The core institution of the Argentine Jewish community was preparing to celebrate its centennial when a bomb tore into its core on July 18, 1994. The exact time of the explosion -9:53 A.M.- has become a fixed moment in time for all those affected by the bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA)--Jewish Mutual Aid Association of Argentina in Buenos Aires. At this early hour of the day, at the beginning of the work week, on Tisha B'av, 86 people were killed, and Argentina became known once again as a fertile ground for terrorism and injustice.
Now five years since the bombing, a new AMIA building has been inaugurated at the same site as the previous one at 633 Pasteur St. The new building is much different from the former one. Whereas the other was modest and blended in with the surrounding architecture one finds in the 'Once' district of Buenos Aires, the new building is an outstanding structure. It is immense, modern, and equipped with the most advanced surveillance equipment available in order to prevent future attacks of terror. For many, the new AMIA building is a symbol of life after death; a model for reconstruction and rejuvenation. For others, however, the financial support provided by the Argentine government in order to construct the new edifice does nothing to heal the wounds of July 18th. Much more than a building was destroyed on that tragic Monday. 86 people were killed; hundreds of others were wounded. Love, trust, and hopes were crushed and destroyed forever. Although a building may be reconstructed and reinforced, the loss of a loved one may never be accounted for, and the veil of security may never be fully restored. The desperate search for scattered shards of memory, glimpses of life, and constant hope for a better future have led to bodies of creation and protest such as Memoria Activa (Active Memory) and Familiares y Amigos de las Víctimas(Family Members and Friends of the Victims). Various monuments now fill the spaces of two particular places in Buenos Aires: Plaza LaValle and Pasteur St.
This paper focuses on the reactions of Argentine society to the Monday, July 18th, 1994 bombing of the AMIA in Buenos Aires. It is an exploration of how the tragic event has been memorialized, politicized, and de-politicized by highlighting the various forms of expression, protest and commemoration, which have taken place in Plaza LaValle and at Pasteur St. since the disaster. This project revolves around a specific moment in time -9:53 A.M.- and the simultaneous halting and sprinting of a clock which both races and stands still before the face of injustice. As the traumatic event of the AMIA bombing has frozen the lives and destroyed the dreams and hopes of many, it has also activated the consciousness of others and supported the race to change the justice system of Argentina in order to keep future atrocities from taking place.
Unlike private mourning for a loved one or a public ceremony held for numerous victims of a fatal accident, such a calculated and premeditated act of mass murder and injury to hundreds of individuals as the bombing of the AMIA makes necessary the expression of one's most private emotions within the public sphere. The fact that this atrocity was not a natural disaster, but a willful and violent act created by human design, arouses the battle to inform the world of such capacity for evil, and ignites the human struggle against the nature of forgetting such unpleasant events.
A persistent body of public protest has followed the AMIA massacre, and, just like any lasting group, it has transformed throughout its development during the past five years. The days immediately following the bombing were blurred by death, grief, disorder, shock, missing people, and silent demonstrations of protest against the brutality, which had overwhelmed Buenos Aires. In an attempt to understand what had happened, and in search of expression that truly conveyed their feelings, silent protestors employed a variety of symbols and actions to define emotions that words alone could not express. Feeling the target of a malicious attack against the Jewish people in particular, thousands could be seen wearing a large patch or band with the Star of David on it. On the rainy Thursday following the bombing of the AMIA -July 21, 1994- an enormous silent march from Pasteur St. to the Plaza de los Dos Congresos was organized. Declarations were made in front of the houses of Congress, and the mourner's Kaddish was delivered for the victims of the bombing. The day is now called 'Dia del Paraguas' or Day of the Umbrellas.
This massive protest and demand for a response from the Argentine government later manifested itself in ripples that continue to lap against the government's political and judicial chambers to this day in the form of a group called "Memoria Activa." A week after 'Dia del Paraguas', a group of four people stood silently in front of the Supreme Court House, across from Plaza LaValle, hoping for answers. These silent figures represented the question mark in everyone's minds as to "what happened at Pasteur 633? And who is responsible?"
