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Argentine Jews Start Recovery From Tragedy

August 11, 1994|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENOS AIRES — It is with pain that 92-year-old Samuel Rollansky thinks of rebuilding. The bomb that ripped through the heart of Argentina's Jewish community not only killed almost 100 people--it also destroyed Rollansky's lifework, one of the world's most precious collections of Jewish historical books and papers.

"As Jews, we are accustomed to having to start over," he said quietly, cradling a volume of "Master Works of Yiddish Literature," which he published more than 30 years ago. "It is an obligation. As the poet H. Levick said: 'I fall, I get up. I fall again, I get up again.' It is not a matter of 'Can we rebuild?' but that we must."

Even as the government on Wednesday issued its first arrest warrants in the case, the largest Jewish community in Latin America was beginning to emerge from the shock and despair that engulfed it after a car bomb on July 18 destroyed the Buenos Aires headquarters of the community's social services.

And as Argentina's Jews look to the long process of recovery, they are assessing the permanent psychological damage, fears and uncertainties.

In these post-crisis assessments, some Argentine Jews speak with new bitterness. They watch in dismay as non-Jewish Argentines take their children out of schools near Jewish offices. They see new outbreaks of an anti-Semitism that, one way or another, has long existed in Argentina. And they feel a growing apprehension that the investigation into the bombing will never turn up those truly responsible, leaving open the possibility of another attack.

"Terror not only managed to kill 100 people, wound 200 and leave a crater in the middle of the city," said Ruben Beraja, a banker and community leader. "Terror also managed to install a certain amount of fear. The spirit and color of the city has been changed. Look, (many) days have passed (since the bombing) and we are still trapped by trauma and shock."

There are outward signs of recovery.

The frenetic pace has slowed at the Marc Chagall Cultural Center, which became a makeshift command post for teams of counselors and rescue workers and where some 500 relatives awaited tragic news during the first days after the explosion.

The ruins of the seven-story building--the terrorists' target--have been mostly cleared away. All but 10 victims have been identified and buried; DNA testing is expected to give names to the last 10.

With the help of Israeli experts, Jewish schools are instructing their teachers to incorporate the bombing into their curricula, and enhanced security now means leaving cellular telephones and electronic date books at the front desks of many synagogues.

"The pain is enormous," said Enrique Klein, a publicist who was badly hurt in the 1992 car-bombing of Buenos Aires' Israeli Embassy, which almost killed his wife. "But that doesn't mean you cross your arms. You have to keep fighting."

Jews fleeing pogroms and prejudice began migrating to distant Argentina from Russia and Europe in the latter half of the 19th Century, colonizing vast, vacant pampas as farmers and merchants.

By 1882, the first rabbi was recognized by the government; by 1898, three newspapers were being published in Yiddish. The Jewish exiles' first rural colony was called "Moisesville"--Moises is Spanish for Moses--and populated by thousands of Jewish gauchos, or cowboys.

Descendants of the first Jewish settlers became part of Argentina's prosperous middle class. Many Jews today, despite Argentina's persistent current of anti-Semitism, hold prominent positions in government and business. The community numbers about 250,000, having declined in recent years because of migration to Israel and the United States.

This history was meticulously detailed in the largest library of Judaica in Latin America, a compilation of 70,000 books, diaries, original birth and death certificates and other papers housed under the Jewish Scientific Institute and founded by Rollansky.

Many of the priceless works were destroyed in the bombing. "I have lived to see my own funeral," Rollansky tearfully told reporters on July 18.

Later, in an interview at his apartment in the center of the Once neighborhood, established as Buenos Aires' first Jewish ghetto at the turn of the century, Rollansky recalled how he began collecting the materials after his immigration to Argentina from Poland in 1926.

Among the items housed in the library and archives were original, irreplaceable works of 16th- and 17th-Century literature, 19th-Century Hebrew magazines, phonographic recordings of Jewish tango stars, files documenting the Jewish immigration to South America, World War II memorabilia, a model of a Nazi concentration camp..

"A diabolical bomb, placed by diabolical people, destroyed some of the most peaceful and noble work imaginable," Rollansky said.

Many Jews fear that one of the lasting aftereffects of the bombing will be a new wave of subtle and not-so-subtle anti-Semitism.

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