CLAREMONT, Calif. – Moriah Engelberg, a Jewish-American studying abroad in Buenos Aires last fall, used to walk from her home in an old Catholic convent to the neighboring Orthodox Jewish community.

“You would walk not that far and see a bunch of Hasidic families, quite a few signs in Hebrew, synagogues and kosher food,” she recalled. “But then there was also swastika graffiti …”

Although she had experienced hostility and prejudice in the U.S., she was astounded to witness blatant anti-Semitism abroad. In the U.S., swastika graffiti was quickly cleaned and slurs were quickly silenced. “I thought the period of those comments were over and it was not going to be anything that I would have to think about again,” said Engelberg.

The symbols of observant Judaism juxtaposed with icons of the violent regime of Nazi Germany highlight the deep conflicting ideologies that exist within Argentina. Argentina welcomed both alleged Nazis and Jewish refugees when the U.S. and other countries closed their doors to refugees and immigrants.

An American Studies major, Engelberg studied Spanish during a semester away from Pitzer College. She chose to study in Argentina because she liked the idea of a big city and her relatives fled there during World War II.

Growing up, Engelberg lived in four different U.S. states and offered comparisons between them and Argentina. In New York, she remembered exclusion from peers’ clubs because of her Jewish heritage. She labeled Portland, Oregon a “strange community” with instances of subtle prejudice. Her communities in New Jersey and California were predominantly Jewish.

“Jews in America … wanted to assimilate and hide (their) culture and heritage and assimilate into white America,” Engelberg said. Her explanation evoked her American Studies concentration, and alluded to the shift from the popular perspective of Jews as non-white to seeing them as white.

After she arrived in Argentina, Engelberg confronted startling questions about her Jewishness. “We have never met a Jewish person. You do not really look Jewish. Where are your horns?” asked two girls, mimicking with their fingers. Engelberg rationalized their questions as genuine curiosity, but her tone suggested deep offense.

Engelberg’s experiences in Argentina reflected the unique dynamic that occurred when Argentina opened its borders for Nazis and Jews alike to take refuge — from each other.

On her walks throughout the capital, she found what she described as “these pockets of people who stuck together and created their own communities. There was not any intermixing or intermingling.” The Buenos Aires landscape remained divided, with the Jewish community remaining largely unassimilated.

After World War II, Nazis escaped international tribunals held in Germany and Israel. Adolf Eichmann, the organizer of mass deportations of Jews during the Holocaust, evaded trial by living in exile in Argentina. He remained there for more than a decade before being captured by Israeli agents and returned to Israel and a death sentence.

Jewish refugees escaped persecution in Europe by emigrating to Argentina. “It was easier to get a visa [for Argentina] than New York. … It was how immigration systems work. They needed people for the economy,” Engelberg said.

The lingering effects of these two groups’ migration to Argentina continues. In July 1994, a suicide bomber drove a van into a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and injured hundreds more. The New York Times labeled it “one of the deadliest anti-Semitic attacks since World War II.”

At the same Jewish community center 23 years later, Engelberg attended prayer services for the Jewish holy days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. There were only 25 attendees in a room set up with more than 100 chairs at the most important religious event of the year. Walking in, Engelberg noticed security guarding the building. “The attack definitely created a lot of fear in the community,” she recalled.

Inevitably, the fear of violence reinforced self-segregation. Inherited ideas of religion and culture persisted amid generations of Jews and members of the Nazi Party coexisting in the same country, alongside a large Catholic population.

“[The Jews] didn’t want to take away their identity and be corrupted by Catholicism and the Catholics didn’t want to have the strange Jews,” Engelberg said.

She lived amid coexisting Jewish and Nazi presences, which transplanted anti-Jew sentiments from Germany to Argentina, further ostracizing the Jewish community and perpetuating anti-Semitic actions.

The intense segregation and wrenching historical conflict between the communities left her with an unforgettable sentiment: Argentina, she says, “has such separate pockets of Jewish culture.”

(Written by Rachel Bolton; Feb. 10, 2017)

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