Renee Epelbaum has lost her three children—two sons and a daughter— and she still does not know how they died. Or why.
They did not perish in an accident of nature—earthquake, fire or flood—or of human error—car or plane crash. Nor did they succumb to an epidemic or virulent disease.
They were murdered in cold blood by a regime whose avowed purpose was to “cleanse” the country of “ideological criminals”—meaning, those suspected of disagreeing with its brand of fascism.
This was not Nazi Germany and this was not 1938 or 1944. The crime occurred in Argentina, during the military junta’s reign of terror: 1976 to 1983. And the victims of this long night of carnage and butchery were the desaparecidos, “disappeared persons”— Argentina’s contribution to the 20th century’s constantly expanding museum of horrors.
These 9,300 (officially documented) to 30,000 (estimated) desaparecidos — Epelbaum’s children among them — were pulled from their beds at gunpoint in the dead of night by the “security forces,” snatched off the streets, from bus-stops and cafes into unmarked cars, hauled off from their offices and dinner tables. Never heard from again, they have no individual graves, not even unmarked ones. Their bodies were thrown into the sea and rivers from helicopters, burned to ashes in crematoria, and cast, mutilated and dismembered, into lime pits.
The victims of the junta’s pre-planned campaign included not only leftists and political activists, but also pacifists, trade unionists, people in the professions of sociology, psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis (considered fundamentally subversive) and teachers, students, journalists, doctors and nurses — individuals who, in the words of then-President Jorge Rafael Videla “spread ideas that are contrary to Western civilization.”
They also include spouses, relatives, friends, and colleagues of disappeared persons, and 115 children of desaparecidos, some born in concentration camps (see related story in these pages).
The dawn of democracy in Argentina has brought no end to the nightmare of agony of the relatives of the desaparecidos. Since the reign of terror began in March 1976, a group of women has been marching every Thursday in front of the Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires to demand an accounting on the fate of their disappeared children. They are known as the “Madres,” the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
In April 1976, scarcely a month after the military coup that brought the junta to power, the Madres, originally 14 in number, began gathering at the Plaza in silent vigil. Mostly middle-aged and elderly women with no political background, the Madres risked their own lives to challenge the regime at a time when such courage was in very short supply.
Originally referred to as “las locas,” the crazy women, the Madres were often spat upon and insulted. Eleven parents of desaparecidos and two French nuns who were meeting with them were themselves abducted in December 1977. As public protest mounted after the defeat of Argentina in the Faulkland Islands war, the Madres were joined by hundreds of other Argentine citizens. The Madres thus became the midwives of a movement which contributed to the restoration of democracy in Argentina.
Renee Epelbaum is one of the founding leaders of the Madres. She is the only Jew among the six mothers and one grandmother who testify in a recently released documentary, “Las Madres: the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” which premiered this spring at the Film Forum in New York. [The film was produced and directed by Lourdes Portillo and Susana Munoz, an Argentine-born Jew who was active in a Zionist youth movement in her city (she is still leery about revealing its name or her own birth name), and lived in Israel from 1972-1979.]
Epelbaum, a gray-haired widow in her 60s, describes herself as a pacifist. Neither she nor her late husband, an importer (she still runs the family business), were ever “involved politically,” but “we talked a lot about human rights,” she said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency during a recent visit to New York in connection with the film.
Her three children were kidnapped in 1977, she said. Luis, who had been a medical student concerned about his country’s poor, was kidnapped in August, 1977, at the age of 25. The younger children—Claudio, then 23, and Lila, then 20, were abducted three months later from Uruguay (the security forces of the two countries cooperated in the battle against “subversion”). Their mother had sent them there in a vain attempt to try to ensure their safety.
In the beginning, she said, when people asked, “Were your children involved in anything?” she got angry because “This is a question of justice. Nobody should be kidnapped and made to disappear even if they were involved politically.”
