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Alicia Partnoy Appears

An Improbable Survivor of Argentina's Dirty War

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It seemed like a reunion of a chic college clique, the women gathered around Alicia Partnoy.

Generally, they were women in their early 30s, and dressed well, fashionably. Their makeup was brief, to the point, but as prominent as their cheekbones.

The uninitiated might think them almost typical of the Lincoln Park postfeminist set that frequents Women & Children First, 1967 N. Halsted, where Partnoy had just read from her recent book, The Little School. They appeared chatty, comfortable, moneyed.

But there were clues, as in a Twilight Zone episode, that might have given them away: almost all of them smoked, not just any cigarette but thick, unfiltered European brands; their hands moved in quick, jerky cuts through the air; their singsong palaver emerged as a nervous Spanish patois; and then, too, there was the subtitle of Partnoy's book: Tales of Disappearance and Survival in Argentina.

Partnoy, a 32-year-old writer and bookstore manager in Washington, D.C., is one of the few miracles to emerge from Argentina's "dirty war," an undeclared and relentless assault by the military in the late 70s against the country's youth. Partnoy lived to tell her story of disappearance and survival and at least a few chapters from the stories of the more than 30,000 people estimated still missing.

As Partnoy sat, like the eye of a hurricane, autographing books, there were typical immigrant questions swirling among the compatriots: "What part of Argentina are you from?" "What town?" "What neighborhood in Buenos Aires?"

But these were preliminaries, soon taking an anxious turn to more uneasy queries: "How long were you imprisoned?" "Was the little school the only camp you were held at?" "How was it for you when you went back to Argentina?"

Partnoy -- Jewish, fuzzy-haired, and possessed of a large, improbable smile --managed a response here, a quip there, and a great deal of patience. At one point, she stepped away from the huddle while the conversation continued, the Argentines answering their own questions, introducing themselves to each other, offering their own stories.

"People talk about healing," Partnoy said. "But a wound that's not cleansed won't heal. We want justice. How can anyone forget?"

She has made it her business, in what has become a Jewish tradition for holocausts large and small, not to let anyone forget -- not only by writing her memoirs of "'the little school," the ironically named concentration camp where she first served time, but also by testifying here and in Argentina to the horrors of the military junta's regime. Her efforts so far have helped bring about the convictions of four Argentine generals.

Her efforts, however, have not brought back the dead, found the thousands of disappeared, or done much about the lingering effects on herself of false imprisonment and torture. "I don't even know where all the scars are," she said. "But I don't spend much time with the pain."

Indeed, she is almost without sentimentality. "It seemed like a movie, like a third person, the things that were happening to me," she explained. So she wrote The Little School in that way -- episodically, often using the third person, allowing the ordinary to tell of the extraordinary terror. The writing is lean; not a word or emotion is wasted.

In The Little School, bread is a connecting ritual, nourishment beyond vitamins or minerals. A plastic rose on a pair of battered slippers they gave her becomes a symbol of hope. Amazingly, she finds the humor, the absurdity. Her curved Semitic nose, heretofore despised, becomes an unexpected asset in the struggle for sanity and strength: it pushes the blindfold out far enough for her to see the rose.

Reading from the slim volume, Partnoy told the audience of almost 70 people at Women & Children First about the strange journey she and her husband took once they were arrested at noon on January, 12, 1977. Their young daughter Ruth was delivered to a neighbor's and no explanation was offered.

No charges were filed, no trial was held. Partnoy was blindfolded for 20 days at a time. For whatever reason, she and her husband were not killed, but they were prisoners for two years.

"Disappearances destroy three generations; that's why they're such effective terror tactics," she said. "They destroy the target generation; the children of those arrested, because they don't understand; and the parents, who are helpless."

Disappearances are also an old Latin American tradition; they began in Guatemala in the 30s. Since then, hundreds of thousands have disappeared. In Argentina, everybody personally knows of at least one "disappeared." And recently the tactic has been exported to South Africa, Partnoy added.

She was able to leave Argentina in 1979 after a fact-finding mission from the Organization of American States visited the country for a report on human rights abuses. Then-president Jimmy Carter pressured the junta and it released a few prisoners offered visas by the United States. Partnoy, by some stroke of luck, was one of them.

She took her cue from that generosity of fate. In a poem now performed by the musical group Sweet Honey in the Rock, she wrote:

They cut off my voice

so I grew two voices

into different tongues

my songs I pour

They cut off my voice

so I grew two voices

in two different tongues

my songs I pour

After Partnoy read in the brightly lit bookstore in Chicago, it became easier to pick out the Argentine women: they were the stiff-backed ones, pale, jaws set.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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