritual path would have led is impossible to say, but it's clear that her abduction not only cost her children their innocence and security but also whatever connection they might have had to their Jewish heritage.

Thirty years after these events, members of the Jewish community, like their countrymen, are still coming to terms with what happened. Some are seeking prosecution of military figures who were responsible; others are seeking closure and forgiveness.

Just before dawn Oct. 1, 1976, as the "task force" left the Las Heras Avenue apartment with the abducted couple, their jefe went to the floor below and told a neighbor to go upstairs, get the three children in 13B and put them up for the night, which she did.

In the morning, the housekeeper, Brá­gida, arrived at 13B to work. She had a key, opened the door and was horrified at the ruin. Even more frightening, no one was there. Desperate, she ran downstairs to the neighbors' place, which, by chance, was where the three children were.

Brá­gida wanted to clean up the apartment, so she told the children to go to the suburbs, where Hilda's brother, Ernesto, lived. There, the three youngsters first experienced the sad, social side effects of life in a reign of terror.

Alejandra recalled that when they got to her aunt and uncle's house, the aunt called her husband at work.

"Put them in a taxi and send them back home," her uncle instructed his wife. "Later, we'll see what happens."

This rejection by their aunt and uncle would prove to be a seminal and symbolic estrangement from their Jewish heritage.

It was an experience replicated in other families, too -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- where the victims were victimized a second time by family members afraid to step up and help.

When the children returned, the housekeeper and a friend took charge, sending a telegram to Federico's parents, Mimi and Tata, who lived in Mendoza, a city in the western part of the country. It said: "Emiliano, Fernanda and Alejandra need you urgently."

Mimi and Tata arrived the next day by car. For the next four years and three months, Mimi stayed with them in the apartment, while Tata, who was still working as a civil engineer, would come one week a month.

Brá­gida also continued to come every day to take care of Emiliano and clean the apartment. Brá­gida was grateful that Hilda and Federico had helped her with the educational and medical needs of her own children, so for the next several years, she worked without pay.

Tata Alvarez Rojas, meanwhile, tried to find out what happened to Federico and Hilda.

Hilda's maternal grandparents emigrated from Russia in the 1890s and settled in a Jewish agricultural colony in the Pampas. Federico was from an intellectually elite Catholic family: A great-uncle wrote 20 books on Argentine culture and history; another great-uncle taught at the Sorbonne. Neither family practiced its inherited religion.

When they married in 1962, Federico was 19 and Hilda 22. A year later, Alejandra was born, followed by Fernanda two and a half years later.

Hilda and Federico were full of warmth, generosity and humor. One friend remembers playing truco, a card game, with the couple. Federico would try to bluff by shouting out "truco," then when he realized his bluff was about to be called, he'd slyly comment that he had actually shouted "tuco" (tomato sauce). Side bets between Hilda and Federico always involved the winner kicking the loser in the rear end. Friends remember that Hilda used to cuss often, usually at drivers who cut her off.

Another friend recalls that Federico loved chocolate mousse, giving it a pet name: "negrita," for its lustrous dark color. And Hilda used to throw the girls in the air and catch them, yelling, "Who's the most annoying?" Then mock-correct herself: "I mean, the prettiest!"

Both Hilda and Federico had a self-deprecating style of parenting. Anytime someone complimented his children's intelligence, Federico would shrug, "We're all geniuses until the age of 10, then we're all the same."

"Our parents were younger than any other parents," said Alejandra. "My dad had a beard and long hair. My mom dressed however she pleased and never cared about the latest fashion. They were completely different from other parents, which made me uncomfortable at times. Life with my parents was fun, but it was not normal."

Unfortunately, this was a dangerous time to be "not normal."

Federico's politics were nonviolent, but there were reasons why he would have attracted the attention of the junta that took power in March 1976. He had been a leftist student leader a decade earlier.

He had spent two years as a factory laborer, trying to recruit fellow workers to socialism. From 1966 to 1968, Federico took time off from his scientific work to become a laborer at the Olivetti Typewriter factory so that he could proselytize for the Socialist Workers' Party. The party called it "proleterianizing yourself."

