The sudden death on January 18 of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, shot in the head at close range just hours before he was to have offered damning testimony against President Christina Fernández de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, is the latest twist in a long-running mass-murder mystery. The saga began on July 18, 1994, when a white Renault van loaded with explosives slammed into the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building on Pasteur Street in the center of the city. The blast leveled the seven-story building, killing 85 and injuring more than 300. It came just two years after the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires was bombed, with 29 killed. Immediate suspicion fell on Iran, accused of working through Hezbollah with local contacts. But in the decades since, presidents have come and gone, investigation after investigation has taken place, yet nobody has ever been convicted. Justice has never been served.
Argentina’s Jewish community, centered in Buenos Aires, numbers around 250,000 people. It is mostly made up of the children and grandchildren of Jews who fled the pogroms and economic hardships of Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century, or those who came two generations later, as the Nazis rose to and fell from power in Europe. Argentina, in the minds of those early Jewish immigrants, was a faraway land, a place so exotic and distant from the ones they were leaving that they could begin their lives anew. Even today Buenos Aires feels isolated; it is an 11-hour plane ride to New York, even further to Europe and Israel. World events always seemed to happen elsewhere.
Until the AMIA bombing.
“It was a shock for all of us here,” explains Karina Falkon, a psychologist who lives in Buenos Aires. “It showed us how connected we were to the rest of the Jewish world. They showed everyone that when they want to hurt us, they can do it here, too.”
Falkon had lived in Israel in the early 1990s, so she recognized the sound she heard on that July morning as an explosion. She and friends ran to the site to see how they could help. “At night we tried to save the books from the building—the police officially didn’t let us, but we were collecting them so that they could somehow get preserved.”
AMIA is the umbrella for all Jewish organizations in Argentina, and the blast brought devastation to nearly every segment of the Jewish community, from secular to religious. All who were old enough remember where they were that day.
Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt has headed Chabad-Lubavitch of Argentina since 1978. Chabad, a Hasidic Jewish outreach organization with over 4,000 representatives all over the world, is one of the largest Jewish groups in Argentina, with more than 52 centers, including schools, synagogues, and social service organizations spread throughout the country. Its headquarters on Aguero Street is less than two kilometers from the AMIA building.
“I was here in my house,” Grunblatt recalls of that day. “I had just arrived back from New York. I went to pray in the morning and then I got back home and I went to lie down because I was exhausted after traveling. I woke up when I heard the bomb.”
With memories of the Israeli embassy attack still fresh, Grunblatt called his office at Chabad headquarters to find out what happened. “They told me, ‘The building of AMIA does not exist anymore. There was an explosion and the building just disappeared.’
“Everyone was affected. A member of my community’s mother was killed. Another member was passing through the building to pay for his father’s gravestone—his father passed away earlier that month—he was paying for the gravestone and got killed. We have a young man whose father worked as security there, he was also killed. It was a great hit for the entire community.”
“We were all there digging for days,” adds Grunblatt’s wife, Shterna. “It was just devastating.”
Today, concrete security barriers guard every Jewish center in Buenos Aires. They all have security guards as well, with the higher-profile centers employing Israeli-trained professionals.
The rebuilt AMIA building—which also houses the offices of DAIA, Argentine Jewry’s political umbrella organization—is an impregnable fortress, a monument to the precautions the Jewish community has been forced to take since the attack. Set far back from the bustling street, the front entrance to the compound is a single, nondescript steel door in a protective wall. Peering through dark sunglasses, two Israeli security guards monitor and question each person going in or out.