She tells this story about Luis: One day he came home from the hospital where he was working, with a “sad face.” Epelbaum asked him why he was sad and he replied: “I won’t be useful to the people with my career, because people come to the hospital, we cure them, and after two months they come back because they can’t afford to buy the food or medicine they need.”
Claudio, she said, was a poet and a musician. He was studying law “so he could defend people who were taken because of their political beliefs.” As a child, she said, he would be constantly putting his shoes on the wrong feet and his gloves on the wrong hands: “How dangerous could he be?”
Lila, she said, “was not involved in anything, not active in any way,” she said. But she sympathized with the oppressed, “she wanted justice, she wanted people to be able to live a decent life.”
After the three children were kidnapped, Epelbaum’s home was ransacked five times by the security forces. They even took the photos she had kept of her children. Like many other Madres, she had snapshots made from the ID cards of her children, which she carries with her.
In the beginning, said Epelbaum, it was “not easy to overcome fear.” Fear, like sickness, “comes quick but goes slowly,” she said, quoting her mother-in-law. “When every day someone is taken, it takes time to recover courage.” But the Madres were motivated by desperation, by their love for their children, she said.
With no place to meet other than the Plaza, the Madres would often go to churches, as if they were going there to pray. They also met in people’s homes, hers among them. Later, as the film shows, the Madres, with financial support from abroad, found a regular place to meet.
An estimated 10 per cent of the desparecidos were Jews—a proportion significantly higher than the Jews’ one-and-a-quarter per cent in the population. Entire chapters and all the local emissaries of Hashomer Hatzair, the Socialist Zionist youth movement, disappeared. Most of the counselors and almost the entire youth movement in Cordoba disappeared.
“The Jews were not kidnapped because they were Jews, but it helped,” Epelbaum said. A similar charge was made, in 1983, by Luis Haimovitz, father of an abducted and murdered daughter, Alexandra [see LILITH , Kol Ishah, #8] and head of an Israeli committee of relatives of disappeared persons.
The security forces, Epelbaum continued, “were more suspicious of Jews. For them, every Jew must be a Communist.” Both she and Haimovitz said that swastikas were daubed by the kidnappers on the door of one family’s home after their two sons were abducted and made to disappear.
The military junta, she said, was “deeply anti-Semitic.” Prof. Edy Kaufman of the Hebrew University, a former Argentinian who was then the only Israeli member of Amnesty International’s international executive, said in a 1981 interview with the Canadian Jewish News, that there were many officers in the security forces who held virulent anti-Jewish views. “Some of them were trained by German officers before World War II, and they assumed Jews are leftists and subversives. Some genuinely believed in a world Jewish conspiracy which sought to create a second Jewish state in southern Argentina.”
The security forces, for reasons known only to them and as yet undisclosed, separated the individuals they seized into two groups: desaparecidos, taken to secret concentration camps and considered non-persons; and prisoners, whose incarceration was acknowledged officially.
Prisoners who were released, among them publisher Jacobo Timerman, reported that the Jewish prisoners received three or four times the measure of physical and mental torture as non-Jews. This has been documented and substantiated by Hebe Pastor de Bonafini, president of the Madres, by Amnesty International, and most recently, by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who was himself imprisoned and tortured for 14 months.
After the Holocaust, “No Jewish community in the world suffered numerically as much, since the days of the Stalinist oppression against Soviet Jews,” as has Argentine Jewry, said Kaufman. In 1981, when the junta was still in power, he said in an interview that the Jewish community was living “in a state of absolute fear.”
The Jewish community, traumatized by the reign of terror, now seeks — like the majority of Argentinians—to put the past behind it. Many Jews fear that disinterring the human rights atrocities might jeopardize the fragile democracy headed by President Raul Alfonsin.
The community, however, is still rent by bitter conflict over what its leadership did and did not do for the victims of the terror—the prisoners, and in particular, the desaparecidos.
In March 1984, at a heated public meeting of the Congress of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Argentina, there was bitter criticism of those who had headed the community during the terror for their failure to take effective action to save Jewish lives.