Nearly two years as a laborer was all he could take. He went back to atomic energy work, feeling that he had failed the party, failed his own convictions. But his colleagues recognized his leadership potential. They chose him as their union representative for the scientists who worked at CNEA, the Argentine Atomic Energy Commission.

Hilda might have raised flags of her own. When she was fired from her government job as computer programmer with the Sanitary Works Department in 1974, she was sure it was for anti-Semitic reasons. She had her uncle, Martin Lerner, file a lawsuit against the government. Lerner -- Hilda's uncle and the attorney who has handled the family's legal issues at no charge -- is now an 87-year-old widower who still works as a lawyer, mostly at home. He is right-wing in his politics but still fearlessly represented the family during the Dirty War, when such work cost many other lawyers their lives.

On March 24, 1976 -- after difficult years that included domestic armed conflict, the return of Juan Peron to Argentina and the ascent of his incompetent widow, Isabel, to the presidency -- the Argentine military seized power.

This dictatorship sought to regulate not just the government and the media but all aspects of Argentine society, from hairstyles and clothing to the arts and educational curricula. While many at first welcomed the so-called Proceso for its promised return to civil order, it was soon clear that "order" meant daily repression and the clandestine abduction and murder of tens of thousands of mostly younger Argentines: from teenagers helping to bring food to impoverished people in the slums to university professors teaching humanities, plus many thousands of others who had simply been denounced or otherwise fallen into disfavor. The official toll of 30,000 is an educated guess. As it fell in 1983, the junta destroyed the true record of its depredations.

By September 1976, the regime that eventually took 30,000 lives was, at just 6 months old, still hard to comprehend. Nevertheless, there's no question that Hilda and Federico, who had recently destroyed many of their precious political books, knew they could become targets. They were aware that people were disappearing, taken off streets, snatched out of cafes night and day. In the building where they lived, a "task force" had taken a neighbor the night before.

Many had already fled Argentina, including Federico's younger brother, Fernando, and his wife, Inés. Just before he left Argentina, Fernando tried to persuade Federico to leave.

Early one morning, after talking all night, Federico agreed that it would be a good idea. But later that morning, after discussing it with Hilda, he changed his mind again. Fernando remembers that Hilda said: "I hope we're not making a mistake."

So why didn't Hilda and Federico leave?

For one thing, they believed that making positive change in their society required them to remain.

"My parents had these ideals," said Alejandra. "They wanted to try to shape a better world, which is all they wanted. They wanted what was best for others."

And they also felt established. They had three children and a handsome high-rise apartment in a top neighborhood. After some rough years, they were both working and making good money. As Hilda wrote in a May 1975 letter to an old friend, "We're very selfish, we petit bourgeois."

And there was the problem of their youngest -- Emiliano, nearly 3 at the time of the abduction. Born with a palate so badly cleft that he needed several surgeries to eat normally, his speech and language skills were slow to develop. In that 1975 letter, Hilda also wrote that Emiliano was "very cute, but he's lazy. He's 18 months old today and still doesn't walk. It consoles me that Lenin didn't start to walk until he was 2 years old."

Those close with Federico and Hilda say Emiliano's condition sapped their decisiveness. In 1976 they were so worried that Emiliano might not develop properly, so concerned about what kind of life he would have, that they couldn't focus on their own lives, their own survival.

Six weeks after the kidnapping, the doorbell rang at the Las Heras apartment where Federico's parents, Mimi and Tata, were staying with the three children. Mimi opened the door to find a woman looking around nervously. She blurted out that her son and Federico had been together at a detention center. (Family attorney Lerner remembers that Mimi told him that the woman said the detention center was ESMA -- acronym for Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (Navy School of Mechanics).

The woman said that her son and Federico had made a pact: The first one out would contact the other's family. Federico, she said, wanted to let them know that he had not been mistreated and that he hoped to be released soon. She delivered her message, then ran down the stairs, not waiting for the elevator.

