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Identity in Dispersion; Selected Memoirs from Latin American Jews Published byThe Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives AMERICAN JEWISH Aon ES Oo Edited by Leon Klenicki ‘Translated by Donald W. Bleznick, Fellow of the University of Cin jraduate School A Half Century Ago: The Jewish Experience in Argentina by Isaias Lerner ‘The Argentines of my childhood and youth had a peculiar idea about the political organization of the world. For the Argentines of a half century ago—and I believe this conception still exists today—all the Asians were Japanese, all the Italians were Neapolitans, all the Arabs were Turks, and all the Jews were Russians. The Jews who lived in Argentina had an ironic joke for that geographical and cultural provincial myopia, This epithet, not always benevolent, was often clarified with ironic humor by the Jews themselves through the expression: “I am a Russian but from Russia.”This manner of referring to Jews, often affectionate, could be transformed into an insult and came to mean a “filthy, despicable Russian.” We Jews certainly could not escape this reductionist vision that categorized the Ashkenazim of Argentina as Russian and the Sephardim as Turks. Nevertheless, my recollection of the decades of the thirties and forties in the city of Buenos Aires (I cannot give testimony of the life of the Jews who lived in the provinces) is of a benevolent society in which religious diversity was a somewhat unpleasant obstacle about which people did not talk. Above all, for Christians it was better not to mention itin front of Jews. Of course, the population of Argentina was and con- tinues to be mainly Catholic. The official church was naturally and shamelessly missionary, self-complacent, and sure that it encom- passed the whole truth and the only way of approaching divinity and spiritual salvation. The Jews were little more than a small group of obstinate people, somewhat deicidal, following rare and little known customs that were probably perverse, but they were undoubtedly less dangerous than the Protestants. The latter were, according to popular belief, sustained by a loutish clergy, possessed by the devil Nevertheless, among the urban middle class, a product of the liberal and lay tradition, an attitude of tolerance was the rule among the Catholics in whose circle my family moved. Theis religious practice was reduced to a ceremonial that rarely went beyond baptism, the first communion, marriage, and occasionally some funeral rite. ‘These attitudes certainly were echoed in the Jewish community of that time. Jewish life was never led in public and consisted of minimal Identity in Dispersion; Selected Memoirs from Latin America religious practices that were hardly visible. Thus we led a double life, which today seems to me to be false and enriching at the same time. ‘We were Jews within the walls of our houses and citizens whose religion became imperceptible in the life that began when we stepped out into the street. Of course, I do not remember anybody who wore skulleaps publicly nor do I recall the presence of Hasidim in the streets of Buenos Aires, There was minimal mention of the community in the newspa- pers, and the Jewish social and cultural life was almost invisible for the Argentine reader despite the relative abundance of cultural activities within the life of the Jewish community. The de facto acceptance of this marginality was not questioned for the most part before the 1950s. It seemed to us that this double life was the simplest means of finding our own space in a society that, although tolerant on the individual level, was addicted to uniformity in its political, educational, and social structure and, therefore, little respectful of the differences, All this would change with the creation of the state of Israel and the support of Peronism as the political force of the majority. The change was not rapid, Until my adolescence I remember very few incidents of anti- Semitism in the peaceful family life of a Buenos Aires without visible social conflicts for the bourgeoisie. The problem was in Europe, and a somewhat palpable anxiety overshadowed daily life. News of the dis- tant war did not have a calming effect at the beginning. Nevertheless, when the conflict broke out my father bought a barrel of wine and promised to open it to celebrate the defeat of Germany, which my father, always an optimist, never doubted, Probably social discourse and political discourse must have been full of racial allusions, but Iwas too young to notice that. Nevertheless, the shameless kind of anti-Semitism behind the persistent denunciation of conspiracies that were designed to destroy national indepen- dence—"sovereignty” was the code word—was only part of the dem- agoguery of the extreme right as well as the army and the minor clergy. I remember the complaints and commentaries of my parents regard- ing the sale of virulently racist books. