Rabbi, Magician and Savior

What American-born Marshall Meyer did once he decided he could no longer live silently as a Jew in Argentina, when it was run by murderous generals some 20 years ago, has become the stuff of legends. Recollections of his life, a decade after his death

BUENOS AIRES - When asked about Marshall T. Meyer, a Conservative rabbi and a giant in the field of human rights, almost everyone mentions his physical presence first. He was a large man, broad-shouldered, almost two meters tall, with prominent features and an electric field of wiry grey hair radiating from his head. Marshall Meyer, a Connecticut native who was born with a Latin American temperament, did not stride softly through the world, but, slightly stooped and with a permanent expression of curious amusement, dominated any space he entered. He was impossible to ignore.

The place he dominated most memorably, the space that he came in fact to define until his death in December 1993, was the place of the Argentine Jew. During the years of military rule in Argentina (1976-1983) and the traumatic period immediately following, he became the embodiment not only of a Jew, but of a decent man, of humanity itself. For a few years, it was as if Marshall Meyer had adopted as a personal commandment the Jewish proverb: "In a place where there are no men, try to be a man."

He endangered the life of his children. He put his marriage in the balance. He alienated even his own congregation, Buenos Aires' Templo Bet El, to do - in the words of his daughter, Dodi - "what the prophets and the Bible said a Jew had to do."

"Once someone visiting the house asked him why he should be such an activist, and he said, `You cannot be religious and believe and not act on it,'" says Dodi, who is today a pediatrician. "I lived through all this with terror. And I was furious at him, too. I remember a conversation when I begged him to stop because he was destroying my life, and he says he had to do this, and that if anything, our mother could take us away."

What Marshall Meyer did was a dual magician's act, or in the words of a woman who served as a Jewish Agency emissary to Argentina during the 1970s, "Marshall Meyer saved the Jews of Argentina twice; once, from assimilation, the second time, from the generals."

Marshall and Naomi Meyer came to Argentina as a young couple in the early 1960s, intending to stay two years. He was 30, had just been ordained, and was given the option of working an assistant rabbi in an American congregation or working with a remote Jewish community abroad. His mother had just died. Meyer consulted with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, his mentor, and then called his wife. "What do you think about Argentina?" he asked. "Australia? They speak English there, right?" she replied.

"I didn't have a clue," she remembers, adding with a laugh that today, with her grandchildren in New York, she speaks in Spanish.

Prodigious energy

At the time, the Jewish community of Argentina was comprised of about 400,000 people, making it, in theory, the world's third-largest community. But it hardly qualified as a community per se. Those with synagogue affiliations belonged to tiny Orthodox congregations that gathered on the High Holy Days. Others identified as Jews by becoming Zionists and emigrating to Israel. Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews did not mix, the Conservative and Reform movements were unknown, and the entire community, such as it was, was on a fast track to disappearing through assimilation.

Marshall Meyer used his prodigious energy to establish, within a few short years, the Bet El community, the most important congregation in Buenos Aires; a system of educational facilities and summer camps for children; and a Jewish printing press, the first to print Jewish texts in Spanish since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. He created, in effect, what is now - still - a community.

But what Meyer did once he decided he could no longer live silently as a Jew in a nation run by murderous generals, has become the stuff of urban legends among human rights activists.

On his last visit to Israel, not long before his death at age 63, he described some of the tactics he chose to bluster his way into clandestine prisons and death camps, often intimidating or confounding the guards so that they released prisoners to his custody, and saying things like: "This one's a Jew! You say he's a subversive? Noooo, it can't be. I recognize him from my synagogue. I'll kill him!! How could he betray me? Him?? Just give him to me, and I'll show him ... Believe me, he'll be sorry I got him." Or: "What? You have him?? This man is a foreign national! I know his ambassador; just yesterday I gave the man my assurances we are holding no one from his country. Ay Dios, do you have any idea the embarrassment this could bring to Argentina? Que desastre! Permit me to clear this up, discretely. You won't get into any trouble. I'll see to it that he gets deported like a common criminal. Just give him to me, and you won't have to worry about a thing."

He would appear at detention centers - the transitional holding centers, often run by the Federal Police, to which detainees were often taken before their removal to death camps - wielding his famous lists of names which, now, in conversation with his daughter, are described as having been based more than anything else on chutzpah and bluster.