Epelbaum charged in her interview with JTA that the DAIA (the central body of Argentine Jewry) was not active in intervening with the authorities on behalf of the desaparecidos. Amplifying on a statement to that effect that she had made in the film, Epelbaum said:
“When the disappearances began in 1976, the DAIA did nothing—I don’t know if they were fearful or simply didn’t think it was convenient.” Having learned of a change in policy, she met with DAIA leaders and was told they had presented the Minister of Interior and Gen. Videla with a list of 90 names of kidnapped young Jews. The generals had promised to respond to the DAIA and when they did, she was told, the DAIA would submit another such list.
Epelbaum charged that shortly after Marcos, the son of then-DAIA president Nehemias Resnizky, was kidnapped in July 1977—and released after four days—”the DAIA stopped their commitment to this problem.” Many people, she said, believed both acts were related. “Why his son and not mine?” was the pained reaction of many Jewish parents.
Marcos was hauled off by 12 armed men from Resnizky’s home in the dead of night. He was brutally interrogated about “Zionist plotting” and “international Jewish conspiracies.” His father was able to intercede with the Interior Minister, Gen. Harguindeguy, and secure Marcos’ release.
Resnizky has vehemently denied tne charges of inaction, insisting that the DAIA continued to present lists of Jewish desaparecidos to the government throughout the junta’s rule. The DAIA, in an official document dated January 1984 (long after Resnizky’s term of office was over), stated that from the beginning, it had regularly intervened with the government on behalf of the abducted Jews, sometimes delivering lists on a weekly basis.
The community, the document stated, understood Marcos’ kidnapping as “a real and direct aggression against (Argentine) Jewry and its leaders” and as an attempt to intimidate Resnizky, who therefore immediately sent Marcos and his two other children to Israel. The document mentions various interventions, the continued lack of response to them by the authorities—but success in gaining the release of only one desaparecido, Marcos, and six prisoners. “People were furious about that document—they considered it shameful,” said Epelbaum.
The Jewish Committee on Human Rights, founded by Rabbi Marshall Meyer and others in 1981, believes the DAIA could have acted more forcefully to protest the disappearances. Meyer served until recently as the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El of Buenos Aires—from whose Conservative pulpit he denounced the human rights atrocities every Friday night—was a founding member of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, and visited prisoners in jail. “Once when visiting a prison I was told that if I didn’t get out immediately, I’d go out in a box,” he said in a 1984 interview with the Detroit Jewish News.
Epelbaum says that Meyer regularly came to the Plaza de Mayo to meet with the Madres regarding cases on desaparecidos, and “gave comfort to mothers who were suffering.” There was a group of about ten to 20 Jewish mothers who went quite often to his synagogue to ask his advice, she said.
Meyer, in a recent interview in New York, where he now serves as rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, acknowledged that the DAIA did intervene in some cases, although many times its leaders simply told parents of desparecidos that there was nothing that could be done for therm
The DAIA, he said, “should have spoken out in terms of human rights, because human rights are a basic authentic concern of Judaism; this is not a political concern. They did not condemn human rights violations. They said (Jewish) life is going on normally, Zionist activities are permitted, the schools are open.
“It would have been better had they said, ‘This is the darkest period of Argentine history. Murders are being committed every day—of our Christian brothers, our Jewish brothers, of atheists, of human beings. Human beings are being murdered daily’. I didn’t hear that statement from them.”
The DAIA’s 1984 document states that it adhered to the principle of “the defense of the… dignity of the Jews and its permanent fight against anti-Semitism in all its forms… During the agitated period of violence and repression, the development of the institutional life in the country was assured without restrictions or conditions.”
Epelbaum condemned the statements by the DAIA that Jewish communal life was normal during the terror adding, “They tried to make the junta look like good people. The junta showed (these statements) as proof of their honesty; that if the DAIA said they were good people, the protests (against them) were false.”
