When Mariana Perez was a teenager, whenever she went out to dance and met a boy she liked, she would ask his age. If she was older than he was, she wouldn’t get involved, because there was a chance he might be her younger brother, one of the 500 babies abducted during Argentina’s military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983.
Although only about 1 percent of Argentina’s population, Jews made up approximately 5 percent, or an estimated 2,000, of the as many as 30,000 “disappeared” — people kidnapped, imprisoned and executed by Argentina’s military junta. During the so-called Dirty War, hundreds of pregnant women gave birth in secret detention centers before “disappearing,” their newborns given to military families or allies, who raised them with a different identity.
Over the years, 114 of the estimated 500 abducted babies — now in their 30s — have discovered their biological identities, some of them Jewish. On Aug. 6, Estela de Carlotto, the president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an organization that searches for the children of the disappeared, found her grandson, raised as Ignacio Hurban, after 37 years.
Mariana’s brother, Guillermo Perez Roisinblit, 35, was born in the Naval Mechanics School (ESMA) clandestine detention center in Buenos Aires; he discovered at 21 that he was the son of disappeared Jewish parents.
“I was one person, and then I was suddenly another person,” he said. “The knowledge that you’re Jewish, it’s a revelation. And knowing that the people who you call ‘parents’ aren’t your family. And knowing that your parents, apart from having a tragic ending, you won’t ever meet them. That is also very complicated.”
Perez Roisinblit was found by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo — known in Argentina as “the Abuelas” (“grandmothers”) — an organization formed in 1977 by mothers whose children and expected grandchildren went missing during the dictatorship. The Abuelas works to find children who were stolen and illegally adopted during the dictatorship, to return to them their real identity and to punish the perpetrators.
“It’s about annulling that adoption and telling the grandchild the truth, or else his children and grandchildren will live with a false identity,” said Rosa Roisinblit, 95, the vice president of the Abuelas and Perez Roisinblit’s grandmother.
Rosa Roisinblit, vice president of the Abuelas, sits before a photo of her disappeared daughter.
In 1978, she received a phone call soon after her pregnant daughter’s kidnapping, telling her to prepare to receive the newborn.
“I didn’t imagine that she wouldn’t have returned home to have the baby,” Rosa said. “They had promised me and told me on the phone, ‘Prepare the clothes because when the baby is born, we’ll give him to you.’ I was sitting waiting for the call, and the call never came.”
Perez Roisinblit’s birth parents, Jose Perez Rojo, 24, and Patricia Roisinblit, 25, both members of the Montoneros, a leftist-guerrilla group, disappeared on Oct. 6, 1978. Patricia was eight months pregnant when she was seized at her house by members of Argentina’s air force, but was allowed to drop off her 15-month-old daughter, Mariana, at the house of her in-laws, who raised her. Perez Roisinblit was born Nov. 15, 1978 in the ESMA, and soon after birth was appropriated by a civilian employee of the air force, who, together with his wife, registered the baby as their own biological child.
Mariana Perez began working at the Abuelas at 17 with the idea of finding her brother. On April 13, 2000, she received an anonymous tip about a child of disappeared parents that seemed to match her brother’s case. A few days later, she approached Perez Roisinblit, then 21, at the café where he worked. She handed him a letter inside a book about the Abuelas’ work. The letter said, ‘My name is Mariana Perez, I’m the daughter of disappeared. I’m looking for my brother and think it could be you.’
“I remember taking out my I.D. and showing her I couldn’t be her brother, because I was named differently and I had been born on a different date — as if the document couldn’t have been falsified,” Perez Roisinblit said. “In that moment, I didn’t know the impunity of the dictatorship. I didn’t know that there were 500 babies, and could not remotely imagine that one of those was me.”
But a while later, he opened the book she gave him, which showed the resolved and unresolved cases of appropriated babies, and saw a picture of his parents, thinking that “the photo of my father is a picture of me in black and white.” That evening, he took a blood test at the Abuelas, and two months later the results confirmed he was the son of disappeared.
After meeting his sister, Perez Roisinblit confronted the man he had believed was his father, who was by then divorced from the woman he had always thought was his mother. His “father” denied Perez Roisinblit’s claim three times before admitting its truth.
“He was driving, and said [that] I am the son of disappeared,” Perez Roisinblit said. “I’m the son of a Jewish girl, a medical student that he knew. And I could be sure that while she was pregnant with me, she was done absolutely no physical harm, but that he couldn’t say the same of my father — they had tortured my father. It was a lot of information, so I told him I can’t hear any more and to look for a lawyer, because you kidnapped the grandson of the vice president of the Abuelas.”
Perez Roisinblit’s grandmother remembers the first time she met him.
“I found myself with a very handsome, tall young man, and I told him, ‘Well, I’m your grandmother,’ ” Rosa recalled. “And he responded, ‘I know, Baba.’ ” His sister had taught Perez Roisinblit to call their grandmother that.
It was all very nice, Rosa said, until the day the people who raised him were arrested and jailed.
“Then he didn’t like it anymore,” she said. “He didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”
When the trial for his appropriators — the term Perez Roisinblit uses to describe the people who raised him — began in 2001, he “wanted to know nothing” about his biological identity, trying to defend the woman who raised him, with whom he had always had a good relationship.