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in its Argentine edition, was sold openly on the newsstands of the city, and the works of the successful novelist Martinez Zuviria, who published under the pseudonym of Hugo Wast, were frequently read in the schools even though it was not compulsory to do so. His anti- Semitic pamphlets in novelistic style also sold very well. In my ele- A Half Century Ago: The Jewish Experience in Argentina mentaty school, we all were part of a more or less homogeneous group thanks to the democratic nature of state education, but this did not prevent intense segregation in the field of One episode is enough to illustrate the mutual ignorance that existed. As a child [had a good voice and sang as a soloist in the school chorus. I did not know, however, that the chorus used to offer Christmas concerts until by mis~ take they invited me to participate. When I began to take part in the practice session, about which I knew nothing, some kind of confusion was created that I resolved by not returning anymore. The segregation seemed normal to me and therefore it did not seem right that, inas- much as I was a Jew, I should participate in the Christmas chorus. As I recall the episode more than fifty years later, it is obvious that I must have felt intensely uncomfortable about my error. Today what surpris- es me is my total ignorance of the activities of my schoolmates who undoubtedly never talked to me about these things. We lived in a peaceful cultural ghetto and we did not feel that its restrictions were serious. Besides the state schools there were numerous private ones, mostly Catholic, that were responsible for the education of children of very religious families or simply rich ones, although in many cases the two things coincided. To send one’s children to a Catholic school often was more than an educational or religious decision. It was a means to sep- arate them economically and socially. I do not remember that there were at that time Jewish schools that taught the required general edu: cation. They would come later. Today there are several schools of this sort in Buenos Aites that imitate other private schools fostering social and economic separation. I do not know if they are the result of the wish to give a more solid cultural background to the children of Jewish families or if they are the result of the increasing deterioration of free stale education due to the current economic and social conditions of the country. What I can recall from my Argentine childhood is truly very posi- tive and enriching. Daily life went on without serious encounters of a racial nature or religious discrimination. Outside of some allusions of my friends’ parents, not in reference to the school but to the strect where we lived, I do not recall incidents that touched me personally. Nevertheless, the recollection of the question “Are you Jews?”and the occasional reference to me as thelittle Russian boy,” which was said with apparent innocence, remain vivid in my memory because I must in Dispersion; Selected Memoirs from Latin America have felt that these words were ill intentioned at the time. That ques: tion must have been particularly disturbing to me because it went beyond the normal limits of conversation: one did not speak publicly of one's origin or of Jewish religion, and the question could only be seen as an affront because practically everyone else around me was Catholic. First names and surnames revealed the identity of someone who was only tolerated but not necessarily respected. This identity, however, was kept very much alive within the family life. The house as a fortress of one’s identity was more than a metaphor. My parents were not religious. Their Judaism was defined as belonging not only to a tribe but more precisely to a cultural tribe. As far as Iam concerned, I was then as Iam now a Jew who wanted to be a Jew. But to be so meant a commitment with a past that came about through the simple decision of maintaining this Jewishness through study and knowledge. For reasons of which T am not aware today {although I imagine that fear of imaginary anti-Semitic attacks were somehow involved in the decision), my parents decided that we would learn more of the language, traditions, and Jewish history if a teacher taught us at home. Neither my siblings nor I went to Jewish schools despite the fact that several of them were in Buenos Aires. This isola- tion seems mysterious and unnecessary to me today, but at that time I believe that it did not seem surprising. Furthermore, the education that wwe received in Jewish material was strictly secular. We learned mainly Yiddish because my parents were great defenders of Jewish culture of the Diaspora and because my father was something of a socialist, which means that he saw anti-Semitism more as a social problem and less as a theological one. We practiced Yiddish through many readings of authors like Peretz, Scholem Alechem, Mendele, and poets I barely remember, We also studied some Hebrew, which my father linked neg- atively to religious practice. On the other hand, we learned much ancient history in its heroic and infallibly teleological aspect together with the festivals of the Jewish calendar. Religious practice was unknown to me until much later on when, through my own will and curiosity, I decided to attend a synagogue, but this experience had no satisfactory effects on me. On the other hand, the family ritual was transformed into a folkloric-gastronomic practice. Pesach meant matzot, not the reading of the Hagaddah; Shavuot was cheeses and dairy meals; Purim was the birthday of my paternal grandmother and presents to make up for the absence of gifts A Half Century Ago: The Jewish Experien Argentina on the eve of Epiphany—“Today is Purim / tomorrow is not / give me coin / for now I am leaving” was sang in Yiddish by the children to get the present or the expected coin. Rosh Hashanah was biscuits made of honey; Yom