With time, the question mark grew bolder. Each Monday morning at 9:53 A.M. the interrogation in front of the Supreme Court House grew stronger, gaining voice and dimension. This reaction to the death on 633 Pasteur St. transformed into a visible and active body of life. One month after the AMIA bombing -August 18, 1994- an enormous act in memory of the victims and in demand for justice was organized in front of the Supreme Court House. Scattered reactions of disbelief, anger, fear, and grief were soon guided and funneled into organized bodies of public protest, and commemoration which found Plaza LaValle and Pasteur St. to be the most appropriate places to host the spaces of Memory and Justice with relation to the AMIA bombing.
"Justicia, Justicia perseguiras", "Justice shalt thou pursue"--a statement from Deuteronomy--is the slogan of Memoria Activa. In itself, this shout for justice is a clear example of the faith and hope expressed by this group which gathers in the Plaza every Monday morning. The first demonstrations attracted a large heterogeneous population among which were directors of the Jewish institutions, politicians from various political parties, members of religious institutions, representatives from several workers' unions, and representatives from other sectors of society. As indecipherable and delayed responses are given by the Argentine judicial system, the need for Memoria Activa's presence and live voice amidst Argentine society is evident. Memoria Activa is a living monument that can be seen, heard, and felt each week within a particular place. All those who choose to step out of the traditional flow of time and dedicate a few moments to occupy the space of memory create the monument. From its formative stages to the present day, members have been actively filming, recording, and archiving Memoria Activa's weekly gatherings in Plaza LaValle. With the collected materials, an invaluable thirty-minute documentary, Mil Gracias Hermanos--Many Thanks Brothers--has been produced and financed by members of the group. The film effectively shows the public arena of Plaza LaValle and the activation of memory conjured by the sounding of the shofar--a ram's horn--each Monday morning.
Mil Gracias Hermanos is introduced by black and white images of the AMIA as it had once looked, and the disastrous condition at 633 Pasteur St. immediately after the ferocious bomb tore the building apart. The first five-minutes capture the solemn character of the ceremony and how the tragic element is then combated by spoken words of solidarity, and occasional music and songs which flood the Plaza and revive a feeling of hope for the eventual triumph of justice. The weekly speeches given in Plaza LaValle are considered as 'collective' in that they are reviewed and jointly written and edited by Memoria Activa. Although an individual is responsible for delivering them, he or she is never to be considered as the individual writer or voice behind what is being said. The speaker is delivering the collective voice of Memoria Activa.
The group does not demand any preferential treatment, but protests in the name of 'Argentine citizenry' and the conformity of established laws within a lawful state. Memoria Activa's charge, centered within the equal objectivity of those rights, demands the uncovering of the AMIA case and any other incidents in which the state does not have respect for human life in its most broad sense. Beyond the recognition of the singularity of the AMIA bombing, in the sense that the AMIA is the most important institution within the Jewish community, the attack is seen as an injury to the Argentine community as a whole. To support this reminder, Memoria Activa highlights that the victims were 'common people' and relates the victims to the average Argentine citizen. For this very reason, the victims of the AMIA bombing deserve the same treatment as any other individual or group of individuals who have been victims of aggression.
Although the names of the AMIA victims are also present in Plaza LaValle, upon a monument which occupies a central space within the Plaza, the monument is not a central focus of the Monday morning acts of public protest. In fact, one may attend the weekly protest without ever noticing this monument. The monument--a circular structure with wooden walls--is quite removed from the location of Memoria Activa's clamor within the same plaza. One sector of the circular granite base is broken, disrupting the circular motion and the flow of time. The base is a clock face, which forever marks the time of 9:53 A.M. The wall rising from the granite base is not smooth, but jagged. It is not one shapely wooden formation, but individual wooden pieces bound together in a circular form. The pieces stand upright as thin fence posts, but they do not form a uniformed wall. Each wooden spear is a different length and all are individualized with the name of one of the AMIA victims carved vertically into it along with the age of the person on July 18, 1994. Although this monument and Memoria Activa's weekly gatherings occur in the same Plaza--the monument's message is distinct from the space of protest carved within Plaza LaValle each Monday morning.
