December 27, 2002

An Argentine Author Who Can’t Change the Subject

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BUENOS AIRES – A funny thing happened to Uki Goñi on his way to becoming a famous Argentine author. Lately, for no reason he can figure out, when people see him, they see a Jew. Goñi, who is tall and rail-thin, with close-cut hair and a dry, somewhat droll take on human nature, is the product of a large Catholic family. The son and grandson of Argentine diplomats, he was educated at Trinity College, Dublin. Ask him if he is affiliated with Judaism in any way, and he replies ”No. Not nothing. At all.”

Still, ever since his book Perón y los Alemanes” – ”Perón and the Germans” – came out in 1998, life has taken an odd turn. ”I was being interviewed on a television program when the book came out. We were talking about Perón and the Nazis and the word ‘Jew’ had not been mentioned at any point. That book doesn’t deal with antisemitism at all. And out of nowhere, the interviewer suddenly says ‘How do you, as a Jew, feel about these issues?’ Which was very strange, because, as I said, we hadn’t even been talking about Jews. We’d been talking about Perón during the war years, his relations with Germany.”

On that television program Goñi replied simply that he was not a Jew. ”But then I realized that this was just the first time, and from then on everyone I meet either privately or when I’m being interviewed brings up the issue of the Jews.”

And so it has gone during the last few weeks, thanks to the publication of another book, this one also not about Jews. ”The Real Odessa” published in English by Granta Books and based on six years of archival work, painstakingly describes a postwar organization established by then-president Juan Domingo Perón to bring Nazis to Argentina. The book has led to invitations for Goñi to speak in front of Jewish groups and to collaborate with Jewish organizations. Granted, few non-Jews work in the field, but Goñi senses a dark element at play. ”For non-Jewish society, it is a way of off-loading a very difficult problem. I write about the Nazis, who are not supposed to be a Jewish issue but an issue that interests the enlightened world – right? Yet the people who invite me are always Jewish organizations. And I really find it very alarming.”

Meanwhile, Goñi’s social life is no longer what it once was. ”Privately, the issue always comes up with something like ‘Uyyy, the Jews! Still harping on about that!’ So I say ‘It isn’t the Jews; it’s me harping. We’re talking about Nazis here!’” Goñi shrugs, looks furtively around the café where we he is sitting with a reporter, then bursts out in slightly nervous laughter.

”The most uneasy thing is the silence that starts surrounding you when you deal with something like this,” he said. ”For example, sometimes in my groups of friends, when they start talking about the Jews, as they will, somebody appears on television and they’ll go, ‘ah, he’s Jewish.’ And suddenly they’ll all turn around and say, ‘oh, lets not talk about the Jews, because Uki’s here.’”

His family is also bewildered by the intellectual turn he has taken. In fact, they are less than thrilled. On page 33 of ”The Real Odessa” Goñi discusses a man who served at the Argentinean consulate in Bolivia in the early 1940s and who ”rigorously” applied a secret Argentinean government directive preventing the immigration of Jews. The diplomat, Santos Goñi, is the author’s grandfather.

With a small smile, Goñi says he has become ”sort of a spy,” privy to a hatred others, including members of the Jewish community, prefer not to see. In Goñi’s view, assimilating as an Argentine implies accepting a certain level of antisemitic behavior; the Jews don’t have much of a choice. It is almost the standard for national belonging. ”It is so prevalent,” he said, ”it is accepted as normal here.”

In ”The Real Odessa,” Goñi tells of being approached by a high Foreign Ministry official following the publication of his 1998 book. The official congratulated him, and then said he’d thought of a subject for a follow-up: ”You should write about the Argentine Raoul Wallenberg.” Goñi replied that he was unaware of any Argentine who might have helped Jews escape to Argentina. The official replied, ”Well, somebody let them in; there are so many of them.”

”The conducting line,” Goñi said, ”whether we’re talking about the disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s or the antisemitic bombings in the 1990s or Argentina closing its ports to the Jews in the 1930′s, the conducting line is, ‘this is difficult, so let’s not deal with it, let’s not talk about it. There is no antisemitism, the desaparecidos don’t really exist, and well, let’s forget about the fact that they blew up 126 people here just a few years ago.’

”It is difficult to say, and difficult for people to accept, but I have to say I myself am antisemitic, just because of the upbringing that I had, just because it forms so much part of the society that I’ve lived in,” he said. ”If I don’t say it in the same way somebody would else says ‘I’m an alcoholic,’ then I live in the other situation, which is denying that there is any antisemitism in Argentina. Which, until very recently, I still believed.”

After a life following his father’s diplomatic assignments, Goñi arrived in Argentina in the mid-1970s with a British girlfriend in tow. The girlfriend had an aunt, a survivor of Auschwitz, living in Buenos Aires, and the young couple went to see her one afternoon for tea. The aunt’s tattoo of her concentration camp number was visible and conversation, at one point, turned to Hitler. The young Goñi, fresh from Europe, said, ”Well, Hitler built the autobahns, he wasn’t all bad. – ”I actually said this,” he told the Forward. – The aunt remained calm. ”She said, ‘you’re a young man, and though you might not realize it now, one day you will realize the enormity of what you are saying.’ And I immediately realized what an absolute idiot I was.”

Today, he is unforgiving. Antisemitism, never much of a preoccupation before, has become for him the litmus test of whether Argentina can be a transparent, democratic society or not. ”If it can’t deal with the issue of antisemitism here, which is pervasive, then we can’t pass the test of a transparent democratic society, full stop.”