Physicist Federico Alvarez Rojas on an outing with his children the day before he was snatched from their lives. Photo courtesy of Alicia Sosnik
The family would never know if this message was fact or intended as psychological torture.

From the testimony of the few who survived, we know how the young couple would have been taken to ESMA. With cloth bags over their heads, they would have been put into the back seat of a green Ford Falcon, car of choice for task force kidnappings.

In the car, Hilda and Federico would have been handcuffed and their ankles shackled, then taken straight to ESMA at the extreme northwest corner of Buenos Aires. After a password, the gate would have opened. The car would have passed near a tall, cylindrical concrete guard post, automatic weapons sticking out of horizontal slits.

Oddly, the route to ESMA would have been familiar to Federico. Across the street from ESMA there was, and still is, the CNEA, where Federico worked for eight years.

ESMA
The front of the bucolic ESMA, Navy School of Mechanics, ground zero for torture during the Dirty War. It's just reopened as a museum and memorial. Photo by Roberto Loiederman
Once inside the ESMA compound, the car would have gone about 40 yards, turned left, then immediately another left, entering a driveway facing a three-story building that looked much a college dorm. The nearby trees reinforced the picture. The former detention center still has a campus-like feel.

Handcuffed and hooded, their legs shackled, Hilda and Federico would have been taken first into the west wing -- down one flight of stairs into the center of the basement, where there were several torture rooms and a "clinic" staffed by supervising medical personnel. The children of pregnant detainees were delivered, then usually "adopted" and raised by military officers or their friends.

There was a small break room for the guards, a bathroom and a room where documents of all kinds were forged: These phony birth certificates and passports permitted clandestine personnel to travel to other countries. They would also forge ownership papers for property they stole, like the automobile belonging to Hilda and Federico.

The men who worked in this basement put in a normal day, clocking in out. The officers lived in the same building as the victims. They would sleep and eat and take care of the paperwork, then go about their task torturing the detainees. All part of a day's work.

In the 1980s, after democracy returned to Argentina, a blue-ribbon panel was formed to investigate the disappearances. It produced a report detailing what detainees went through -- shocking the country and becoming a best seller.

If Hilda and Federico had a typical experience, they would have been left hooded the whole time, never able to get their bearings, and subject to vicious beatings at any time. They would have had electric shocks applied with a cattle prod. They would have been burned and poked and prodded, and they would have had objects painfully inserted into their orifices.

As they screamed, they would have heard cries of others being tortured nearby. They would have been fed almost nothing, allowed to use a bathroom only once or twice each day. The bathrooms would have been filthy with human waste, and prisoners were required to clean toilets with bare hands.

For Hilda, it was probably even worse because she was Jewish. The blue-ribbon panel report quotes a witness who said that Jews were required to raise their arms in a Nazi salute and shout, "I love Hitler!" while the guards laughed.

"Jews suffered all types of torture," one witness told the panel, "but there was one that was especially sadistic and cruel: A tube inserted into the victim's anus or in a woman's vagina and a rat would be let loose inside the tube. The rodent would try to get out and eat the internal organs of the victims."

There is no record that anyone saw Hilda and Federico while they were in detention. Said attorney Lerner: "We would hear rumors that maybe they had been seen, but nothing came of those rumors. My own feeling is that they were probably killed almost immediately. The navy threw its victims into the sea, which is why it's very unlikely that remains will ever be found. Very unlikely."

Hilda and Federico were probably "transported" -- to use the euphemism -- relatively soon after they arrived at ESMA. In the basement, they would have been injected with enough drugs to knock them out. They would have been dragged outside and placed in a truck with 15 to 20 others.

They would have been driven to a small airport nearby. There, they would have been dragged into a small plane. Once the plane was aloft, they would have been stripped naked. Then, when the plane was over the Atlantic Ocean, they would have been pushed out from an altitude of several thousand feet.

In his self-exculpation for this form of murder, one Dirty War participant claimed that an ESMA chaplain told him that this was "a Christian death, because the [victims] didn't suffer, because it wasn't traumatic."

