the death squad survivors'

high school reunion


Buenos Aires, Argentina

The future class of 1973 in a picture taken in 1968.

Revolution Was One of Their 3 Rs

 

* The Class of '73 at Buenos Aires' El Colegio came of age amid idealism and turmoil, losing classmates to Argentina's 'dirty war.'

  

BUENOS AIRES -- At their 30-year reunion, the survivors of the Class of 1973 walked up the stone steps of their old campus and remembered their first day in school, and all the improbable, funny and unbearably tragic things that happened afterward.

 

They remembered listening to the rector read a list of the famous alumni of El Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires National High School), a roster of presidents, novelists and Nobel Prize winners so intimidating it made them laugh.

 

They remembered their Latin teacher, who sneaked in subversive messages between verb conjugations, and they remembered their truncated graduation ceremony, where they decided in a fit of self-righteousness that they would break with tradition and not throw eggs.

 

They remembered the photograph of classmate Pablo Lepiscopo taken by his torturers, weeks or days before he was killed. And they remembered Eduardo Bekerman, arguably the brightest kid in their class and the first to fall into the hands of the clandestine executioners who terrorized Argentina for a decade.

 

But most of all, the members of the Class of 1973 celebrated the fact that they had survived at all. Theirs is a generation devastated by the "dirty war" waged by right-wing death squads and a military junta against "subversives" in the 1970s and '80s, virtually wiping out the nation's intellectuals and leftist activists.

 

An estimated 10,000 people were killed and many more driven into exile.

 

"I will not say we are a 'lost generation,' because after all, we are here," Hugo Dvoskin said in his speech to 100 alumni gathered inside the school's main auditorium. "But yes, we are a mutilated generation that will always be haunted by the unfathomable question of 'what might have been.' "

 

In all, at least 104 alumni and students of El Colegio -- the nation's oldest and most famous high school -- were killed during the years of political violence. Among the 350 members of the Class of 1973, a dozen "were disappeared," an Argentine coinage that describes extrajudicial kidnapping, executions and burials. A hundred more went into exile.

 

Every year, El Colegio's alumni gather at a monument to the disappeared on the campus and read the names of the young women and men they knew.

 

In reunions past, most exiles of the Class of 1973 stayed away: The trip back is too long, the memories too painful. But this year, exactly two decades after the country's last military dictatorship crumbled, more were persuaded to return.

 

Like people at high school reunions everywhere, they spent long hours catching up on family news and professional accomplishments. But it was almost impossible, even in the most lighthearted moments, to escape the sense of loss.

 

Now graying versions of their younger selves, the survivors encountered old friends. Dvoskin, who stayed in Buenos Aires and became a psychoanalyst, embraced Cecilia Schiavi, who lost a young husband to the repression, becoming both a widow and a mother at age 20.

 

"Cecilia, how are you?" he said.

 

"I am alive," she answered.

 

'Mission: Impossible'

 

Step through the neo-Baroque facade of El Colegio, and you feel you are entering a grand and elegant Old World mansion. The building was designed in the monumental style of the Paris Opera, and its auditorium is a kind of fin de siecle lecture hall.

 

"For a boy or girl of 13, it was just too much," Schiavi said of her first days at the campus in 1968. Her father was a doctor and her mother a geography teacher, but nothing had prepared her for El Colegio's rarefied atmosphere. "You felt like you were nothing there."

 

For others, the classrooms and hallways of El Colegio were an expected rite of passage. Many were, like Pablo Lepiscopo, the middle-class sons and daughters of the Buenos Aires intelligentsia.

 

Going to El Colegio, Gladys Lepiscopo said, was a natural continuation of the progressive values to which her son Pablo had been exposed as a child. Even before joining the school, Pablo did volunteer work in the slums of Buenos Aires. One winter night when he was 12 or so, he came back without his new sweater.

 

"I got angry with him," Gladys recalled. "But he told me, 'Mother, if you had seen what those people had to wear against the cold, you would have given them your sweater too.' "

 

Like many of his generation, young Pablo believed that he was living the dawn of a new, more democratic and egalitarian society.