Kippur was not going to school, to fast or not to fast, and to wait for evening to have dinner with the rest of the family, with the strange feeling that a new cycle was beginning and was at the same time not beginning, This isolation and this heterodoxy made an everlasting impression on me and I have never lost the intense feeling of belonging to my community, As a result I must consider our pedagogical and cultural practices as totally successful Things changed beginning with the military revolution in 1943 that was a prelude to what would be the political career of Juan Domingo Perén. High school was the beginning of my awakening to Politics and to Argentina’s complex reality. My friends stopped being a unified group and we separated ourselves into categories. The teachers also began to distinguish themselves through nonacademic activities. Perén’s political pact with the church, which assured him a large part of the Catholic vote in 1946, meant the imposition of religious teach- ing in the public schools. Those of us who were not Catholic were allowed to substitute an hour of what was euphemistically and hypo- critically called “morality” for the class hour devoted to religion. Nobody ever questioned the meaning of the word that designated the substitute hour. It was as if those of us who were not Catholic were in need of additional moral training. As far as I remember, the subject matter of that course was more or less limited to the teaching of Saint ‘Thomas Aquinas's philosophy and theology. I remember perfectly that those of us who were not taking the course on Catholicism experi- enced some anxiety in being compelled to take the so-called course on morality, ‘The school was not lacking in racist teachers. I particularly remember one who had some visibility because of his abysmal repressive actions in the Ministry of Education. He took pleasure in asking students about the origin of their surnames. He taught philosophy or what passed for philosophy. He belonged to the most obtuse branch of con- servative thought and he was very active in the most reactionary Catholic groups. Amid the overwhelming majority of Spanish or Italian surnames, the obviously Slavic ones lent a clearly discriminato- ty meaning to the question that was designed to humiliate the young, Identity in Dispersi Selected Memoirs from Latin America student, When he asked students who were named Abramovich or Bochkovsky about their surnames, their immediate replies were, “itis a Polish name” or“it is a Russian name.” However, the reply that the teacher expected was for them to say, as a kind of admission of ancestral guilt, “itis a Jewish surname.”The student would delay answering “it is a Jewish name” as a strategical way of defiance that obliged the impertinent teacher to repeat the question and phrase it in a more spe cific way. Incidents of this sort were separating the different groups and, at the same time, enriching my community life. found myself becoming ‘more involved in Jewish institutions; I began to take part more actively in cultural activities that interested me, and my relationship with the Argentine reality was becoming more oblique. That is, I gained a keen awareness of the persistent complexities of my belonging to Argentine Political reality, however, did not permit simplifications. The tri- umph of Perdn also meant a greater participation of the Jewish com- munity in the political arena. For the first time in Argentina’s political history, a political party courted our community. The North American version of Per6n and his party is naturally tinted with negative senti- ments created by the anti-imperialist rhetoric that Perén used with uncanny ability. Nevertheless, the image of a racist or anti-Semitic Perén—still frequently found in the American press, which is poorly informed and simplistic in its view of the political forces in Argentina—is totally mistaken. Truthfully speaking, Perén, either because he was motivated by personal friendships or ideology or because of his political opportunism, always maintained (as do the remnants of the Peronist movement today) a cordial and pragmatic relationship with the Jewish community. The years of his first presi- dency coincided partially with those of my father’s most active partic- ipation and leadership in community organizations. Indeed, as presi dent of the AMIA, the umbrella oxganization representing all Jewish institutions in the city and the nation, he was a witness to the efforts Feronism made to attract the sympathy and the vote of the Jews, who constituted a significant economic and industrial force in Buenos Aires. ‘The first headquarters of the Argentine Jewish Organization (OIA), which was the name of the Jewish branch of the Peronist party, was located a few blocks from my house; I remember that Perdn himself and his wife attended the inauguration of the headquarters. It was the A Half Century Ago: The Jewish Experience in Argentina first time that an Argentine president recognized the Jewish commu- nity as patt of the political process. These gestures did not impede the government from permitting groups of the extreme right to carry out anti-Semitic and racist activities. Due to their anti-imperialistic rhetoric, those who belonged to this extreme right group felt themselves better represented by the populist program of Perén’s party than by the parties of center-left or the more or less Marxist left with which they shared antipathy toward the