At great risk to themselves, Mimi and Tata strove to publicize the plight of their son and his wife. This wasn't easy. The press was censored and reporters who acknowledged the abductions often disappeared. The officialdom denied any wrongdoing and claimed the disappeared had run away, gone abroad, joined the terrorists.

Helped by Lerner, Mimi and Tata sent out habeas corpus requests on behalf of Federico and Hilda. They sent letters to junta leaders, contacted the media and organized letter-writing campaigns in the world scientific community, which responded.

Dozens and dozens of letters arrived from scientists at Harvard, Princeton and many other universities and scientific institutions, with at least one Nobel laureate among them. Two letters came from Noam Chomsky, who pleaded with the Argentine president to return Federico and Hilda to their three children and their scientific work.

Letters came from U.S. Reps. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.) and Ron Dellums (D-Calif.) and from universities and institutes in Italy, Sweden, The Netherlands, Australia, Colombia, France and Venezuela. Articles about Federico appeared in The New York Times and Washington Post. And there was a full-page article in the science magazine, Nature, with the title: "Where Is Federico Alvarez Rojas?"

There was no response from the Argentine government, and the habeas corpus requests were routinely rejected by the courts.

There also was another sort of letter, one that offered Federico a position as visiting research scientist at MIT. It was sent in July 1977, 10 months after the couple's disappearance.

More than once, Mimi went to see Monsignor Emilio Grasselli, private secretary of the Argentine Catholic archbishop, an official suspected of collaborating with the regime. Grasselli finally told her that the two people they were looking for did not appear on the list, an oblique way of saying that they had been murdered by the dictatorship.

Mimi then joined the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, the organization founded by mothers of some who had disappeared. The women marched in circles in the plaza in front of the presidential Pink House and were called locas. Some of them, too, were abducted and murdered. Their moral power would eventually help to bring down the dictatorship.

Though Mimi and Tata publicized their son's case in international journals, they felt it best for the children to keep as low a profile as possible in Argentina. Mimi told them that they shouldn't talk about their missing parents with teachers, other students or their friends. If someone asked, they should say that their parents had gone to Canada for work.

The children couldn't really talk about their loss with Mimi and Tata either.

"It was forbidden to talk about my parents as real human beings," said Fernanda, the middle child. "Mimi and Tata had turned my parents into the desaparecidos [disappeared], something large and amorphous and global. At home, my parents went unnamed. We could not speak about them."

Hilda's widowed mother, Melita, dealt with her own pain by sinking into depression. After the abduction, at her modest house in Castelar outside of Buenos Aires, she retired to her bed and stayed there. The children would go there on weekends, but Melita "erased herself from our lives." Fernanda said.

It had been different before the abduction, said Alejandra: "When we were little, Grandma Melita had a very strong role to play in our lives, very strong. Then after the disappearance she wouldn't get out of bed.... She didn't bathe, she didn't eat, she wouldn't talk with us."

Hilda's brother, Ernesto, and his wife, Dina, continued to keep their distance, making visits "terrible," Fernanda said. "We didn't feel comfortable.... Then one day, they told us that they didn't want us going over there anymore, because they were in no condition to have us over. From then on, we never went back to Ernesto's."

It was a time of rampant, oppressive fear that shaped behavior and decisions.

Fernanda Alvarez Rojas today
Fernanda Alvarez Rojas today -- a long road to healing.
Photo by Betty Loiederman

"Uncertainty about the fate of those abducted sowed terror in society," wrote Juan Méndez of Human Rights Watch in the afterword to Horacio Verbitsky's 1996 book, "The Flight." The situation "forced friends and relatives to renounce and ignore old ties, intimidated parents and siblings...."

According to Adrián Jmelnitzky, historian and sociologist for DAIA (the directorate that supervises Argentina's Jewish organizations), the Jewish community -- like most of Argentina -- felt enormous fear.

"Much of the Jewish middle class, like the rest of the Argentine middle class, passively accepted the disappearances of tens of thousands of people," Jmelnitzky said. "The phrase one heard all the time was, 'Por algo será.' [It must have been for some reason]."

