July 15, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD
Even 26 years later, Gustavo Rymberg can’t forget the shock of the morning in 1994 when Jewish life in Argentina changed forever.
It was July 18, winter in the southern hemisphere, and Rymberg was working in his Buenos Aires office, meeting with a colleague on a graphic design project.
The telephone rang. It was a friend with the devastating news that a terrorist had just driven a truck full of explosives into the Jewish community headquarters three blocks away.
“That was something that changed Jewish life in Argentina forever,” Rymberg recalled in an interview with the CJR ahead of a B’nai Brith commemoration of the attack set for tomorrow evening (July 16).
“It was one of the worst chapters in Argentine history,” he said. “It’s something for which the country has never given us answers or justice.
“For some reason, the government will not make an explanation for this or tell us the truth,” he said.
The attack on the seven-storey headquarters of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (Argentina-Israel Mutual Association, or AMIA) killed 85 people and injured as many as 300 more.
No one was ever arrested in what remains the deadliest antisemitic attack in Argentina’s modern history. It is widely believed to have been carried out by terrorists linked to Iran and Argentina’s then president, Carlos Menem, who is of Syrian descent. One prosecutor who tried to investigate the incident was murdered during his probe.
Beyond the carnage, however, Rymberg and many of the country’s Jews saw it as an attack on the heart of their community.
The AMIA building, he said, housed all of Jewish Argentina’s major organizations, as well as a theatre, library, and job bank. It was where Jews went to arrange a funeral, and it housed the precious records of 100 years of Jewish life in the country.
“Every Jewish person in Argentina had to go to AMIA for something,” Rymberg said. “Suddenly, you started to be very careful about everything. Children going to school now had to go through security like at an airport.”
While Argentine antisemitism had never been openly acknowledged – until the AMIA attack, the worst event was a 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 civilians – the aftermath of the attack brought fundamental changes to Jewish life, starting with a communal obsession with security.
“Suddenly you felt like you were living behind walls,” Rymberg recalled. “For a lot of young families that was the point where they started to think there was nothing for them in Argentina.”
Even a quickly-organized show of solidarity with the Jewish community, dubbed the March of the Umbrellas because it was carried out in the rain, failed to ease that new feeling of fear and uncertainty.
“Hundreds of thousands of people were marching in the rain to remember the victims,” Rymberg recalled. “It was something we never expected to experience.”
The Rymberg family’s own decision to leave the country of its birth, something members had been considering in the face of a poor economy and rampant corruption, was cemented by the event.
One of the final nails was news media coverage of the attack, especially one television story that reported 85 Jews, and many “innocent people,” had died.
“To hear someone saying Jews and ‘innocent people’ is something I will never forget,” he said. “All of those things came together to push us out.”
In 1997 Rymberg, his wife Marisa, and their two young daughters, became one of the first families brought to Canada by the Jewish community of Winnipeg through its Grow Winnipeg initiative.
In a new country, he embarked on a new career as a Jewish community leader, serving in Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto, and finally taking over as CEO of the Hamilton Jewish Federation in 2017.
B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights’ commemoration will be held online Thursday at 7 p.m. To join, go to: https://www.bnaibrith.ca/amia.