poli- cies of the United States. On the other hand, the most fundamentalist Catholic component, which provided religious inspiration, was not in complete ideological harmony with those groups on the right with whom it allied itself. As far as this situation of ideological confusion that always characterized the extreme right of Argentina is concerned, the Jews were the target of their intense hatred for perfectly contradic- tory reasons. The Jews were the representatives of a capitalist plot organized by Wall Street to take over the world and, at the same time, the most conspicuous representatives of the Soviet conspiracy to control the world. The creation of the state of Israel only served to confirm this, theory. During the years of Perén’s government, the official culture remained in incompetent hands except for very rare exceptions. One of the more serious political errors of those years was the Peronist attack on the national university and on the intellectuals who did not conform to the centralizing polities and did not unanimously obey the decisions of the political bureaucracy. This attack was probably inevitable given the ideological roots of Peronism, but the result was that Argentine cultural life suffered due to the decline of active participation of many of the best intellectual and scientific personalities. Important university professors began to leave the country, a situation that would be repeated years later depending on the political and military circumstances during, the second half of this century. ‘The most interesting activities of a cultural nature were to be found in private institutions like the Free School of Higher Learning, a legit- imate place for intellectual or scientific activity of displaced teachers. In this sense, the Jewish community also offered refuge to scholars and artists through the cultural work of the Sociedad Hebraica Argentina (Argentine Hebrew Society), one of the most prestigious institutions of the Jewish community of Buenos Aires, which, in those days, tried to combine sports and cultural activities. At the same time it served as a IMdentty in Dispersion; Selected Memoirs from Latin America place of social meeting for young people of the community. Thanks to the efforts of its board of directors, most of whom were rich profes- sionals of more or less liberal and also progressive ideology, besides the usual programs of cultural activities (which included series of speeches, classes, art exhibitions, and concerts), other activities were added to allow professors separated from their university posts for political reasons to continue their contacts with students. Leon Dujovne and Abraham Rosenvasser taught Jewish thought and ancient history, respectively, and Jorge Romero Brest taught history of art. Rosenvasser’s courses introduced me to historical knowledge in the best historiographic tradition. [have no doubt that his classes were of fundamental importance to my intellectual training. The effort to offer courses that dealt with other fields of knowledge, such as philos~ ophy, science, and pedagogy, lasted a short time, and finally such courses were no longer offered. So it was that in the Jewish community the same oppositions exist- ed as in the national political life. There were other ideological con- frontations that reflected the different viewpoints of the community. On the one hand, the groups that represented the most progressive ideology had a fundamental importance in structuring community life as a result of the anti-Nazi role of Soviet Russia in the Second World War and, on the other hand, the creation of the state of Israel and the slow awareness of Stalinist repression, which had overtones of anti- Semitism, favored the support of the Zionist movement and the slow loss of prestige and influence of the socialist groups that more or less were in sympathy with the Soviet Union. In the community we certainly were fully aware that the ideological tertitoties were well demarcated through the school instruction offered by the diverse Jewish schools. These schools ran the gamut from secular, leftist, and non-Zionist, with emphasis on the teaching of Yiddish and the history of Jewish life in the Diaspora, to those that were strongly nationalistic, emphasizing the teaching of Hebrew and the necessity of, emigrating to Israel, In fact, in Argentina the immigration of Jewish youth was very high from the first moments of the establishment of the Jewish state. The political events that came later and the economic instability maintained the strength of this tendency and had a special resonance during the period of military repression of the 1970s, which ‘was sometimes racist in tone. At the same time, there was the inevitable increase in assimilation and the abandonment of community A Half Century Ago: The Jewish Experience in Argentina roots through lack of interest or through the adoption of the Catholic religion as a result of marriages with non-Jews. At that time, besides the social changes taking place around the world, there was a resur. gence of religious life that my generation did not know. Finally, there was a group of Argentine Jews who remained faithful to the culture of the Diaspora. Yiddish as a language to use in the home was a focal point for them. In fact, I believe that the use of Yiddish remained longer in Argentina than in other communities. Such insti- tutions as YIVO and the Kultur Congress helped in the consolidation of a large group