From Holocaust survivor to Mother of Plaza de Mayo
In October 1977, two couples, all Holocaust survivors, carpooled to an illegal protest in downtown Buenos Aires. Each couple had a missing child. Sara and Bernardo Rus’ son, Daniel, a nuclear physics student, had been kidnapped in July from his work at the Atomic Energy Commission. Armed men had also abducted Lea and Marcos Novera’s son Héctor, a law student, from their home the previous month, along with his younger brother, who had since been released.
At the time, it was still the beginning of Argentina’s dictatorship (1976-1983), during which some 30,000 people disappeared — kidnapped, arrested and many executed in secret detention centers, or dropped from airplanes on “death flights.” An overwhelming number were university students with ties to leftist groups, and approximately 5 to 6 percent were Jewish, despite the fact that Jews made up only about 1 percent of the country’s population.
The families, from the same neighborhood, headed to a demonstration of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, staged by a group of mothers whose children had disappeared. The group met to circle a pyramid-shaped monument in front of the Presidential Palace every Thursday. As a precaution, Marcos Novera stayed by the car, parked a few blocks away from the plaza.
“With Mother’s Day [in Argentina] approaching, the protest took on more force,” recalled Lea, 89, sitting in her apartment’s kitchen in Buenos Aires in late July. “Just in case, someone should stay outside.”
Family members of the disappeared linked arms and marched, chanting, “Tell us where they are.” Many policemen with loudspeakers started to arrive and began emptying buses near the plaza, ordering protesters to leave or board the buses. The Ruses left, but Lea was arrested, taken by bus to a police station. When she was released late that night and called her house from a parking garage, her daughter-in-law told her that her missing son Héctor had returned that same night, wearing his pajamas, with cracked ribs and having undergone electric shocks.
“It was luck, because there were so many innocents who died,” said Lea, who had filed daily writs of habeus corpus for both her sons. “I didn’t go to the marches anymore — I didn’t feel I had the strength. I was filled with a terrible fear, because we were living a period like Nazism.”
The Ruses’ fight for Daniel was just beginning, and today he remains unaccounted for, one of 15 disappeared from Argentina’s Atomic Energy Commission.
In late July, Sara, 89, told the story of both of her tragedies to a group of young professionals in the Buenos Aires Jewish neighborhood of Balvanera (commonly known as Once), as part of an event of Zikaron BaSalon, an organization that invites Holocaust survivors to give testimony in people’s homes.
“Effectively, I’ve survived twice,” she said, beginning her story.
Sara was born in 1927 in Lodz, a textile-manufacturing city in Poland that at the time had the second-highest number of Jews in the country. Her parents were German immigrants, and her father ran a sewing workshop that manufactured and sold furs and suits.
After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Nazi soldiers raided her house. Noticing a small violin on a table, a Nazi asked to whom it belonged. Her mother answered that it was Sara’s, who had started playing by ear.
“He grabs it, bangs it against the table and destroys it,” Sara said. “That was the first visit of the Nazis that I remember. The first time they hurt me.”
In 1940, the family moved into a single room in the Lodz ghetto, where Sara worked in a hat factory for a daily meal card. Her mother gave birth in the ghetto, and Sara would wake up early to look for milk for her baby brother. He died at three months old from malnutrition, and when her mother gave birth again a year later, the newborn was assassinated immediately by the Nazis.
Despite the losses suffered by her family, “In the ghetto, love also existed,” Sara said. At 16, she fell for Bernardo, a young man her father invited to dinner one night, despite their more than 10-year age difference. They decided that if both survived the war, they would meet in Buenos Aires, in front of the famous Kavanagh skyscraper, and they set a date of May 5, 1945, which Bernando wrote in her pocketbook.
The two were separated in July 1944, when the Nazis accelerated the liquidation of the ghetto; a train took Sara and her mother to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where her mother was sent to a line on the right — to die — and Sara to a line on the left — to work. Frantic, Sara approached a German soldier and told him she wanted to be with her mother.
“He shouted at me, how do you dare to approach me?” Sara said. Shocked when he learned she spoke German, however, the Nazi allowed Sara’s mother to switch lines.
After seven weeks in Birkenau, another train transported them both to Czechoslovakia, where Sara worked and slept in an airplane factory. After suffering a serious injury, she was taken to a hospital, where she spoke back to a Nazi who accused her of trying to avoid work.
“I said, ‘You’re right, I did it on purpose.’ He froze. The girls thought he was going to kill me,” she said. Miraculously, the Nazi instead ordered her recovery.
By 1945, they could already see the Allies’ planes overhead, but the prisoners were forced on another train to Austria, from where they began a “death march” to the Mauthausen camp. They were liberated there in May, on the same day that Sara had long ago intended to meet Bernardo.
Unable to eat or drink from malnutrition, Sara recovered slowly in a military hospital, where she received a letter from Bernardo, who had survived Birkenau. He had heard she too had survived and wrote that he was waiting to marry her in Lodz.
“I had a boina [beret], and he was well dressed, like a man,” she said, describing their reunion. “I can’t describe to you how pale we both were, and our happiness.”
After living briefly in a refugee camp in U.S.-occupied Germany, Sara, Bernardo and Sara’s mother decided to travel to Buenos Aires, where they had family who immigrated there right before the war. They flew to Asuncion, Paraguay, on a KLM flight for refugees, and since Argentine President Juan Perón had prohibited Jewish immigration, they crossed a river at night into Formosa, Argentina, where the local Jewish community took them in.
Threatened by officials to be sent back to Paraguay, Sara’s now-husband Bernardo wrote to Eva Peron, the president’s wife and a social activist, asking for clemency as refugees. It was granted, and, at age 20, Sara finally arrived in Buenos Aires, where she gave birth to Daniel and his younger sister, Natalia.
“We cared about giving our children everything we never had,” she said.
But her next tragedy began once her son became an adult.
A week before Daniel was kidnapped, a chemist friend of his disappeared.
“My husband told him, ‘Please, Daniel, go to Uruguay and then go to Israel,’ ” Sara said, explaining that her son refused to stop working on his thesis. “He said, ‘Why would I leave here?’ ”
After Daniel disappeared, Sara and Bernardo traveled to Washington, D.C.; they also wrote letters to then-military dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, the pope, the United Nations, and even the German foreign ministry, but received no information. Sara began marching weekly with the Mothers, wearing a headscarf embroidered with her son’s name.
“I wasn’t interested in politics,” she said. “I just wanted to be with my children.”
Bernardo died in 1984, a year after Argentina returned to democracy, having given up on finding Daniel. Sara now speaks in schools about both her stories, and, in 2012, she visited Poland with several Jewish schools through March of the Living, “on the condition that they would take me to the city where they forced me from, where my entire family had lived.”
In 2007, Eva Eisenstaedt wrote Sara’s biography, “Sobrevivir dos Veces” (Surviving Twice).
“No one denies the dictatorship, but there is an entire generation that prefers not to speak,” Eisenstaedt said, noting that Sara’s public profile contrasts with the Mothers’ collective approach. “She is a protagonist; she dedicates herself to speaking. No one can take this away from her, because it’s her story.”
Today, Sara practices Israeli dancing once a week and finds happiness in her two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, as well as by telling her story.
“Life continues onward,” she said, smiling. “I think that the most wonderful thing is to have friends, people that care about you, and to speak if you have something you want to share.”
FOR THE RECORD Aug. 19, 2016:
An earlier version of this arcticle had an incorrect photo credit. The photographer is Gabriela Scheyer