"There was a president of a temple," he continued. "His two daughters disappeared. Both of his daughters. What did the congregation do? What they did is ... they changed their president. It wasn't easy to be heroic in that era. In terms of [Jewish] institutional response, the actions were weak.... People were sympathetic with those who had lost loved ones. But that's as far as it went."

Among the notable exceptions was Rabbi Marshall Meyer. Marshall, as he was known to everyone, was a heroic American rabbi who spent 25 years in Argentina. He had the courage to confront the Argentine dictatorship at risk to his own life. He's also credited with saving many potential victims by helping to get them out of the country.

Among those he assisted was Jacobo Timerman, who dedicated his famous 1981 book, "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number," to Meyer. After democracy returned, the new government named him to the commission that chronicled the atrocities.

In December 1980, more than four years after the abduction, Mimi told her three grandchildren to get ready to go; she was taking them to the United States to stay with Federico's brother, Fernando, and his wife, Inés. The next day, Alejandra, Fernanda and Emiliano landed in Delaware. At that time, the marriage of their aunt and uncle was breaking apart. After the couple separated, the children eventually ended up staying with Inés.

Inés Pereyra is slim, with the high cheekbones and curly hair of her Welsh ancestors. She's also a scientist -- a physics professor.

"Look, the truth is incredible, what happened to those poor kids," she said. "Those years in Buenos Aires, they were living a situation that had to be kept secret. And they arrive in the U.S., and don't know that Fernando and I are separating."

When the children landed in the United States, Emiliano had just turned 7. His development had always been slow, but the transition was especially hard for him: He regressed for awhile to pretoilet-training days. But once Emiliano moved in with Inés, he benefited from a more stable home.

Fernanda, 14, adapted quickly, but Ines said that 17-year-old Alejandra would "cry every night. She'd remember [the abduction]. She'd talk about it."

When Inés accepted a teaching job in Brazil, the children remained with her.

Alejandra, 19 by then, moved in with the man she would marry. Fernanda finished high school, then went to the university in Rosario, Argentina, where Inés' family lives. That left Emiliano living at Inés' apartment. At age 32 he still lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with Inés, the woman he's called "mamá" for the last 25 years.

Inés said that once, when Emiliano was 9 years old, they were talking about what had happened to his parents, and he said, "It's lucky for me that I had you in reserve."

"Emiliano has his rhythm here, and he takes care of the house," said Inés. "When [my daughter] was little, Emiliano would go to school to pick her up. She'd introduce him as her brother."

Inés comes from a family that is partly Protestant, partly Catholic. She herself professes no religion and doesn't practice any, nor do Alejandra, Fernanda or Emiliano. Alejandra has told her 13-year-old daughter about her Jewish grandmother -- Hilda -- and when Fernanda's infant daughters are old enough to understand, she, too, will tell them about their heritage, though she, like the rest of this extended family, intends to give her children no religious education.

Of the three children, Fernanda, now 39, is the only one who has followed in her parents' professional footsteps: She has a doctorate in clinical medicine, and she and her husband own a home in Campinas, Brazil, where they pursue scientific careers. She has two young girls of her own.

For years, Fernanda told herself -- in so many words -- that losing her parents when she was 10 had little effect on her. That changed when her first child was born.

"That's when the [real] architecture of my life became clear to me," she said. "That's when I missed my mom's presence in my life. As a person, not just a memory."

In 1998, more than 20 years after the abduction -- though no remains were found and there were no records or testimony of what happened -- Federico's parents reluctantly signed the papers declaring that their son, Federico Alvarez Rojas, and his wife, Hilda, were dead.

Once this huge step was taken, a post-dictatorship Argentine government awarded Hilda and Federico's three grown children a $440,000 settlement for the unlawful death of their parents. The sudden burst of solvency brought some security for the three. It also ended two decades of fear and uncertainty with a painful door-slam of closure: For the first time, they admitted to themselves that they would never see their parents again.