of speakers and readers, which made possible the Publishing of two daily newspapers until the 1970s. There were several writers and journalists who kept alive the interest in Yiddish language and culture, which, nevertheless, they could not transmit to the fol- lowing generation. My parents’ library contained several hundred books published in Europe and the United States, as well as the complete collection of ‘works on Jewish life in Europe before the war and the chronicles of the disappearance of entire communities narrated by survivors of the Nazi massacre, which were published exclusively in Argentina by the Kultur Congress and distributed around the world. However, the same gen- eration that was responsible for publishing this collection could not curb the alienation of the young people and, in reality, the conscious will of the following generation to become assimilated completely into Argentine culture. The young Jews felt alienated from those stories and narrations that were read only by the generation that published them A few years later, the publishing of these books would disappear. The weekly publications and cultural magazines written in Yiddish also dis appeared, although some still continued to be published in Spanish in order to delay their permanent demise. Other cultural expressions suffered a somewhat similar fate. During the 1940s and 1950s there were at least two Yiddish theaters in which national and foreign companies performed. When it was sum- mer in the United States they would have a theatrical season in Buenos Aires. Maurice Schwartz, Joseph Buloff, and Jacob Ben-Ami as well as, Clara Stramer and other renowned actresses are some of the people I remember. Because they represented a different theatrical tradition, 1 remember that Argentine actors and actresses would come to see them. act in order to adopt what they perceived to be techniques that derived directly from the tradition of the Russian theater. These Jewish actors ‘entity in Dispersion; Selected Memoirs from Latin America seemed to me to be too melodramatic, but it was on the stage of the Jewish theater that I first saw Hamlet and where I first saw a play by the great playwright Lenormand. There certainly was no lack of ridicu- lous melodramas that caused half of the audience to sob. It was a peculiar experience for me, but I know that there was something fas- cinating in the intensity of the actors’ suffering on the stage. Besides these Jewish theaters in Buenos Aires, there was another company called IFT (the Yiddisher Folks Theater). It was less commercial in nature and more active in presenting its political progressive ideology, and it remained longer because it performed plays in Yiddish as well as in Spanish, But the life of the Jewish community in Buenos Aires was destined to undergo changes that my parents’ generation could neither stop nor adopt. The fall of Perén’s government resulted in a kind of extraordinary renaissance for the Argentine university, and it coincided with the most intense period of my university life and the beginnings of my professional work. Those years were the best years of my life in Argentina. My father's death accelerated my disenchantment with reli- gious practice and my distancing myself, for professional reasons, from the study of issues related to Judaism and my slow abandonment of ‘community activity. My intellectual interests sought different horizons from those that Jewish life in Argentine had to offer: a life dedicated to archaic melancholy reminiscences or to kinds of Zionist ideology that ‘were too narrow in scope. With the return of some semblance of democratic government, the paltry cultural offerings of the community could not compete with the attractions of secular material life. I found no difficulties at all in my professional Argentine life, with the exception of those created by my ‘own intellectual limitations. The fact that I was Jewish, which I did not hide from anyone, never hindered (to the best of my knowledge) my teaching career or my research. On the contrary, the university was transformed into the center of my intellectual life and there I shared my interests and cultural experiences with the most diverse ideologi- cal groups. I do not remember any cloud of discrimination. An appar- ent atmosphere of respect made the university an extraordinary center of creativity and interchange of ideas that I had not known before. The common interest of research work eliminated all kinds of differences in the university environment. A Half Century Ago: The Jewish Experience in Argentina Thad no apparent difficulties in teaching and never experienced the slightest discrimination in the competitive examinations I had to take to enter the teaching career with the university. In my ten years of teaching activity between 1956 and 1966 I do not recall any discrimi- natory acts that affected me personally. Later events demonstrated that this sense of respect for differences did not extend to all sectors of Argentine society. In fact, in other areas and other professional spe- cialties and even in university life it seems that there still remained resentments that turned into discrimination. But many of those who are in the professional class in Argentina suffer from certain forms of delusions about conspiracies, which, as I have already pointed out, is, typical of the far right in political thought. In this matter, one should not disregard the tendency that some