One day in 1978, in the city of La Plata, Argentina, three-year-old Santiago Gomez and his older brother Federico were locked in the bathroom of the family home by masked gunmen as their father, a member of the People’s Revolutionary Army, was abducted. He was one of approximately 30,000 Argentine citizens who “disappeared” during the right-wing military dictatorship in Argentina of 1976-1983.
That period marked a reign of terror known as the “Dirty War” that many accuse the United States of supporting — a charge that U.S. President Barack Obama addressed on his recent visit to Argentina.
During this time, violent kidnappings and unwarranted arrests occurred in broad daylight and in front of witnesses. Victims were sent to military concentration camps where they were subject to torture and often death.
This was the case for the parents of Martina Weisz, who were imprisoned in a concentration camp for their political activism. “Within two months, my father disappeared from the camp and my grandparents tried to find him,” she said. “My grandfather went to the Interior Ministry for help and someone there started yelling at him in German in an attempt to scare him away.”
Weisz spoke last week in Tel Aviv at a two-day conference marking the 40th anniversary of the military coup. She told the story of her father’s torture and subsequent disappearance, which ultimately led her paternal grandparents to move to Israel. Many years later, she followed.
Weisz and Gomez are two of the many Argentines now living in Israel who were directly affected by the military dictatorship. The conference, which was organized by Hebrew University and conducted in Spanish and Hebrew, was part of an initiative to inspire dialogue between Israelis and Latin Americans living in Israel on the topic of Operation Condor, the brutal political crusade perpetrated by a consortium of several South American countries in the 1970s, which the Dirty War was associated with.
Several new testimonies from that period have come out of this conference, some of which will be published and made publicly available soon. The conference was initially intended for university professors and students to share academic research on the topic, but Claudia Kedar, one of the organizers, said the conference received an unexpected amount of attention, including from survivors who wanted to participate. Inspired by their interest, the organizers invited them to tell their personal histories. Over 100 people attended.
Kedar, who teaches about military dictatorships in Latin America, said it was important to study this particular regional conflict in Israel.
“The students in my classes try to find connections between what happened in Argentina and what happens in Israel,” she told Haaretz. "They read about the conflicts happening at home and know that learning about the different dictatorships over there helps them become aware of such things that must not happen here.”
Jews in Argentina were specifically and disproportionately targeted during the Dirty War, said Saul Sosnowki, professor of Latin American Literature and Culture at the University of Maryland, who spoke at the conference.
“Jews in Argentina only made up 1 percent of the population but they were about 10 percent of the disappeared,” he told Haaretz. “There was a very heavy participation from the people in the Jewish community in the various guerilla movements.”
One group in particular, a leftist guerilla group known as Los Montoneros, had many Jewish members, including the noted investigative journalist Horacio Verbitsky, now head of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, an Argentine human-rights organization.
Jews were also apparently more frequently targeted in the concentration camps as well, likely a reflection of anti-Semitism among military leaders. “What we do know from eye witnesses among the survivors is that the repression of Jews, once they were caught, and their treatment was worse than the treatment of other people,” Sosnowski said. “I remember one general commented on why were there so many Jews involved.”
A telling similarity between Argentina and Israel and their respective histories is the Spanish phrase that Argentines use to remember the event: "nunca mas," or "never again." Sosnowski recalled that in the 1990s, when Hebrew University hosted a conference for the judges who had tried Argentina’s military officials following the dictatorship, “None of the judges had ever been to Israel and we went to Yad Vashem. I was walking out with one of them and he turned to me and said, ‘Whoever says the Holocaust has nothing to do with us, did not understand what happened to us during the dictatorship.’”