Yom HaShoah: Latin American Perspectives – by Alejandro Meter

Alejandro Meter is an Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of San Diego. He is serving as Guest Editor of TBI’s Freedom of Expression Blog for the week of 4/24 to 4/28, with posts examining the history and memory of the Holocaust in Latin America. 

A group photo of children and teachers of the Jewish Yiddish school in Lanus, Argentina. Photo from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Around the world this week, we observe the internationally recognized date for Holocaust Remembrance Day or Yom HaShoah, which corresponds with the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar, a day that marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. When the Trans-Border Institute invited me to serve as guest editor for their Freedom of Expression Project, a blog dedicated to bringing to the public’s attention key aspects of the Latin American experience, I thought of the task as both a challenge and as an opportunity, since most commemorations and anniversaries related to the Holocaust usually omit mention of the important role played by many Latin Americans during that period.

One of the pivotal moments in Holocaust historiography occurred precisely in Latin America, when on May 11, 1960 Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust who oversaw the implementation of the so-called “Final Solution”, was captured in a Buenos Aires suburb of Argentina. His trial in Israel the following year became a major watershed moment in postwar WWII history that would help cast new light on the Nazi genocide of the Jews. While many Nazis and collaborators did in fact escape to countries like Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Paraguay (Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, Klaus Barbie and Erich Priebke, to mention just but a few), often with the help of the Vatican and the Red Cross, the countries that received them also counted amongst them vibrant, intellectual responses to Nazism and the Holocaust.

In her ground-breaking book: On the Edge of the Holocaust: The Shoah in Latin American Literature and Culture, Edna Aizenberg helps correct the distorted view of Latin America as a magnet for Nazis and collaborators and shows the ways in which writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Alberto Gerchunoff (Argentina), João Guimaraes Rosa, Clarice Lispector (Brazil), and Gabriela Mistral (Chile), among others, engaged with the horrific information that reached them regarding the Holocaust, in spite, in many cases, of their own government’s sympathy for, and collaboration with, the Nazis and their allies.

Yet, there are other myths that revolve around Nazism and its refugees. In Mexico, for instance, the government helped shaped an image of a nation that welcomed immigrants and refugees, especially during the Holocaust. In her Unwelcome Exiles: Mexico and the Jewish Refugees from Nazism, 1933–1945, Daniela Gleizer challenges these assumptions by unearthing the history of how the Mexican government closed its doors to Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Nazi persecution. Gleizer, who presented her book at USD in March, 2014, shows the ways in which Mexican administration’s policies sought to preserve mestizaje by turning away foreigners considered “inassimilable” and “undesirable”.

In Latin America’s Southern Cone, the memory of the Shoah has been kept alive through various forms of cultural production, including literature, film, and the plastic arts. The violent repression that resulted from Argentina’s last military dictatorship (1976-1983) opened up new ways to examine the legacy of the Holocaust. In her novel, Daughter of Silence, Manuela Fingueret tells the story of Rita, a daughter of a Holocaust survivor who is kidnaped and tortured at the ESMA (Escuela de Mécánica de la Armada), and whose experience at the notorious detention center begins to resemble the pain endured by her mother in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, in the Czech Republic.

Yom HaShoah is an opportunity for us to remember and engage with our past. But in order to ensure that “Never Again” does not become a hollow expression we must not remain silent, we cannot afford to become mere spectators or bystanders. Yom HaShoah is therefore more than a day of remembrance; it is a call to action. To fight injustice, hatred, and genocide we cannot become indifferent to the suffering of others; whether in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, or Syria.

Throughout the week, in observance of the Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust, we are going to read an interview with a Latin American Holocaust survivor; a translation of a newspaper article on the value of Holocaust education, and an Argentinean cartoonist shares an original vignette that reflects the interplay between history and memory.

Works Cited.
Aizenberg, Edna. On the Edge of the Holocaust: The Shoah in Latin American Literature and Culture. Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2016.

Fingueret, Manuela. Daughter of Silence. (Translated by Darrell Lockhart). Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2012.

Gleizer, Daniela. Unwelcome Exiles: Mexico and the Jewish Refugees from Nazism, 1933–1945. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2014.

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

One thought on “Yom HaShoah: Latin American Perspectives – by Alejandro Meter

  1. This is very inspiring. I enjoyed reading this blog post, especially since I can relate to the theme and to the books mentioned (Fingueret and Aizenberg). I really liked this sentence: “But in order to ensure that “Never Again” does not become a hollow expression we must not remain silent, we cannot afford to become mere spectators or bystanders. ” It reminded me of Elie Wiesel’s quote, “What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.” These two sentences are saying the same thing; that we should never become bystanders and accomplices of those who oppress in order to prevent more Holocausts to happen again.

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