Argentine Jews have to recall only their tearful history of persecution, a tendency that may often result in having an uncomfortable dialogue with them. This was a period of intellectual optimism for me as well as of con: fidence in the capability of the Argentines to change the institutions and to reform a corrupt political system so that they attained levels worthy of the democratic order in which we wanted to live. In 1966 this situation changed violently, in more than one sense, when the military again intervened in an irresponsible and criminal way in the Argentine political process. Shortly after the new military government took over, I was thrown out from my professorship along with fifteen other colleagues in the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires because we questioned an arbitrary measure taken by the controller of the univer~ sity who was imposed upon the university by the new military regime. My replacement, who was known for her conservative militancy, has- tened to inform the authorities that in my classes I indoctrinated my students with Marxism. These violent administrative acts seem benev- olent today compared with the physical violence that resulted in shak- ing up the whole society. A new cycle, similar to previous ones the 1930s, was about to begin in Argentina. It was then that I decided to withdraw completely from the horrible deeds that were approach- ing and I came to the United States. This decision not only helped me to rescue my professional life but also probably helped me to salvage zy life itself, Some of my students did not have my luck. As a matter of fact, few in Argentina remember these students and the 1966 fascist des. In 1995 a beautiful volume about the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Identity in Dispersion; Selected Memoirs from Latin America Aires was published. This school was undoubtedly one of the out- standing educational institutions of South America and the best mid- dle school of Argentina, In the 200 elegant pages of this book there is no mention of that year of intervention ordered by the military, of the violent death of some of its students, or of us, the teachers who were fired. Such”benign” forgetfulness is not infrequent in Argentine official istory. Despite these acts, which seem to present an obstacle to forming a peaceful social order, in the last thirty years the Jewish community in Argentina has become more visible and Jews have participated more actively in all sectors of public life. The official attitude of the Argentine church seems to have changed just as that of the Vatican, but some brutal acts of violence and discrimination seem to be endemic. The bombs that destroyed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and the building of the AMIA (both being the bloodiest acts of terrorism ever experienced by the people of Buenos Aires) are evident testimony of the impunity with which certain marginal sectors, which constitute a small minority in Argentine society, ate able to carry out their acts of terrorism, Probably nobody in the country doubts that these acts were carried out by groups related to the most reactionary rightist elements. The spectacle of the ruins of the AMIA building, which I personally saw in August 1994, was profoundly distressing because of the death, and injuries of many innocent victims and because it marked the phys ical destruction of an important part of my past. These were the ruins of a building that I knew inside out, not only because my father had invested so many hours of community effort in it but because he had helped to create in the 1940s the museum and the library of YIVO that had been located there and were now in ruins. A group of us young people, interested in recovering a cultural heritage destroyed in Europe, used to meet in YIVO in the ’50s. In its quiet reading room I spent exciting hours reading texts that at the time resonated in my ‘mind with familiar echoes. The librarian, who would observe our pres- ence and our interest with cautious optimism, also participated in long, meetings in which all the aspects of Jewish culture of the Diaspora were patt of interminable discussions. The view of the unrecoverable remains of the AMIA caused me to feel an intolerable melancholy. I never passed by that place again and since then I have not returned to Argentina. These pages do not claim to be mote than a personal, selective, A Half Century Ago: The Jewish Experience in Argentina and arbitrary recollection seen from the vantage point of a detached present. It is doubtless tinged with my new experiences in another society. It may seem unjust to ask for objectivity on my part. Certainly no memoir has objectivity. But when one exercises one’s own memo- ty from the viewpoint of a present separated from the continuity of living in the same society, the past is questioned less impartially and the remembrances accumulate in an unexpected way. Perhaps the events related with Jewish life have changed in Argentine society more than what appears in these pages. Pethaps the experiences of the community have been enriched and the youngest generations have managed to recoup today their own creative dynamism based on a more fluid and open dialogue with the rest of society. I cannot speak with certainty about such desirable changes. Isaias Lerner is Distinguished Professor of Spanish Literature in the Graduate of New York

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