"You know where he got those lists from?" she asks with a tone of imminent revelation. "When he'd go to Devoto [an infamous police center], he'd go to the office and ask, let's say, for Jose Perez, someone he knew was there. And when the guy would turn around to look for the information, he'd check out the papers on his desk and then ask for, you know, `Juan Ramirez.' And so on."

Left unsaid, of course, is the fact that if el Rabino Meyer (as he is known in Argentina till today), protected by his nerve and possibly by his American passport, asked the prison commander for a particular person or mentioned that person's name as he walked out, his or her chances of "disappearing" diminished significantly.

At the time, the realities of life under state terror rendered it impossible to accurately gauge how many people Rabbi Meyer saved. The passage of time has not been helpful in this regard either: There is no consensus today on even the general number of "the disappeared." Over 11,000 claims have been registered in Argentina for disappeared citizens, but human rights organizations, convinced that anger or fear prevented many people from filing petitions, commonly refer to 30,000 disappeared. (About 10 to 15 percent of these were Jews.) Of one thing there is no doubt: Marshall Meyer saved at least several hundred lives, and very likely many more.

In aid of Timerman

A documentary film that was premiered in Argentina in late July, "Flowers of September," features Deborah Benchoam, a young woman whose brother and boyfriend disappeared and were murdered. Her case, however, was championed by Meyer, who located her in Devoto.

Meyer did not wake up on March 24, 1976, the day of the military coup, certain of his role. His friend Robert Cox - then the editor of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald, which itself became an icon when it emerged as the only Argentine newspaper to cover the disaster - recalls initial moments of doubt and confusion, along with Meyer's iron faith.

Cox's first sentence about Meyer is, remarkably, not a reference to his physical stature but to his moral grandeur: "He was a Jewish saint, a remarkable person in every way and very, very brave ... He saved people's lives and kept the lamp burning in Argentina during that particular time. I always remember him as a rabbi saying, `the Talmud says Jews cannot live in country without justice. I almost feel I should tell my people to leave.' Of course, he didn't do that. He was in touch with military all the time, trying to persuade them to admit to what they were doing, then trying to get them to stop it."

"The way he came to his decision has always struck in my mind," says Cox. "We did not know each other tremendously well until Jacobo Timerman disappeared." Timerman, editor of the newspaper La Opinion and a prominent Argentine Jew, was kidnapped by military personnel in April, 1977. For Meyer, this was a watershed event. "The Timerman family came to ask Marshall for help. Other people had come to him, but this was different, and of course, they were not a religious family at all. He phoned me up. At that time, to have anything to do with Timerman was to make a target of yourself."

"What shall I do?" he asked me.

"You have to go!"

"Of course I have to go."

Meyer paid for his efforts by not only risking his life and that of his family: Many in the Jewish community, and many in his own congregation, turned against him.

"A lot of people hated him," says Dov Shmorak, an Israeli diplomat who served as ambassador during the last years of the dictatorship, and who befriended Meyer. "You don't really want to name them, but you know, not only the military, [but] the Orthodox Jews, the elements of the Jewish community that were attuned to the establishment - they hated him. They said all kinds of things about him."

"There were enormous efforts to destroy him," Cox, who today is the editor in chief of The Post and Courier in South Carolina, remembers. "He was loathed by right-wing Jews. I don't even want to remember the name of one man, a guy who imported very sophisticated equipment for submarines, who courted the military and who used to show up in my office at the Herald to tell me what a terrible man Marshall was ... There were constant attempts to destroy him, rumors published in nasty little Jewish magazines, attempts to destroy his character. I never saw any reason to be the least bit interested in all of this."

The turning point

Ra'anan Rein, the director of Tel Aviv University's Institute of Latin American History and Culture and an internationally recognized expert on Argentine history, can also determine the turning point, the moment at which Marshall Meyer truly came into his own.

"Too many people think that from the first moment, he was the head of the human rights movement in Argentina. Either it took him some time to understand what was happening, or he thought initially that it would be intelligent to act without public statements. The fact is that for the first few months, he was still saying the normal communitarian things about the dangers of assimilation and so forth - both inside and outside Argentina. Still within the parameters of conservative religious leadership. But from a certain moment, he began to speak in a loud voice at a time when almost everyone else in Argentina was silenced by fear of state terror. He began to say very clearly that Jews could not remain silent in the face of a repetition of the 1930s in Europe and when human tragedies are taking place.

