Three months after returning from the war with Great Britain that would prove disastrous for the Argentine Republic, Silvio Katz – a 19-year-old Argentine soldier – observed from the window of a bus in Buenos Aires a terrifying sight that would immediately recalls the horrors of combat and prejudice. In 1982, the combined forces of Argentina’s military descended on the islands due east of the South American republic, over which sovereignty had been disputed with the United Kingdom for over a century. Negotiations, threats and appeals by Argentina were unavailing for decades. Argentina and the United Kingdom could not even agree on the name of the little windswept archipelago where sheep still outnumber people. For Argentina, and the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, the islands are known as Las Malvinas – in tribute to sailors from St Malo, France, while Anglo-Saxons still insist on the name Falklands.
Initial military gains made by Argentina were to falter once the British fleet and army began to turn earnestly turn the cogs of its own war machine. British infantry and special forces, backed up by the Air Force, began punching holes in the inadequately prepared and equipped Argentine forces. The sinking of the General Belgrano, an Argentine Navy vessel carrying hundreds of shivering young recruits, would finally break the back of the Argentine military and eventually lead to the fall of a murderous military regime that ruled over Argentina’s darkest days. By 1984, democracy returned to Argentina with the election of Raul Alfonsin - leader of the Radical Party - to the presidency.
But for Silvio Katz, his struggle was more immediate but equally horrifying. It was the sight of Argentine Army Second Lieutenant Eduardo Sergio Flores Ardoino that shocked and terrified the teenaged soldier. “I pissed myself out of fear,” said Katz much later. “I didn’t even notice it at first. I was terrified. A flash of heat covered my body and when I looked, I was soaked. I was so ashamed.”
Katz’s superior officer in the Malvinas conflict, “walked down the street with his hands in his jacket.” It seemed to the young soldier that the war had never happened. “I was in Buenos Aires, the war had ended, but he still towered over me.”
What Katz found out during his service in the conflict was that the enemy he faced was composed not only of the British military. Shivering in the cold and wet in the South Atlantic, recruits like Katz had been issued clothing and boots that were designed for the hot climate of Argentina’s interior and northern provinces. Trench foot, frostbite, and pulmonary diseases were felling the poorly trained soldiers. Even so, for Katz it was even worse. Katz and fellow Jews contended with rank anti-Semitism, especially on the part of the officer corps. “Being a Jew was enough for them to double-up the punishment. We didn’t have a name or a surname. We were just ‘filthy Jews’, to all effects.”
Lieutenant Ardoino made Katz’s life a daily Calvary. “He even accused me of killing Jesus Christ. While my comrades had to suffer the punishment of having their hands immersed in ice water for a minute, they also immersed my head and stay there longer. Except for food: we had a double ration. But all of it was bad.”
Katz is now a cook in a public school, but continues to suffer from the memory of the debasing treatment received by his superior officer. “They didn’t feed us. We were hungry. So one day we went to the town and bought some food with money we had collected. Upon return, they took it from us and put us to the stake.” This was a particularly horrible and painful torture, frequently used by the Argentine military on its troops and civilian prisoners. This involved crucifying victims by tying their arms and spreading their legs on the ground.
Katz continued, “They put a hand grenade without a safety into my buddy’s mouth. When he would open his mouth, all of us jumped away.”
But for Flores, his torture of Katz was not yet at an end. “Ardoino ordered that a cooking pot filled with garbanzo beans and water be brought to him. He threw it into the latrine, put a pistol to my head and forced me to eat it.”
Then Ardoino put his pistol to the temple of another ‘shitty Jew,’ Sergio Vainroj. The officer, having pulled down the zipper of his trousers, tried to force Vainroj to give him oral sex. But the officer was frustrated in the attempt when another Jewish soldier, Claudio Szpin, interrupted, said Katz. Vainroj pulled the officer away. “Sergio was safe, but Claudio was to suffer reprisals.”
Katz also recalled Argentina’s surrender and final battle, “the only one we ever fought.” Katz said “...we were left without a commander. Only we recruits were left. We fired everywhere; we didn’t know where to run. We ended up in the village, and there was Ardoino hiding himself. He looked at us and exclaimed, ‘Soldiers, I thought I had lost you.’”
On that day, remembered Katz, “the Englishmen transferred us to a warehouse. They treated us with respect and care”. It was there that the recruits made yet another discovery of the perfidy of their own officers. “In the back (of the warehouse), we could see boxes of food heaped there. They had kept these and tried to kill us with hunger. We opened all of them and ate without stopping. I don’t ever remember eating so much.”
“Our superior officers,” recalled Katz, “tore the insignia from their uniforms that showed their rank. Anyway, we pointed them out. I believe the English knew what they had done to us, and so they were not as caring with them as they were with us.” Other reports of the time noted that officers were selling military rations to their own troops, while supplying themselves with more than adequate meals.
Argentina has the third largest Jewish community in the world, following Israel and the United States. Anti-Semitism has long been noted in Peronist, nationalist and military circles, and was particularly evident during the so-called ‘Dirty War’ in the 1970s and early 1980s as dissidents and their families were tortured and murdered, or otherwise ‘disappeared.’ Argentina has a nominally Catholic majority, but an auxiliary Catholic bishop of Cordoba, the third largest city in the country, told Spero that at most 10 percent of the population can be said to be practicing Catholics. This he defined as consisting of those Catholics who attend Mass regularly at least once per month.
Argentina also has a Protestant Christian minority, Muslims, and a small but growing number of devotees of esoteric and Afro-Latino cults. In recent years, the Argentine government provided land free of charge to the Muslim community to build a mosque near Buenos Aires. Argentina, now led by Peronist President Cristina Kirchner is marking the 20th anniversary of the disastrous war in the South Atlantic, while renewing calls to enforce its claims of sovereignty as British interests continue to make headway in exploiting the islands’ offshore petroleum and gas reserves.