The official acknowledgment of Hilda and Federico's death also permitted the family's apartment in Buenos Aires to be sold. Federico's parents had held onto it for more than 20 years in some tenuous hope their son and daughter-in-law would reappear.

When Fernanda went to clear out the unit, it was like opening a painful time capsule. Fernanda paused when recounting this visit, at a momentary loss for words. She lit a cigarette, something she hadn't done in months.

"It had to be done," she said of clearing out the apartment. "That's what I was thinking. This has to be done. We have to open up everything, open it all up and then it would be finished. When I came back from that trip, I was in absolute, total crisis. I was in very bad shape...."

At that point, she went into intensive psychotherapy: "My psychotherapist said I had regressed. I was afraid of things, as if I were back in that period of time.

"It seems strange now looking back on it, but when it happened, I seemed to have suffered a dislocation of time. It felt to me as if it really were 20 years earlier."

As she healed, Fernanda said, "I recovered my memories, my past, in a different form, a real form, so that now there was continuity with myself, with who I was, from earliest age, right from the beginning."

Alejandra, her older sister, also had to recover as an adult. "For a long time, I felt resentment that [my parents] didn't leave Argentina when they should have," said Alejandra, who is now studying to be a teacher in the Brazilian school system. "What I learned in therapy is that people do what they think they have to do. What guided their lives was their political consciousness."

Once democracy returned to Argentina in 1983, Melita, Hilda's mother, finally got out of bed. The grown children of Federico and Hilda reconnected with Melita through their cousin, Marcela, the same cousin whose parents -- Ernesto and Dina -- had behaved so coldly during the period of fear. Marcela, in effect, helped reconnect the orphaned children with the Jewish side of the family.

"It was interesting for me to talk with Melita," Fernanda said, "because she was the only one that spoke about my parents as human beings. Melita would tell me what my mom was like."

Marcela not only connected her cousins with their Jewish grandmother, she also put together a reel of home movies taken in Melita's house in the 1960s and 1970s. It shows Melita with her children, grandchildren and their friends.

If those in this reel look familiar, it's because they're middle-class and mostly Jewish. The children throw a beach ball, jump into a swimming pool, play on swings. The men prepare barbecues; the women chat. What's palpable in these home movies is the feeling of hope, a sense of future.

Last year, right before Melita died, Fernanda said, "it was as if my mom were real and present for her, as if she hadn't disappeared. Melita had my mom's presence front and center, right here. You'd feel that when you talked with her.... She was living her memories."

Argentina, of course, is now a more tolerant and humane place.

Case in point: It was the government, not vandals, who put a giant rose-colored condom over the Obelisco, a 220-foot phallic column at the heart of Buenos Aires. The display had been commissioned for AIDS-Awareness Day.

Another sign: The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo recently stopped marching because they feel that there is no longer a need. The president, the country, are on their side.

Other clues: Near the campus of University of Buenos Aires there's a space dedicated to the memory of the desaparecidos. There are artistic renditions of pain and loss, and there are victims' names and photos, which are changed regularly so that one can find a friend or loved one sooner or later.

At the university, in the exact sciences building, there is a Wall of Remembrance for student and faculty desaparecidos; it includes the names of both Hilda and Federico. At CNEA, there's a plaque commemorating the 15 scientists at the Atomic Energy Commission who were abducted and killed. Federico is there, too. And the union of scientists also bears Federico's name.

And last Friday, ESMA, the onetime torture chamber, opened to the public as a museum and memorial.

The Jewish community also seeks to remember. In December 2005, it held its second annual homage to Jewish desaparecidos.

Argentine society and Argentine Jews in particular paid an enormous price during and after the Dirty War. Who can measure the cost of the deaths and the wounds left on families? Who can measure the spiritual price that the country has paid? To have been a member, even a passive one, of a society in which reason fell asleep, in which monsters were unleashed, is to bear a heavy burden.

Meyer, the brave American rabbi who served on the national commission that investigated the disappearances, was the one who gave the report its two-word name -- a phrase associated with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, a message intended as clarion call to the future.

Nunca Mamá; Never Again.

 

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