“I was trying to defend her, because she had protected me, raised me, fed me, educated me — [and I thought] it’s not possible that this is a bad person,” Perez Roisinblit said. “It took a lot of time to place myself in the situation and understand that I was a victim.”
For three years, he refused to do the necessary blood analysis for the genetic testing that would end the trial, feeling that the judiciary was forcing him to be her victimizer. His grandmother at the Abuelas was also the criminal plaintiff against his appropriators — “a terrible conflict for me” — and he shut himself off from her and his sister, whom he would sometimes call just to insult.
“I felt so emotionally unstable, it was terrible,” Perez Roisinblit said. “It’s normal that it happens to the people who find out they were robbed, but it’s not right.”
Finally, on April 23, 2004, the judiciary confirmed his real identity and, in September, he adopted the last names of his parents, which he would later pass on to his two children, Ignacio, 6, and Catalina, 4.
“Being able to give my child the last name that belonged to him was a victory,” he said.
Perez Roisinblit repaired relations with his grandmother and sister and met more relatives, but building new relationships was difficult.
“I know how to be a nephew, a cousin, a friend, a boyfriend,” he said. “But suddenly I had a sister. Up to what point is it OK to hug your sister? Do you take or not take your sister by the hand? I remember going red on a day that I gave a chocolate to my sister. That’s when you realize they robbed everything from you. Not only your identity or your parents’ death.”
Perez Roisinblit also feels robbed of his Jewish identity. He was raised and married Catholic, although he is currently nonpracticing and interested in learning more about Judaism. He has attended Passover and Rosh Hashanah dinner with Rosa, who grew up in Moisés Ville, an Argentine town founded by Russian Jews, and this year, for the first time, he took a day off work for Passover.
“I like Jewish holidays, the food in particular — I love Jewish food,” he said. “Strudel, is that what it’s called? It’s very good.”
Processing his identity has been a struggle.
“Instead of enjoying the birth of my daughter, I cried because I didn’t know if my father knew about my birth,” he said.
And Perez Roisinblit still sees and talks to the woman who raised him, explaining that it is very hard for him to both maintain and end that relationship.
“I don’t forget that she was lying for 21 years,” he said. “It would be a lot easier for me if I hadn’t loved her, if she was a bad woman. If she was dead, that’d be much easier.”
According to Luciano Hazan, a former lawyer for the Abuelas, participation in changing the identity of a baby originally carried a sentence of between five and 15 years. However, in recent years, Argentine courts also have called the abduction of babies during the dictatorship a crime against humanity, which because of its massive and systematic nature has no statute of limitations. Perez Roisinblit’s “father” served six years, and his “mother” served three years.
Many children of the disappeared resist participating in the prosecution of the individuals who raised them. Like Perez Roisinblit, Ezequiel Rochistein Tauro, 37, also was born in the ESMA detention center and worked in the air force — “paradoxically, because the air force kidnapped my father.” His parents, Maria Graciela Tauro, 24, and Jorge Daniel Rochistein, 25, were seized in 1977, when Rochistein Tauro was 4 1/2 months pregnant. Rochistein Tauro was subpoenaed by a court in 2001 as a possible child of disappeared parents.
For nine years, Rochistein Tauro fought the obligatory DNA extraction to protect the woman who raised him from being convicted, and, like Perez Roisinblit, said he didn’t care about discovering his biological identity during that time.
“My goal was that my mother would not be jailed,” he said.
The case was taken to the Supreme Court, and in June 2010, two civil policemen approached Rochistein Tauro after work with a judicial order to collect a DNA sample from his clothing. Argentina’s genetic bank confirmed he was the son of disappeared, and he finally changed his last name from Vásquez Sarmiento to Rochistein Tauro in 2012.
“The state is obligated to pursue and sanction all crimes, and for that it needed … him for the DNA test,” explained Hazan, adding that Rochistein Tauro’s appropriation was considered a continuous offense that did not stop until his real identity was revealed.
Rochistein Tauro’s maternal family is Catholic, while his paternal family is Jewish. Raised Catholic and not practicing today, he is open to learning about Judaism but, unlike Perez Roisinblit, doesn’t have direct Jewish family.
“So I have a Jewish last name without knowing about Judaism,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “ ‘Rochistein’ is strong.”
Today, Rochistein Tauro is married, has 9-, 7- and 4-year-old children, and is an analyst at the Ministry of Security. He lives with the woman who raised him, whom he calls his “old lady,” Argentine slang for mother, and said he has managed to move on with his life.
“I don’t regret it, knowing my identity,” he said. I don’t victimize myself, and I don’t deny my reality. I just go through life. I’m still the same person.”
However, life is perhaps more complicated for Perez Roisinblit, for whom “there’s nothing more positive than knowing the truth.”
“Identity is … knowing a lot of people that you share blood with, knowing your history, knowing about your ancestors, finding yourself in the gestures of others,” he said. “And from another point of view, it’s being free. Because there’s a point where you feel trapped from a truth that isn’t yours, from a truth they fabricated so that you would not be who you should have been.”