January 13, 2019: A pogrom in Buenos Aires (The Tragic Week)
This past week marked the 100th anniversary of the Tragic Week (La Semana Trágica) in Buenos Aires, a week of workers’ strikes in which police repression caused as many as 1,365 deaths, of which 700 were Eastern European Jews.
This past Monday, January 7th, I attended a commemorative event in the Plaza Martín Fierro (in the neighborhood of San Cristobal). One hundred years ago the plaza was the location of Vasena Workshops, a metal works factory. On December 2nd, 1918, after Alfredo Vasena, one of the owners refused to meet with union representatives to negotiate wages and working conditions, the union declared a strike. Over the course of the next month, the union managed to build support for its cause from neighbors and other unions such as the port workers who refused to deliver materials to Vasena Workshops. Tensions grew and there were a number of relatively small violent events between strikers and strike breakers. By January 3, the police who supported the owners and were arming the strike breakers, participated in a shootout in front of the local union hall in which three neighbors were gravely wounded: Flora Santos, and Juan Balestrassi and Vicente Velatti who were playing bocce ball at the time.
On Tuesday, January 7th, at approximately 3:30 in the afternoon, more than one hundred police showed up in front of the union hall, armed with Mauser rifles, and backed by strike breakers armed with Winchesters, including Emilio Vasena, one of the owners. During almost two hours they fired over 2,000 rounds, some of them taking aim from the rooftop of a nearby public school. Five people, none of whom were employees of Vasena, were killed, and another thirty were wounded. This ambush marked the beginning of the Tragic Week massacres.
One hundred years later to the day, I stood with over 500 people listening to various speakers talk about this history, and what it means today. One of the speakers was Flora Wald, the daughter of Pinie Wald, a worker, socialist, journalist and Jewish immigrant, who was a witness to the massacres and wrote a non-fiction novel in Yiddish about the repression, focusing on the pogrom that took place starting on January 10th in the Jewish neighborhood of Once. The book, entitled Koshmar (Nightmare), recounts the details of how the government supported and armed “the white terror” – private gangs of citizens like the nationalist, anti-communist Argentine Patriotic League – to go into the Jewish neighborhoods and rape, murder and pillage. To this day people in Argentina know the meaning of the term “¡Yo, Argentino!” (“Me, Argentine!”): begging for mercy, Jewish immigrants who were still learning Spanish cried these words to proclaim their allegiance to their new homeland, and distance themselves from the accusations that they were really Russian communists.
In his book, Pinie Wald wrote, “They would arrest a Jew and, after beating him a bit, blood would gush from his mouth. In that state, they would order him to sing the Argentine National Anthem. If he couldn’t, they would kill him on the spot.”
Pinie Wald, born in Tomaschov, Poland in 1886, was writing for Der Avangard (Avantgarde), a monthly magazine in Yiddish for workers in the Jewish community, at the time of the Tragic Week. He was arrested during the pogrom and tortured in jail. At the commemoration event earlier this week, his daughter Flora said, “My father said that he learned two things from his experience in jail: how far a person could go in withstanding torture, and how far another person could go in torturing others.”