 

Just a few months before the Class of 1973 entered El Colegio, Ernesto "Che" Guevara died in October 1967 in Bolivia leading a band of guerrillas against U.S.-trained counter-insurgency troops. Overnight, "El Che" became a symbol of youthful martyrdom. From Paris to Berkeley, throngs of students were proclaiming "people power."

 

The news of these far-flung events was like a drug to the educated youth of Argentina, where a handful of leftist guerrilla groups were waging war against the military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Ongania.

 

One student, Gloria Kehoe, soon latched on to the guerrilla craze. A picture from her first days at school shows a grinning girl with round, baby-fat cheeks. At 14, she started doing laps around her neighborhood park, walking briskly around the swings and slides where she had played as a girl.

 

"She said she was in training to become a guerrilla," one friend recalled. "She believed fervently in the image of Che."

 

In imitation of their hero, the radical students of El Colegio became ascetics, eschewing "frivolous" activities like drinking, dancing and that all-consuming Argentine passion, soccer. "We are a generation that doesn't know how to dance," alumnus Ariel Neuhaus said. Instead of the usual teen vices, the students embraced the mystique of "revolutionary violence." Hugo Dvoskin remembers plotting to set off an explosive device in the auditorium -- not a real bomb but more of a big firecracker that would fill the room with revolutionary leaflets when it blew up.

 

"Our fantasy was to do this in the middle of an important assembly," Dvoskin said. "No one would be hurt, but we thought of it as a 'military' act."

 

It was all a kind of kids' game, he said, in imitation of an American television show then popular in Argentina, "Mission: Impossible." With teenage ingenuousness, they thought that a tiny band of secret agents could bring down Argentina's government.

 

In this fantasy, students like Lepiscopo and Bekerman were cast in the role of the show's Agent Phelps character: They were to be the leaders whose daring and intelligence made "the impossible, possible."

 

Even today, classmates speak of Bekerman, especially, in awestruck tones. Neuhaus remembered sitting next to him during an art history test as "the Grime" (a nickname derived from Bekerman's frenetic and "Pig Pen"-like persona) filled his essay book with impossibly long answers.

 

"He would write page after page with this small, indecipherable handwriting of his," Neuhaus said. It turned out that Bekerman was padding his essays with nonsensical poems: He had figured out that the teachers were grading him on his reputation, not bothering to read his answers. "When we got our tests back, he got a 10," a perfect score, Neuhaus said.

 

In El Colegio, intellectual prowess and cultural literacy made you cool. The students spent their free time watching Fellini and Bergman films or going to plays and engaging the actors in post-performance debates.

 

But a sense of foreboding was growing in the country, despite a period of openness that followed Ongania's ouster in 1970. In the outside world, shadowy right-wing groups were issuing death threats.

 

Neuhaus remembered going to a demonstration and seeing a group of El Colegio students preparing what looked like Molotov cocktails. "It was a little scary for me, and after that, I decided not to participate anymore," Neuhaus recalled.

 

He was only 17 but had taken the first in a series of decisions that probably saved his life.

 

A few months later, debate raged about whether the graduating Class of 1973 should go ahead with the "Olympic lap" around the campus during which seniors were allowed to trash the school with eggs.

 

For the first time, most of the graduating students decided not to participate, Schiavi said. "We decided it wasn't right to throw eggs when people were dying of hunger."

 

Outside the school, in the streets of Buenos Aires, the demonstrations continued.

 

In the last months of their final year, Pablo Lepiscopo organized a protest one night outside an American car dealership.

 

"He had a kind of light brown hair, very thick, very beautiful hair," remembered Guillermo Nojechowicz, a Colegio alumnus and musician. "I looked at him with admiration. He gave us some instructions: 'Stay here and then come when the rest of us start marching.' It was raining, and I remember the reflection of the lights on the wet street.

 

"That's the last image I have of him."

 

'Not a Game Anymore'

 

In December 1973, they spilled down the stone steps of El Colegio for the last time. They were Argentina's best and brightest, and carried themselves with the swagger of 18-year-old know-it-alls and dreamers.