Memoria Activa's activation of memory is a collective protest in which the memories of individual victims of the AMIA bombing are rarely recalled. Very generic symbols are used by members so as to blend the individual identities into one larger group. Whereas Memoria Activa's initial and sole platform involved the case of the AMIA, its presentation has transformed as it has found it necessary to encompass all acts of injustice in order to join hands with the greater Argentine population in its demand for justice. In an interview with Sofia Guterman, whose daughter, Andrea, was killed in the AMIA bombing, she describes this change and explains that for this very reason she no longer feels Plaza LaValle as an appropriate place for her to dedicate her energy. Sofia does however, actively participate in monthly commemoration ceremonies which are conducted at the very site of the AMIA disaster on Pasteur St.:
It's not the Memoria Activa of before. It's no longer just for the bombing of the embassy and the bombing of the AMIA. It takes on all cases of impunity, which seems good to me because we all have the right to protest, but Memoria Activa began for a particular cause and no other. So, its as if different themes are being mixed in together: The Mothers of the May Plaza came, the Teachers came, family members of others who've been killed . . . everyone has the right to protest, but I feel that this is not what Memoria Activa was created for. For many of the family members of the AMIA bombing victims, an act on the 18th at Pasteur St. motivates us more. Because that's where our loved ones were killed, they died there. This way we're in the place where the bodies were, where the blood was, where everything happened, and we feel that that's where we have to do our work from. In the plaza, yes, one protests, but one gets tired of protesting, I don't believe justice will ever be done. If a sentence is given, only some will be accused, not the central criminals. I feel that by going to Pasteur St. I'm honoring the victims in the very place where their bodies were. I feel something else, I don't know how to explain it . . . I feel more connected to the dead . . . it's like a cemetery because they were lying there for days.
Sofia's protest and demand for justice is driven by the relentless pain of having lost her daughter Andrea to the AMIA disaster. Her cry for justice and memory is very personalized and she has found that the monthly ceremonies at 633 Pasteur St. are more suitable vessels for her energy. Pasteur St. provides the proper space for Sofia's mourning and protest. The atmosphere of the 18th is less politicized and more intimate. Although this monthly ceremony is also one of protest, commemoration of the individuals who died during the tragedy is the main objective.
At a quarter to ten in the morning of every 18th, Pasteur St. is blocked off to vehicular traffic by federal police. A large white banner hangs suspended above the street with black and red letters marking the number of years and months since the AMIA bombing. A platform with a podium and a microphone is set up in front of the wall that separates the AMIA building from the road. The halting of vehicular traffic and the minimal pedestrian traffic accentuates the intimacy of the Pasteur St. ceremony. Whereas the AMIA victims are coupled with all other victims of aggression and injustice during the Monday morning ceremonies organized by Memoria Activa, the 86 victims are the sole focus of the ceremony organized by family members of the victims on the 18th of every month. It is for this very reason that many family members such as Sofia Guterman, have stopped attending the acts in Plaza LaValle and only participate in the ceremonies of the 18th where they feel they can honor their loved ones with more intimacy.
The acts of commemoration on Pasteur St. bring the individual memories of the dead to life. All congregants face a large wall of black wooden panels which has the first name of every victim spray painted upon it in white. Enlarged photos of several of the victims are placed along the wall; they stare at the congregants throughout the ceremony. The name and age of the victim is always printed boldly beside his or her picture. The ceremony conducted on every 18th is also one of protest, but allows for a more private and demonstration of memory. On the 18th at 633 Pasteur St. a minute of silence recalls countless images. The names of each victim are then read aloud and honored with the lighting of a candle and the placement of a red rose by a family member or friend of the victim. The lighted candles and red roses are placed alongside a black sign with white lettering: 'Justicia y Memoria,' "Justice and Memory" and are left in front of the black wall of names until preparation for the next 18th ceremony is begun.