She also charged that the DAIA had opposed—and thus prevented—Jewish organizations abroad, particularly World Jewish Congress affiliates, from expressing concern about the human rights atrocities in Argentina during the reign of terror.
She told JTA that when she visited the U.S. in late 1978, early 1979 to rally support for the Madres, she asked leaders involved with the WJC to express such concern. She was told that they could not do so because of WJC policy that if the affiliate in a particular country opposed such intervention, others elsewhere “couldn’t say a word.” She was told the same thing in Canada, and later, in France, she said.
Meyer said that he had been present at a meeting in New York in 1980 or 1981 at which DAIA leaders told those of American Jewish organizations that they did not want anyone “interfering in Argentine affairs.” They told American Jews “not to get involved” with the human rights violations in Argentina in general or those against Jews in particular, he said.
The effect of the DAlA’s opposition to such statements by Jewish organizations outside Argentina was pernicious, said Epelbaum: “such statements could have saved lives.” The junta was concerned about its economic and political relations with the U.S. “They had enough (trouble) with the charges that they were criminals and kidnappers. They did not want to be charged with being anti-Semitic.
“The junta believed that the Jewish community had influence in the U.S. and Canada, and the world in general, so they tried to be supported by the DAIA so that nobody, particularly in the U.S.—the ‘Jewish lobby’—would say anything against them.”
Charles Zaionz, Epelbaum’s Canadian cousin who chairs the Canadian Jewish Congress’ International Affairs Committee, said in a telephone interview that CJC officials requested a meeting with the Argentine ambassador following Epelbaum’s visit to North America. After being kept waiting for over a month, they were shown a government-made film in which Resnizky and two of his colleagues stated that Jewish life in Argentina was normal.
CJC executive director Alan Rose stated in a telephone interview that DAIA leaders had cautioned that any representations to the Argentine government about the concerns of Canadians over human rights violations there “should be made quietly.” The impression they conveyed, he said, was that if such statements are made publicly, more people would disappear, and that “every time such a statement is made publicly, another person is murdered.”
The CJC, he continued, realized it should “not be heroes in someone else’s back yard” and was careful “not to embarrass the Jewish community in Argentina (out of) fear that there would be consequences.” He refused to go into any details as to what the CJC had done on behalf of Jewish desaparecidos and prisoners, but Zaionz said the body had made representations on their behalf to the Canadian government, which then queried the Argentine authorities.
Rabbi Morton Rosenthal, director of the Latin American Affairs Department of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, and of its Argentine Prisoner Project during the reign of terror, does not accept the concept that the Jewish community of Argentina, or the prisoners or desaparecidos, were endangered by pressures from abroad. On the contrary, Rosenthal says, “outside pressures were very helpful” and were instrumental in getting some prisoners, including Timerman, released.
“The most effective thing to do when a person disappeared,” he said, was to “make noise quickly” and get Argentine officials to declare and acknowledge that he or she was a prisoner. This prevented the individual from “being disappeared” permanently, as happened with the many thousands whose kidnapping and incarceration in the 340 secret concentration camps—and subsequent murder-were never officially acknowledged.
Rosenthal was also quoted by the Jewish Frontier in September 1981 as saying that he had received no aid at all from the Argentine Jewish leadership when he was attempting to draw up a list of Jewish prisoners. Rosenthal created the Prisoner Project anyway— relatives came to the ADL with names — and, said Epelbaum, “tried to help prisoners, spoke out” and publicized what was going on in no uncertain terms.
Israel Singer, secretary general of the WJC, emphasized that the DAIA was “not a monolith.” Some DAIA leaders, “not all,” he said, cautioned the WJC against speaking out but “this did not put a damper on us.” He said WJC president Edgar Bronfman spoke out very forcefully against the junta as a regime Jews could not accept when he attended the 1981 meeting of the Latin American Jewish Congress in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and in interviews with Argentine newspapers—over DAIA protests.
