In 1977 when I was 17 years old, there was a song that was very popular in Argentina called “Volver a los 17”-which kind of means “Return to being 17 years old” but sounds much better in Spanish. It was sung by Mercedes Sosa. Last month, thanks to an interview I did with the journalist Andres Lopez, from Clarin called “My first Job” I travelled back to when I was 17. This innocent journey back in time took hold of me with a great force. The result is the first autobiographical post on this blog. What follows is the story of my life from September 1976 to September 1977. This article was already published in my Spanish blog and was one of the most commented ever. It was also published by Noticias, the Newsweek or Time of Argentina. The translation was done by my cousin Carla Diamond. Somehow I was unable to translate my own story and she helped me out. Here it goes and as a warning I would like to say that I will continue to edit this story online and will not include editing marks as it improves. The challenge here is that I don´t believe in translation but rather than rewriting the story into another culture, in this case the English culture.
First let me give you the setting. I am now 47 years old and when I got the call from the Argentine journalist enquiring about my first job I was sailing with my wife and the youngest of my four children, baby Leo, to the Isla del Aire in Menorca. While on our way back my PA called and told me that I had an appointment to speak with a journalist in Buenos Aires. When I got on the call the writer asked me to talk about my first job. And then my journey back in time begins. He asks me to “Return to being 17 years old” and I find myself traveling back with an intensity that makes our conversation almost tense. At that moment, thanks to the mix of the most modern of technologies (the cell phone) with the most ancient (memory), I returned to when I was 17 and found myself overtaken by the deepest emotions, by a profound sadness. These sensations were so strong I found it incredibly difficult to stay focused on the subject of the interview- my first job as an apprentice carpenter in a shipyard in San Martin on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. When the interview was over I felt obliged to share the story of the most important year of my life in this blog. In writing about my first job, I realize that I can’t do this without telling the tragic story of the Argentine military dictatorship and its actions, of the years where friends and loved ones were kidnapped and murdered. The age of youth, where the first deep relationships built on love were created for me, was forced to live next to the first pain of mourning, of grieving without funerals; this is the story of los “desaparecidos”, the disappeared. They died… without funerals.
All of us have years that mark our lives. They become dividing lines between what comes before and what comes after. Without a doubt for me this was the year between September 1976 and September 1977, from when I was 16 years old to when I was 17.
Until 1976 I led a pretty average life, I was a middle class kid, the son of professors who lived in an apartment on Avenida Las Heras 1975, 6A. But 1976, the year that I lived on Las Heras, “the year before” was so full of discoveries, the most marvelous and the most horrific, it became for me the year of before and after, all the way up until today.
If I had to say exactly when my adolescent life began to go haywire I would say it was March 1976, when Jorge Rafael Videla seized power. Argentina had just lived through the disaster that was the leadership of Juan Domingo Perón who left his wife in power before dying, so things were already bad … and then they got a lot worse.
Like all tragedies, the 1970’s in Argentina came to a close with an enormous wave of state terrorism (yes, the greatest crime is when the assassin is the government) and had many causes. The result was a perfect storm that saw the death of tens of thousands of innocent victims at the hands of their government. Among them was my cousin David Horacio Varsavsky, kidnapped and killed in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Belgrano by the Jorge Rafael Videla government on February 16, 1977. His death and the premature death of my father on a plane while flying from the US to Argentina have been the two hardest blows in my life.
The Videla government supporters, that represent today what would be approximately 10% of the Argentine electorate, say that the military government happened for two reasons: first, the total incompetence of Isabel Peron, and second because of the fight to control leftist terrorists. My opinion is that although it is true that Isabel Peron was incompetent, as incompetent as the husband who left her in power (the people that today govern Argentina continue to call themselves Peronists and sing a ridiculous song of cult of personality, in the best style of fascists everywhere) and although it is true that terrorism did exist and is believed to have caused 400 deaths, the terrorism practiced by the Videla government is impossible to justify and took the lives of 20,000 innocent victims including the life of my cousin. Sadly, during these years it became my turn to begin discovering life.
As I said, when I turned 16, things continued peacefully until the military not only overthrew democracy and took power, they also inexplicably took power in my high school Nicolás Avellaneda, located on El Salvador street, between Fitz Roy and Humbolt. I know that readers in Europe or in the United States will find it difficult to imagine that a military government could reach the point of being so obsessed with control that they put army officers in charge of schools, but this is indeed what they did. The first thing the officer that came to our school did was to decide which students should be executed and which should only be expelled from school. As an adult man today, I ask myself how somebody, in such cold blood, could sit down at a table and decide this kid we kill and this one we kick out and this one we allow to remain in school? Perhaps today I am alive because someone at that table said, “We’ll kick Varsavsky out” and did not say “Varsavsky we get rid of” because I was forced to stop going to school but not killed.