Whereas the microphone in Plaza LaValle is attended by a member of Memoria Activa and several representatives of various sectors of society every Monday, the microphone at Pasteur 633 is shared by several voices that read the names of the victims in alphabetical order, and one family member who then delivers a powerful and emotionally driven speech in commemoration and in protest. Whereas the acts in Plaza LaValle are ended with three shouts of "Justicia" directed at the Supreme Court House, the ceremony at Pasteur St. ends with a space for individual prayer of any kind. Before leaving Plaza LaValle, congregants raise their fists at the Supreme Court House; before leaving Pasteur St. congregants approach and touch the wall of names. During the ceremonies at Pasteur St., the individual victims, their family members, and their close friends are singled out. The ceremony usually ends in tears and the need for emotional support is evident.
Although born from the same tragedy and shaped by the same people, the two ceremonies have grown apart from one another as time passes and the justice system of Argentina fails to bring the true criminals of the AMIA bombing to the surface. As the acts in Plaza LaValle have grown more and more politically geared, the ceremony on Pasteur St. has continued to exercise a less politicized form of active memory. While converting Plaza LaValle into Plaza de la Memoria (Memory Plaza) seems to have been accomplished by Memoria Activa's faithful presence each Monday morning, and the acquisition of a monument dedicated to the memory of the AMIA victims, the lack of justice performed by the Supreme Court has forced Memoria Activa's persistent activaiton of memory to focus more heavily on the judicial affairs than on memorializing the dead. It is precisely this politicized and accusatory voice which distinguishes between the public ceremony at Plaza LaValle and the more private one on Pasteur St. Although many concerned citizens, friends and family members of the victims attend both ceremonies, it is evident that Sofia Guterman and others choose to support one over the other. This phenomenon manifested itself vividly on Monday January 18th, 1999, a morning in which both ceremonies were due to be held.
When the two ceremonies had coincided in the past, the act in Plaza LaValle would be conducted as it is every Monday morning, and then the ceremony on Pasteur St. would begin when joined by those who had traveled from the Supreme Court House (Plaza LaValle) to the AMIA site (Pasteur St.). For this reason, Memoria Activa members did not make extreme haste to arrive at Pasteur St. on January 18th, and most activists traveled by foot as they had during past instances. On this Monday the 18th , however, the congregants at 633 Pasteur St. did not wait for the arrival of the Plaza LaValle activists, and in so doing, made a clear statement that their agenda is different from Memoria Activa's. The late arrivals to Pasteur St. were surprised and disappointed when they came upon the already lighted candles and the departure of the congregants who had gathered for the monthly ceremony. One might speculate that the slogan "Memoria y Justicia" which had previously been carried to both forums of public and private protest, has been divided. Although both Memory and Justice are copartners in the appeal for truth, it is evident that the weekly demands held at the foot of Argentina's Supreme Court House are aimed more directly at the Justice system while the gatherings at the disaster zone of July 18, 1994 target the most intimate spaces of Memory in their continued hope for Justice.
The places in which both of these ceremonies take place are significant to the character of their rituals. Those who actively participate have developed a binding relationship with the places of protest and commemoration. In her essay Symbolic Ties That Bind, Setha M. Low describes this relationship as "place attachment": "The symbolic relationship formed by people giving culturally shared emotions/affective meaning to a particular space or piece of land that provides the basis for the individual's and group's understanding of and relation to the environment."
The Supreme Court House of Argentina is a national symbol in which public memory must speak about the structure of power and justice within the nation. In order to understand the nation's past and its present, the Argentine public memory must be called upon and share its beliefs and ideas. As it has grown to incorporate the memory and truth behind injustice and aggression against all people along with its main platform being the case of the AMIA bombing, Memoria Activa's growing body of public memory is a tool which adds perspective and authenticity to the actions taken by the nation's justice system.