"And so I feel huge respect for him as a secular Jew. It is easy for me to identify with the way Marshall Meyer presented the human rights conflict as a characteristic of modern Judaism. And, of course, many remember his visits to the prisons, Jewish prisoners, non-Jews, the pressure he put on the embassy and on the Jewish Agency for the evacuation of people - Timerman, and his release."

It is important to emphasize the fact that Meyer is considered to be almost the only Argentine hero of the entire dismal period. Robert Cox, whose wife's and children's lives were endangered, was forced to leave Argentina, leaving Meyer almost completely alone.

"Well, in addition to everything, he was enormously entertaining," Cox says. "He seemed to me so much a mixture of Leonard Bernstein with that enormous spirit, and George Gershwin, and he was a scholar, too. He could talk about everybody, loved Shakespeare, music. When we had to leave it was very sudden. We had a few hours. Marshall wanted to cheer us up and said come and have something to eat at home. We must have arrived about two hours late and he had a cane and a straw hat on and sang some wonderful vaudeville song for us."

Recalls Dodi Meyer: "They threatened and tried to kidnap Cox's kids, and they got away by the skin of their teeth. That same night they came over and we made them a big party with the national flag and everything, and then they left."

A moral beacon

The Meyer children also did not have an easy life. "I personally experienced the change [in my father's life]," remembers Gabriel Meyer, 37, the youngest son, who today lives in Amirim, a vegetarian community in the Upper Galilee. "It was very clear. In the sixth grade I was the most popular kid in school. In the seventh grade no one spoke to me. This had to do with the fact that at school" - Tarbut, one of the most prominent Jewish schools in Buenos Aires - "they talked about what my father was doing and said he was a dangerous person and I was dangerous."

Not only the Jews had doubts about Meyer's activities. The Catholic Church was in collusion with the military. The Cardinal of Buenos Aires refused to meet with him. Human rights workers vanished by the dozens, themselves joining the desaparecidos. For the occasional well-meaning colleague arriving from abroad, Meyer became not only a moral beacon, but something of a guide to Argentina. William Sloan Coffin, Jr., a protestant minister, formerly the chaplain of Yale University and a Vietnam-war era activist, came to Buenos Aires and was outraged by what he saw. He suggested a hunger strike.

"You don't get it," Meyer explained to him. "If you do a hunger strike here, you'll die of hunger."

Mention his name to any Argentine today, Jew or non-Jew, and the Marshall Meyer most remember is the large man with a booming voice and unmistakable accent who, after the fall of the military government in 1983, sat on the national commission investigating the disappeared (he was the only foreigner there), and obliged reluctant Argentines to confront their own tragedy.

When his work there was completed in 1987, he left Argentina. "I used to joke with him and with Naomi about it," says Cox. "His departure baffled us. All the time he was doing these incredible things, Naomi was saying `We've got to leave. We can't go on like this.' And then, when he was crowned with all honors he said, `We have to leave.' Of course, by that time she didn't want to leave. I think he'd done everything he needed to do and didn't want to get comfortable."

Marshall Meyer died 10 years ago, on December 31, 1993, in New York, of pancreatic cancer. For the last five years of his life, he led the rebirth of what began as one of New York's most moribund congregations - the Upper West Side's Bnai Jeshurun - and remains until today one of the city's liveliest.

"People don't realize that that was a detail of his life, the last five years," says Dodi Meyer, who today works at Columbia University Hospital in Manhattan, trying to explain why few people outside of Argentina remember her father's work there. "I always tell people what he did here was a small detail, that his life's work was in Latin America. But it is very American to think that they invented the world and they don't realize that all he did here was recreate what he had already done, on a much greater scale, there."

Meyer knew of his illness for several months, perhaps longer, before sharing the news with his family and his congregants. He checked himself into the hospital December 6, a Monday, after officiating at services the Friday and Saturday before, knowing, his son says, that "it was very risky surgery and that he was very, very sick." From his hospital bed, Meyer told his wife: "If I can't show my family and my congregation how to face death, what kind of rabbi am I?"

"I was living in Jaffa at the time," says Gabriel Meyer. "A friend of my father called me and said he was very sick and I should go there. He was in a lot of pain, but we celebrated the entire night. We celebrated life, as always, with food and music and singing. We sang in the hospital until they took him away on the gurney. That was always the story in my house: We celebrated life."