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January 8, 2017 7:13 am

‘Fotonovela’ on Argentinian Jewish Center Bombing Shows the Camera May Be Mightier Than the Pen

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A July 2015 memorial in Buenos Aires for the victims of the 1994 AMIA Jewish center bombing. Photo: Jaluj/Wikimedia Commons.

A July 2015 memorial in Buenos Aires for the victims of the 1994 AMIA Jewish center bombing. Photo: Jaluj/Wikimedia Commons. — Do you know what a fotonovela is?

I didn’t either, until I read Once@9:53am: Terror in Buenos Aires, a fascinating, mesmerizing book, whose new English edition is out now, about the moment on July 18, 1994, when a truck drove up to the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina — Buenos Aires’ major Jewish institution — and set off explosives. 85 people were killed and hundreds injured. Nobody has ever been arrested for the attack, but it is widely believed to have been perpetrated by Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists and a renewed investigation was recently launched into former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s alleged cover-up of Iran’s role.

The Jewish community and the Argentinian people have not yet recovered from the trauma of the AMIA bombing.

But how do you describe what that day was like in words? In Once@9:53am, Marcelo Brodsky, a very talented photographer, and Ilan Stavans, a scholar of Latin-American Jewish life, gives us some way to understand what happened in a book that is part documentary, part chronicle and part fiction.

Minute by minute, Brodsky takes us through the three hours leading up to the bombing with his camera, reproducing the El Once neighborhood, where the AMIA center was located. He shows us around the area consisting of shops and run-down houses, populated by Koreans, Poles, Peruvians, Armenians, Russians, Germans, Chinese and Jews living side by side. Think Manhattan’s East Side a couple of generations ago. Even some ex-Nazis, who were given asylum by the Juan Perón government, probably lived in El Once, bumping into their former victims on the crowded streets.

As El Once started its morning that day, Brodsky was on the scene, taking pictures of stores opening, people hustling across the streets on their way to work, small talk springing up between storekeepers, garbage collectors, customers and young people. A faceless crowd is made personal with close-ups of people, old, young, tense, happy. We see people browsing at the newspaper stands, with all of the front-pages talking about a soccer game the day before.

Then, Brodsky zeroes in on a blonde woman dressed in a red suit, walking with three men. He follows them. The group, annoyed with Brodsky and his camera, try to lose him by darting in and out of stores. Only three hours later will Brodsky realize who they were and why they were so eager to avoid him and his pictures. By then, it will be too late.

Brodsky stops to chat with a young religious girl carrying balloons, and he tries to explain what photography is all about. He tells her that he places his eye behind the camera, and lets it carry him along, revealing hidden treasures, which sometimes he doesn’t even catch until he is developing the film.

Throughout the morning, Brodsky takes more than 200 pictures, but does not know whether they add up to one coherent story or if they are records of individual, casual encounters. He keeps looking for the blonde woman and the three men, but they are nowhere to be seen.

At 9:32 am, they find him. The men jump him, beat him, take his camera and throw it into the back of a garbage truck. They they run off, leaving him on the ground. At 9:53 am, the bomb goes off and the world changes forever.

The explosion smashed the souls of the victims’ loved ones, into the hearts of people in Mexico, Miami, Moscow, Berlin, Tel Aviv.

The fotonovela ends with these words: “Eighty-five people died that day; more than 300 people were injured; the perpetrators were never captured; and the camera that saw the killers and that saw so much else that day remains lost.”

That last phrase is so tantalizing. Who knows? If that camera had not been lost, it might have identified the killers and led to their apprehension. Or, as Ilan Stavans makes clear in the book’s afterword, perhaps it would not have changed a thing, because the Argentine government — politically and economically aligned with Iran — might not have looked at the pictures or cared about what they revealed.

Nobody who reads this book will remain unaffected by the story that it tells. It gives a measure of immortality to those who died in the AMIA attack and it teaches us the enormous power of the camera to expose the truth. I never understood this before, but the camera evidently is even mightier than the pen.

When you read this book and look at these photographs, you cannot help but think of all the terrorist incidents that have occurred since that day in Buenos Aires. You think of Nice and of Berlin, where trucks hurtled down the streets killing innocent people who happened to be in their path. You think of San Bernardino and of Orlando, where terrorists opened fire on people who were at an office party or at a nightclub. You think of Ankara, where the Russian ambassador was shot while dedicating an exhibit at an art gallery, or of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where obscene acts like these have occurred so often — at bus stops and in cafés, at train stations and in airports. You realize this is a book that all of us need to read and study, so that we never get accustomed to atrocities and never take them for granted.

If there are more fotonovels like it, I certainly want to read more.

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