The acts of the 18th, however, occur at a site of pain and destruction that once represented a center for support and security for the Jewish community of Argentina. Those who gather in front of the disaster zone hope to some day restore the sense of security they once had. It is only appropriate for the memories of those who died beneath the AMIA building to be called to life during the commemoration ceremony held on Pasteur St. Family members and friends of the victims are apprehensive about embracing the new AMIA building which has been erected upon the "blood of their loved ones". Many feel that the lot once occupied by the former AMIA should have been left vacant as was the space which the Israeli Embassy once occupied at Suipacha and Arroyo Streets. It is their concern that what happened at 633 Pasteur St. will be forgotten by those not as profoundly affected by the bombing as they were. Their insistence that the black wall of names remain in front of the new building has been heeded to. The wall, a curtain of darkness, is much different from other walls of memory such as the Vietnam Memorial in which names are neatly engraved upon an aesthetically pleasing marble wall. The names of the AMIA victims are written in spray paint by a human hand, and there is no particular order to their placement in relation to the other names. The ceremonies conducted at 633 Pasteur St. on every 18th face this wall of names, and they become an immediate stimulation for individual memory.
The wall of names which stands in public view along Pasteur St. is one which does not in anyway classify any of the AMIA victims as being different form any other. The wall of names overshadows the concrete barriers constructed to prevent vehicular traffic from nearing the AMIA building; it is a painful and universal cry with the capacity of affecting any passerby with grief and anguish. It is a morose and heavy wall, which dampens any feeling of joy; it is a constant reminder of tragedy. Above all, the generic characteristics of this wall of names expresses that tragedy does not discriminate and any passerby could have been swallowed by the explosive blast at the AMIA site.
The reminder of tragedy activated both at Pasteur St. and in Plaza LaValle is counterbalanced with a recently inaugurated monument within the courtyard of the new AMIA building. As one passes beyond the morose curtain of names to approach the new AMIA, one is suddenly enraptured by a powerful source of light and color. The new monument, designed by Israeli artist Yaacov Agam, teaches the qualities of constant change. Agam teaches one to see the reality through multiple points of view and open one's perception of change. He monument reinforces the need to observe every life experience from all angles. Viewed from different positions, Agam's work reveals a Chanukah menorah, a white Star of David, a rainbow, a candelabra, a multicolored Star of David, and the emblem of the AMIA. Agam's work is not meant to be viewed from one spot, but sets the viewer in motion. Just as one cannot immobilize Time, one should not try to immobilize one's position. The monument is visual, but also conceptual, and conducive. The comprehension of the changes modifies one's conduct. Beyond influencing one's conduct, the work is philosophical because it expresses an idea of reality, a philosophy of life: that the reality is multiple and one, there is unity in multiplicity and multiplicity in unity. That place and space are not stagnant, but vital moments and locations of constant and changing energy.
In works like Pablo Picasso's Guerníca (1937) art is testimony to History. Picasso's artistic language is full of tragic vocabulary and the horrors of the destruction of Guernica are vividly expressed and read. Horror was unleashed at the AMIA, but unlike Picasso's tragic response to the horror and bloodshed in the Basque region, Agam's response is one which emits life rather than death. It is for this very reason that his artistic expression is not welcomed by many of those affected by the AMIA bombing. If not for the list of victims' names, which accompany the structure, one would not equate his work with disaster. Rather, it breathes a sense of life and urges the Jewish community of Buenos Aires to look beyond the tunnel of tragedy and find constructive ways to utilize their grief.
Nietzsche once said that in order for something to be remembered it must be branded with fire; only that which causes incessant pain remains in one's memory. It is precisely this pain which drives the persistent clamor of Memoria Activa, the commemoration ceremonies by family members and friends on the 18th of every month, the annual books that Sofia Guterman dedicates to her daughter, and the addition of monuments and memorial plaques dedicated to victims of injustice throughout Argentina. The bombing of the AMIA has clearly led to a reevaluation of self-definition, including individual and communal aspects of identity within Argentina. This process of reevaluation has allowed for the recognition of how precious the AMIA has been for the establishment and continuation of Jewish life within Argentina. The battle to reconstruct this nucleus for cultural and social association is one that also supports the demand for a respect for all human rights within Argentina. It is evident that one of the most essential tools for existence within a society, in which injustice is prevalent, is the memory of its people activated both privately and publicly in shared spaces and places.
The research for this project was made possible by generous funding from the Tinker foundation, support from Professor Patrick OConnor and the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of Chicago, the AMIA and the IWO of Buenos Aires, and Memoria Activa.
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