Singer did acknowledge, however, that Jewish communities outside Argentina “might have been more vociferous if they (the DAIA) had encouraged us.”
But the fact remains that, with the exception of the ADL, no Jewish organization in America conducted a major campaign on behalf of Argentine Jewish prisoners and desaparecidos—or in protest against all human rights atrocities in that country. None gave political or financial support to the Madres. And this was a time when American Jews were openly and publicly struggling on behalf of Soviet Jews— who, while denied cultural, religious and emigration rights, were not being murdered on a daily basis.
This was a time, too, when American Jewry seemed to be trying to come to some understanding of the abandonment of European Jewry during the Holocaust by the American and British governments and by their own leadership. The lesson of that tragedy was not applied to its policy and action in the case of Argentina.
The DAIA, in its 1984 document, makes only one reference to this issue. It states that on June 5, 1978 it received a note from the Interior Minister “in which he made some complaints about the campaign waged abroad, including Israel, against Argentine authorities” while actually “Argentine Jewry was specially careful in criticizing anything even of little importance that affected the Jews in Argentina.”
Jewish observers familiar with Argentina have expressed the view that the DAIA’s prime motivation for all its behavior during the reign of terror was fear for the fate of the entire community in that country, which has a long history of anti-Semitism. Perhaps, said Kaufman at the time, they feared an interventionist stance by them might trigger pogroms. Some leaders felt Jews on the left jeopardized the well-being of the community and that those abducted “must have done something wrong,” and the community should not identify with them.
Meyer believes the DAIA was motivated partly by fear and partly by the belief that “if they didn’t make waves the disappeared people would possibly come back” alive. But, he said, “this complicity of silence is precisely what (benefits) a fascist dictatorship.”
The DAIA’s rather successful effort to muzzle Jews abroad, said Meyer, was “a fatal error. Every pressure should have been placed on every major power of state to stop the carnage.”
Epelbaum said that upon return from her visit to North America, she wrote the DAIA a “very respectful letter” saying she was “not judging their attitude—perhaps they had a reason (for it)” but asking them not to interfere with statements by other communities “because they could help.” Epelbaum signed the letter, giving her address and phone number, as did many other Jewish women who went with her to deliver it to the DAIA. They were told it would be read, she said, but “the DAIA never called or wrote.”
Later in 1979, the DAIA issued an official report, presented at a meeting, stating they had received the letter and “didn’t know who was behind it—as if L wrote it because someone with political interests (had) instructed me.”
The group of Jewish women then wrote a second letter, which was never answered or acknowledged either. The letter said, “there was no one inspiring us, it was our own despair, our own love for our children.”
Epelbaum said that the attitude of the Jewish community of Argentina was “very upsetting to me, very sad and painful.” It was not only the Jewish community that did not do the right thing. Only three of the 83 Roman Catholic bishops supported the Madres. “But, as a Jew, (in the light of) the Jewish tradition, we expected a different attitude.”
The Madres, she said, are still marching in the Plaza de Mayo because “we still haven’t gotten the answer as to what happened to most of the children” and because all the criminals have not been punished. Only the top military leaders were put on trial; the rest “still walk freely on the streets.” She concluded:
“We can’t close our eyes and (act) as if nothing happened. As a Jew, you must remember the Holocaust. You must remind people what happened so it will not be repeated. (Here, too) we need justice to prevent this from recurring. And memory must be kept so we will never have this kind of nightmare again.”
Aviva Cantor is a founding editor of Lilith. The research, including interviews, cited in this article formed the basis of her three-part series, “A Nightmare Continues in Argentina,” in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Daily News Bulletin, May 21-23, 1986.
Copyright © Aviva Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.
Aviva Cantor, a journalist, originated Lilith and served as the magazine’s Founding Co-Editor during its first decade. She is the author of Jewish Women, Jewish Men: The Legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life, a feminist exploration of Jewish history, culture and psychology (Harper, 1995), and of the self-published The Egalitarian Hagada.