 

Eight months later, Eduardo Bekerman was dead. He was by then a leader of the Union of Secondary Students and had just finished attending a meeting with two other former El Colegio students. Bekerman and a friend were shot and killed by men who identified themselves as policemen. A companion survived the executions. Bekerman's body was found dumped on a street.

 

His coffin was brought to lie in El Colegio's courtyard.

 

"We were devastated and also deeply confused," said Susana Oxer, who had been his girlfriend. "None of us imagined that we could be killed for what we were doing."

 

Another 1973 alumnus, Horacio Garcia Gastelu, wrote a surrealist poem on the occasion of Bekerman's death. "I hope not to lose your green eyes," read one line.

 

Garcia Gastelu was one of hundreds at the memorial service. Ariel Neuhaus, however, did not attend, even though he desperately wanted to pay tribute.

 

"I had a friend who told me: 'If I were you, I wouldn't go. There will be agents there, taking pictures of everyone.' " Neuhaus chose the cautious route. He wanted to live.

 

Others found themselves slipping deeper into a game that wasn't a game anymore.

 

With Bekerman's death, Claudio Slemenson, another 1973 graduate, had lost his best friend. As a 13-year-old, he had been a devoted rock 'n' roll drummer until Bekerman helped convert him to the revolution.

 

"He felt that if we didn't continue [as activists], it would be a betrayal to Eduardo," Adriana Slemenson said, remembering one of the last conversations she had with her twin brother.

 

In October 1975, Slemenson was detained while attending a barbecue with other student leaders in provincial Tucuman.

 

His parents set off from Buenos Aires to look for him. The police in Tucuman said he had not been arrested. The army said they had not captured him.

 

He was simply gone.

 

"We would go to the churches to ask for help and they would tell us it all had to be a mistake, that he was probably hiding someplace," Adriana remembered. "No one knew what it meant to be disappeared."

 

After a military coup in March 1976 that brought down the government of Isabel Peron, the number of disappearances increased exponentially. In speeches, members of the junta promised national renewal but secretly deployed "task forces" to kidnap and execute dissidents.

 

Those who had been activists went into hiding. Old friends who ran into one another on the street didn't know whether it was safe to say hello.

 

Garcia Gastelu, who had written the poem to Eduardo Bekerman, disappeared in August 1976: He had been drafted into the navy and was on leave when he was kidnapped from his home with his girlfriend. Neither was seen again.

 

Gloria Kehoe, the youngster smitten with the guerrillas, had begun a promising career as a short story writer. Having given up political activity after the coup, she didn't bother to go into hiding. In 1977, she too was disappeared.

 

Young people with bright futures, destined to become somebodies, they were, to their interrogators and torturers, just nobodies to be annihilated. "You don't exist. You're no one," was a phrase repeated often in the torture chambers.

 

Too late the idealists of El Colegio realized that their revolution might unleash such ruthlessness.

 

"It never occurred to us that the enemy would fight back with every means at its disposal," Dvoskin said, "that it would use torture, that it would disappear people."

 

Through all this, Pablo Lepiscopo lived a kind of dual life. He earned money driving a taxi but was also an underground militant.

 

"We tried to persuade him to leave the country," his mother recalled. A picture of a smiling Pablo with his parents and girlfriend on their last family vacation figures prominently in the collage his mother assembled after she resigned herself to his death. "This is the last picture in which we are all happy," she said.

 

On Aug. 5, 1979, after having dinner with his parents in middle-class, suburban San Isidro, Pablo was driving home with his girlfriend when they were stopped and detained.

 

His girlfriend was quickly released. Gladys Lepiscopo did not know it then, but her son was taken to the Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, a notorious concentration camp.

 

When Gladys went to the authorities to inquire about her son, they said there was no record of him being held anywhere.

 

But in December, three months after his detention, she received a phone call: It was Pablo.

 

"Do you have a blanket?" she asked. "Are you cold at night?" To all her questions, Pablo gave monosyllabic answers. "It was clear he was speaking with a gun to his head," she said. He called about once a week until February 1981, when the calls stopped.

