New Works Show How Volunteers in Argentina Saved Culture from Rubble

Twelve years after the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires was bombed, a new book and documentary highlight a different side of the deadly terrorist attack. Both works highlight the efforts of some 800 young people who saved cultural pieces from the building after it was bombed on July 18, 1994, killing 85 people and wounding hundreds.

After the explosion, youth of all nationalities offered their help to AMIA. In the middle of the post-bombing confusion, they met Ester Szwarc, the academic coordinator of YIVO in Argentina.

Founded in 1925 in what is today Vilnius, Lithuania, to study and preserve the Jewish life and culture, YIVO’s branch in Argentina opened in Buenos Aires in 1928.

YIVO stored a huge collection of theater posters, programs, books, paintings, photographs and manuscripts, some of it rescued from the Holocaust. Since 1945, YIVO operated on the third and fourth floors of the AMIA building. The bomb destroyed most of its highly valuable testimonies of Jewish past life.

During the rest of July 1994, when days passed by and the hope of finding lives below the rubble vanished, the youth brigade, coordinated by Szwarc, undertook the project of rescuing the cultural and ritual objects.

Despite rain and cold Southern Hemisphere winter, the volunteers worked diligently from July to December.

“It was terrible to approach the destruction, to walk cautiously picking up pieces of history, making human chains from the fourth floor to the basement to get the objects out of the brash,” said Szwarc at a recent event previewing the upcoming documentary and book.

At the event, held on the 12th anniversary, a 15-minute preview of a documentary made by YIVO with the help of Lomas de Zamora University was shown. The documentary — coordinated by the Argentine journalist Rodolfo Compte — tells the story of the dedicated group.

A book of youth testimony — also under Compte’s direction — is being published soon.

According to Compte, the book will be released in October, while the documentary is in the final editing stage.

“I knew there was no more life below the rubble. But I thought that there had to be something,” Nicolas, one of the young volunteers, says in the documentary.

As the film shows, hair driers and stoves were used to dry the book pages. The documentary also shows when a piano standing in a destroyed room was found.

At least one member of the fewer than 25 people in attendance at the recent event couldn’t hide his tears.

“I offered a Kabbalat Shabbat service the Friday following the attack, at IWO’s alternative home,” said Fabian Zaidemberg, a 39-year-old rabbi, referring to the institute’s Spanish acronym. “I recall there were several young people coming in and out. Some took off the plastic gloves which they were using to separate the cultural stuff from other remnants and used them as kipot.”

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