What could have been my crime? Probably having publicly declared myself a socialist democrat (in those days the country I admired the most was Switzerland), and perhaps because I had also declared myself an anti-Peronist, I ended up with the group that was kicked out instead of being put in an airplane with a priest that gave me my last rights while an officer drugged me and threw me out of the plane into the middle of the Atlantic, my body never to be found. Yes, the priests supported the military in their killings, and it is believed that this is how my cousin died on one of those “vuelos de la muerte” – death flights. Some of my poor friends who were communists or Peronistas were not lucky enough to just be expelled; they were brutally killed this way along with students from other schools like the Nacional Buenos Aires or Pellegrini.
I remember the day that my mother received a call from the school saying that I couldn’t come to school any more because I had “militado”. In an Argentina obsessed with everything military strangely “militado” meant both being in the army and also belonging to a political party and was therefore the source of great confusion. Everything was military. I, of course like any normal teenager, wasn’t afraid of anything, I had no fear. What I was, like any other teenager was angry, very, very angry.
So I came up with a plan: if there was a way to not go back to school but also graduate from high school by taking what we called “dar año libre”, or take a “free year”. During this free year, one only had to attend the week of final exams. And that’s what I decided to do. Since I couldn’t go to school I went to the library of the Ministry of Education, the same place where today we have the meetings for Educ.ar, the social initiative created by my foundation. I spent hours and hours in that library studying the 22 subjects that I had to pass, 11 from the fourth level and 11 from the fifth level.
My mother tried to convince me to go to another school, to not do the free year, but I had made my decision. My parents were separated. My mother lived in Recoleta and my father in Belgrano, on Teodoro García y Arribeños. One night when my mother and I were talking after I had spent the day in the library, she told me if I continued with my free year plan she would kick me out of the house and I’d have to go live with my father, that there were better alternatives like going to another school, that it wasn’t necessary to leave Argentina, that things were not that bad and that she wanted me to return to living a normal life. I tried to reason with her, but without success. My mother, like the great majority of people in Buenos Aires at the time, simply could not imagine that the mass killings that were taking place at the hands of the government were not limited to terrorists. We couldn’t come to a compromise, for her I was being disobedient and there weren’t any other options. So it was a great deal of of sadness that I was expelled from home and had to go to my father’s house. The expulsions added up, from school, from my childhood home… my adolescence so protected until now crumbled from one month to another.
My first attempts at love were also a failure. My girlfriend at the time had a sister who was detained by the military. She lived around the corner from my father’s house. I remember her parents’ horror and my girlfriend’s constant fear. To go from our house at Teodoro García y Arribeños to Teodoro García and Villanueva where she lived was only about 100 meters. But those 100 meters were fraught with danger. The most frightening night was when a government officer appeared unannounced to negotiate with my girlfriend’s father to exchange his son, her brother, for her sister because they had “made a mistake”. I was on my way up to their apartment, but I turned around when I saw the army cars outside in front. My girlfriend was the third daughter, I was very, very worried that she would be the next one to be taken away. But her father and I never learned exactly how, managed to do what almost no one in Argentina ever did, and that was to get his daughter freed from a detention camp and she returned alive. Despite the fact that she was abused, tortured and abandoned in the middle of the countryside in Santa Fe, she was able to rebuild her life and today she is happy, living in Madrid, is a doctor, and even married the man who was her boyfriend at that time and who is also a doctor.
And so my first love came to an abrupt end, with no real goodbyes since the moment her sister was freed the entire family left for Spain. One day they were there and the next they were gone. I was really happy for them, even though I had sensed that with the reappearance of my girlfriend’s sister, it was my girlfriend who had disappeared.
Today, looking back, what I don’t understand is how in spite of all of the evidence, seeing all that was happening that my family didn’t flee until the end of 1977. How with the kidnapping and killing of my cousin David Varsavsky, who lived in Federico Lacroze, really close to us, we waited another half a year? But we didn’t leave, what happened was that when the soldiers came in February of 77 to take my cousin away, my father Carlos Varsavsky, one of the most intelligent people I have known in my life, reacted calmly and believed that my cousin would return alive “when the army realized that David wasn’t mixed up in anything”. That’s how it happened, first we stayed “to see if things got better”, then we stayed “to be there when they freed David”, and finally we fled when we saw that people we knew and loved continued disappearing- there one day and gone the next – they just melted away, like ice cubes on a hot day. Today, I still think about how it was that my father who was Jewish didn’t see that it was just like another holocaust. His mistake reminds me of the poem by another Martin:
“First the came to look for the communists and I said nothing because I was not a communist
Next they came for the Jews, and I said nothing because I was not Jewish
Next they came for the unionists, and I said nothing because I was not a unionist
Next they came for the Catholics and I said nothing because I was a Protestant
Next they came for my dog, because by then there was no longer anyone who said anything.”
