An Israeli committee has begun hearing testimony about some 2,000 Jews abducted during Argentina’s infamous military dictatorship of the 1970s.
Argentina will this year mark the 25th anniversary of a coup that led to a seven-year military junta. During the dictatorship’s reign of terror, some 30,000 Argentineans – “the disappeared” – were abducted, imprisoned or murdered between 1976 and 1983.
Last week, the Israeli panel began hearing testimony from people who were imprisoned by Argentina’s military regime and who were released with the help of the Israeli government, as well as from relatives of those who disappeared.
Among those who testified at the Foreign Ministry was Pinhas Sela, who was a widower raising his three teen-aged sons in Argentina when the military regime came to power in 1976.
In a trembling voice, Sela recounted the phone call he received from his eldest son, Gabriel, then a high school student, on July 8, 1977.
Gabriel informed him that police had raided a place where he was meeting with friends. Gabriel managed to flee, but his coat – along with his identity card – was left behind.
“Since I knew how the police worked and I understood the scope of the risk, I asked my middle son, Jose, to leave the house and go to his grandmother’s,” Sela testified in a mix of Spanish and Hebrew. “I remained with my youngest in the house. I knew I had not done anything and had nothing to fear from the police.”
Still, police came to the house and arrested Sela and his youngest son. They later detained Jose at his grandmother’s house.
“They covered my eyes and took me somewhere where they held me for several hours. They beat me and tortured me, also with electric shock,” Sela said.
“My youngest son was held in a room next door. When they released us and we returned home, I got a phone call from Jose. He spoke anxiously and said he had been detained, and that they told him if Gabriel does not turn himself in, he will never see the light of day,” Sela said. “Since then, and to this day, I have not heard anything from Jose.”
Several months later, after Sela was arrested again, he decided to leave Argentina with his youngest son and return to Israel, where he had lived for a time after immigrating in 1950. His eldest son, Gabriel, now lives in Spain.
The Israeli committee – which includes officials from the foreign and justice ministries, representatives of the families and experts on the disappearances – was formed eight months ago by the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee to investigate the fate of Jews who disappeared under the junta.
The panel spent months gathering written testimony before beginning public hearings last week.
The head of the committee, the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director general for Latin America and the Caribbean, Pinhas Avivi, told JTA the panel has three goals.
“To try to bring the remains of those Jews who disappeared and were killed for burial in Israel, to locate Jewish children who were born in captivity and adopted by Argentine families, and to publish all the material gathered as a piece of research, a remembrance to the disappeared,” he said.
According to Avivi, officials know of some 20 cases of Jewish women who were arrested and gave birth in prison.
Avivi said the children, who were later adopted by Argentine families, “have a right to know” their background.
The hearings also are expected to touch on the feelings of some of the Argentine families that Israel at the time did not do enough to help the Jewish community there. In his testimony, Sela said he sought help from the Israeli Embassy, but was refused.
Avivi said the committee plans to travel to Argentina to gather information.
He estimated it will take another six to nine months before the committee issues its findings.