 

After the dirty war ended with Argentina's return to democracy in 1983, a survivor of the concentration camp -- a prisoner who was forced to work as a photographer -- smuggled out dozens of pictures of people held there. In one, a bearded Pablo Lepiscopo squints back at the camera.

 

Sometime after the picture was taken, Pablo was executed. His body was never found.

 

"Our family was devastated," Gladys said. Her younger son went into exile and has kept his vow never to return to Argentina, struggling for many years at menial jobs in Spain.

 

"Of all my children, Pablo is the only one who chose his fate," she said.

 

Contacting the Exiles

 

The effort to bring the exiles back for the 30-year reunion began on the Internet, with a flurry of messages from this South American capital to Spain, Israel, California and other places.

 

"In exile, there are basically two kinds of people," said Alberto Grinberg, who lives in Barcelona, Spain. "There's those of us who have a lot of nostalgia for Argentina, and there are those who have said, 'I'm closing the blinds, that part of my life is over, I'm never going back.' "

 

Grinberg came to spend a few hours with his old friends, to look at black-and-white photographs of themselves lined up in neat rows. So did his wife, Susana Oxer, once Eduardo Bekerman's girlfriend and now a doctor.

 

The tragedy of the dirty war was the defining element of their lives, Oxer said. Some were spiritually broken, others embittered, the idealistic impulses of their youths silenced forever.

 

"We were adolescents, and from one day to the next we had to confront these things of adult life," Oxer said. "Some of us were already on the way to becoming widows, and we were still just kids. It wasn't easy to adapt to an adult life, to a supposedly normal life."

 

Those who went to Europe and the U.S. faced the hardships common to immigrants. They have children who are growing up more French, American and Spanish than Argentine.

 

Alumnus Jose Iujvidin, who left Buenos Aires the day after his wedding in 1981, came back for the reunion but says he will never live in Buenos Aires again. In Los Angeles, after many adventures, he became an architect. This year, he became a U.S. citizen -- at the insistence of his American-born children. The ballot he cast in California's recall election was his first.

 

Iujvidin still feels a sense of imminent danger in Argentina. Political violence, he says, "is like a cancer that's gone into remission. You can't be certain the disease won't come back someday."

 

Ariel Neuhaus, who took the cautious route during the dirty war, is also an architect. Successful at business, he lives in an expansive home in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. At the reunion, many old friends didn't recognize him at first. His thick mop of reddish-brown hair is gone, replaced by a close-cropped, mostly bald pate.

 

"It's a curious thing, but most of the people who weren't very political then are now the most enthusiastic about politics and organizing," Neuhaus said.

 

Marcelo Koremblit stayed in Argentina and, like many others, has suffered through the roller coaster of the country's most recent crises of economic collapse and bank crashes. He wonders whether his country would be as troubled if the Bekermans and Lepiscopos of their generation were still among them.

 

"You have to ask yourself, what country did they [the leaders of the military regime] think they were producing by killing these young people?" said Koremblit, now 48, as are most of the '73 alumni. "What sort of legacy did they think they were leaving us?"

 

Mindful of the old divisions between those who embraced politics and those who did not, Dvoskin did not begin his reunion speech with the salutation that opened student addresses at El Colegio back in their glory days -- companeros, a Spanish synonym for "comrades."

 

Instead, he began with the more neutral "amigos."

 

Later, he led his classmates in singing "The Dinosaurs" by the Argentine rocker Charly Garcia, a 1983 protest song. Like the dinosaurs, the junta that had disappeared so many became extinct itself.

 

"Those who are in the street can disappear on the street

 

Your friends from the barrio can disappear

 

But the dinosaurs will disappear."

 

The proceedings eventually shifted to a nearby restaurant. The survivors of the Class of 1973, like people in reunions elsewhere, decided to party late into the night.

 

Some even tried dancing.

 

Gladys Lepiscopo holds a collage of pictures of her son Pablo, a member of the Class of 1973 who disappeared in Argentina's "Dirty War."