Although this poem refers to the Nazis, it could just as easily tell the story of Argentina’s desaparericdos recounted in “Nunca Mas”, “Never Again”(the book from the report issued by the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons). But as I was saying, we stayed through 1976 and I successfully past my final exams that December. Passing my exams was a battle charged with much emotion. The professors knew who I was, they knew that the army had me expelled and they sympathized with me. The scores you had to have to pass after taking a free year were really high. Each exam had an oral as well as a written component where they could ask you anything from the subject, even things they hadn’t had time to cover in class. The ridiculous part of all of this is that since I have a good memory, I can recall even today with pretty good detail what I had had to learn — all kinds of random facts about Argentina and its history. The history of Argentina is like the Hollywood dream movie played in reverse; everything starts great and finishes badly. Even today when life is clearly better than in 1977 but still full of uncertainty and insecurity.
After taking the exams and passing I was not only happy, but I had also tasted vengeance for the first time in my life. In my own little way I had triumphed against the colonel Roux who ran my school Nicolás Avellaneda. I was alive and I had graduated from the school that had thrown me out. This experience taught me that from even the most awful circumstances you can get some good. I applied right away to New York University, where my father was trying to get a teaching position so that we could all emigrate and there would be an income there. Once that was done, my best friends and I organized a trip to Brazil. At the time, Brazil was the Promised Land for Argentine teens.
Sometimes I ask myself if to experience pleasure, suffering is necessary, and if pleasure and joy are emotions that are absolute or relative. Because if the answer is no, then I have to say I have a hard time understanding how in leaving such a terrible atmosphere the five of us who went to Brazil had so much fun there. We crossed the “largest country in the world” kilometer by kilometer. The trip to Brazil meant everything to us. Argentine girls were much more difficult to seduce than Brazilian girls. We traveled, hitchhiking, or went by bus ….without a plan and everywhere we met girls and more girls. The best was when we found ourselves just outside of Florianopolis and we split into two groups to hitch to San Pablo and we ended up at a fork in the road in the middle of nowhere at sunset. Disillusioned we started to make camp. We got ready to go to bed since trying to hitchhike at night was useless, when two girls appeared at the other side of the road hitch hiking too. We looked at each other and laughed, and we invited them to spend the night with us. And all four of us ended up in the same tent. The only “problem” was that we had to take turns using the tent since the two girls were sisters. That was Brazil, freedom, sex, carnaval – the total opposite of the horror and oppression we lived under in Argentina, where they could detain you at any moment and where people died because they found Marx’s “Das Capital” in your house. Where the atmosphere had nothing to do with sex and freedom, instead it was about going underground to stay alive.
I remember that I survived in Brazil from the end of December to March with $200 dollars. We slept on the beach or on benches in plazas, sometimes we traveled together, some times splitting up since it was easier to get rides if you were alone instead of in a group. Brazil at that time wasn’t like it is today where unfortunately murder is frequent (I myself witnessed a kid get killed on Copacabana in 2001). One day someone will explain to me how it is that Brazil has turned into the violent and dangerous place it is today, because at that time, for us it was the most peaceful paradise on earth. We lived day to day, talking with strangers everywhere, hitchiking, trusting people and eating in the local restaurants in the little villages (always mandioca, chicken and rice). Sleeping in public parks, never mugged or threatened.
But Río de Janeiro had to be the crowning jewel of this trip. The entire gang quickly fell in love with a girl named Isabella who invited us to stay in her luxurious apartment in Leblon, taking advantage of the fact that her parents were away. I remember very clearly how incredibly beautiful she was and how all of us guys who were such good friends (with whom today not a week goes by that we don’t all email each other) were transformed into the fiercest rivals. The worst was that each one of us thought that he had succeeded with her. Isabella kissed me when I was getting out of the shower, that I know for sure, so I was convinced she was with me. But when I found out that Martin B and Rody seemed to have had similar experiences I was seized by a terrible attack of jealousy. The situation became intolerable and I don’t remember how it blew up, but it did, and I decided to go on by myself to Salvador de Bahia (or Bahia as we say) since I had learned that my Aunt Ruth, my mother’s sister and her husband my Uncle Carlos, had fled there. But I never forgot Isabella and it is the name of my second daughter, and she is just as gorgeous as the original Isabella. I’m not sure but it may well be that my daughter has her name as a result of this adventure.
