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Around the Jewish World: Mission and Memory Accompany Argentine Jews to Rebuilt Center

October 14, 1999
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The AMIA Jewish community center, long the heart of Jewish life here, now stands — rebuilt — as a reminder of one of the most horrendous tragedies this city has endured.

Five years ago, it was bombed and turned into rubble, killing 86 people and injuring hundreds.

Today, the 250-odd workers of AMIA are relocating their offices to their new building in the old location.

It has been less than two weeks since the new AMIA –a modern six-story building with the antiseptic feel of any new house — opened its doors. Most of the walls are still bare; some are still in need of a final coat of fresh paint. Boxes still crowd the rooms. Faces, old and new, wander in and out; the memories of other faces killed in the bombing are there as well.

Impromptu therapy sessions constantly take place in the hallways and offices.

“Coming back carries a double feeling,” says Moshe Korin, director of cultural affairs at AMIA, which offers cultural events, education, worker training, rabbinical services, social assistance for the elderly and people with disabilities, a printing press, offices and a meeting place for different Jewish organizations. “On the one hand, it’s the reminder of that horrible attack; on the other, it’s the sentiment of survival, of maintaining our idiosyncrasies, our way of life.”

The bombing was the second major anti-Semitic attack to occur in Buenos Aires in the 1990s. A 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy left 29 dead and more than 200 injured. Both bombings remain unsolved.

Reminders of the AMIM bombing begin two blocks away from the building.

There are 86 trees planted — one for every fatality — evenly spaced on a four-block-long strip. A little plaque stands on the side of each tree with a name and the date: 1994 — July 18 — 1999. They were placed there by the city government to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the bombing. Half a block away, on the intersection, there’s a message atop the street sign dedicated to the victims.

These subtle reminders pale in comparison with the emotions evoked by the approach to the building itself.

The street has a speed bump just in front of the community center that forces traffic to slow. The pavement is painted black, with writings in white, demanding justice.

Somber black signs with hand-written names of the victims on the facade, on top of candles, stand as a memorial. There’s a little door to the side that leads to a security room where a guard checks your identification as you go through a metal detector.

The building was designed with security as the main priority. As with every other Jewish institution in the city — synagogues, schools, social clubs – – there’s a barricade on the street in front of the building.

“It’s like carrying the Star of David, only we are doing this voluntarily,” Korin says.

Until the state can offer the necessary protection and assurances that limit the possibilities of another attack, community leaders say, the barricades will stay in place.

The heavy doors of the security room lead to an open plaza with a sculpture by Israeli artist Ya’acov Agam and a sign with the names of the victims and an inscription that evokes memories of the bombing.

Anita Wainstein runs the AMIA’s Mark Turkov archives. It is her job to maintain materials to ensure that people remember.

Her new office overlooks the shaft where she escaped on July 18, 1994, when the old AMIA, built in 1945, was destroyed. She says she’s not happy to return to the old site, but accepts it.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, which keeps our minds occupied,” Wainstein says. “There are a lot of new people eager to rebuild. If our neighbors, whose lives were also destroyed, were able to move on, so can we, but it’s very hard.”

The decision to move back to the original site was hard to make. One criterion was crucial: the resolve not to let the terrorists accomplish their main goal.

“The objective of those who bombed AMIA was not only to destroy the building and kill innocent people, Jews and non-Jews,” says Korin, the cultural director. “It was to achieve a paralysis of the Jewish community and our activities.”

Another deciding factor was the difficulty to find another suitable location. As soon as word spread that the AMIA was thinking of relocating to a specific site, neighbors would mobilize against them out of fear of another bombing.

Korin says neighbors have shown solidarity with AMIA, but not all Argentine Jews agree.

Tamara Scher, another survivor, says she has experienced some hostility on the street.

“Outside they look at us as if we were some strange creatures,” Scher says. “I thought it was going to be easier.”

The street has changed since AMIA last had its building here. There are more eateries than before. There is even an Arabic restaurant just a few yards away.

It is a new beginning for AMIA. There is more space to accommodate everyone, after years of being cramped in small, temporary areas. There is new hope and strength.

“But being here is traumatic, it’s painful,” Wainstein says. “We don’t really know how to define it.”

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