My Aunt Ruth and Uncle Carlos were among the hundreds of thousands who did not die at the hands of the military. They had emigrated as we finally did. The majority of people went to Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Italy and the United States. In their case, it was because an ex-boyfriend of my aunt’s who was a Montenero sympathizer and the ex-wife of my uncle of the ERP. It seems like madness that someone that had an ex-boyfriend who was a Montenero sympathizer had to leave the country, but my uncle’s father who was a general and the governor of the state of Mendoza told them “you are on the list” and that they should leave. Because my uncle was a great neonatologist he quickly found work in a hospital in Bahia and they left. Today I ask myself how I made these decisions at 16, because I don’t remember calling my parents to ask them if they would “allow” me to go from Rio to Bahia (the distance from Bahia to Buenos Aires is the same as from Madrid to Saint Petersburg). I suppose they thought I was better off lost in Brazil rather than found by the army on the streets of Buenos Aires.
So I went from Rio to Bahia hitch hiking. I recall that my strategy wasn’t to hitchhike on the road, instead I would go to gas stations and talk to people. Having chased so many girls I had learned Portuguese very quickly (when we founded Jazztel in Portugal I gave a chat in Portuñol – a mix of Spanish and Portuguese — and I found it much easier to understand a Brazilian compared to someone who was Portuguese). In general it worked pretty well and people would give me rides. I imagine that at 16 years old I didn’t scare too many people and I certainly wasn’t afraid of anyone. It was a great way to live with no fear of crime, something with all of the instability today in Latin America that is now gone. Because the trips were so long the rides often ended in friendship. For example, one family took me to Vitoria and when we got there they invited me to the wedding they were attending. The only memory that I have of that wedding was the food, I skipped the girls. I only wanted to eat. I had no money for food and had been rapidly losing weight. When I arrived, I was overjoyed to get to Bahia and see my aunt and uncle. I was not only happy to see them and they I, but what was incredible was that if I hadn’t made it there I would have had to start begging or something like that since I didn’t have a cent left and mobile phones didn’t exist, there weren’t international credit cards – – there wouldn’t have been any way to get out. So when the door to the apartment on Ondina opened, I was filled with happiness not to mention relief. Perhaps my happiness lasted such a long time because I didn’t learn that during my trip the army had taken my cousin in Buenos Aires. I don’t know why I didn’t find out, but I think that it was because at that time the first reaction of the family of the person taken away by the government was absurdly to believe that the government would figure it out and free the person. People went to police stations, made accusations, and sometimes as in Aesop’s fables, they entered and they never returned. The victims of this repressive government really had no idea what was going on around them. The analogy with the Nazi regime is real.
One of the reasons that I founded Educ.ar in Argentina and Chile 25 years later was because I was convinced that if there would have been the internet, the military in those countries would not have been able to control the media and kill so many innocent people. But in that era, no one knew anything. Radio, television, newspapers – everything was controlled by the military that kidnapped, assassinated and tortured dissident journalists like Jacobo Timerman, the father of my dear friend Javier Timerman. That’s how innocently, totally ignorant of what was happening, I hung out with girls and worked as a tourist guide in Bahia, while my dear cousin, who I loved like a brother was taken away and killed.
In March, after Carnaval and thanks to some help from my aunt and uncle I was able to buy a bus ticket to get from Bahia to Punta del Este without hitchhiking. The trip took 5 days; we stopped only to change buses. Along the way I met a beautiful Brazilian girl. Apparently, the Brazilian girl and I got it on so much strong on the bus that the driver made us get off, even in the light of the “anything goes” nature of Brazil. This time, being expelled was not as bad.
When I got to Punta del Este I met the girl who would be my first real girlfriend if, as I have already explained, my previous one hadn’t had to flee to Madrid. The Brazilian girls never managed to become girlfriends and my love for Isabella was unrequited. Maybe because of that experience the first time I fell in love was totally romantic. She was 15 or 16. What I don’t remember is how we had access to a car (I think an older friend took us around) and we ended up together not in Punta but at La Coronilla. I remember that on that trip we traveled with another guy who later on became a success in the Internet in New York.
Some people think that virginity is a one time thing. I instead believe that you lose your virginity three separate times. The first we all know, that’s to have intercourse for the first time, the next is actually and fully enjoy sex for the first time, and the last which usually happens later on is to conceive and make love with the desire to have children. I lost my virginity in the strict sense of the word at 13 in a whorehouse in Punta del Este called Hiroshima that was decorated with an atomic bomb on the ceiling. It was pretty pathetic. I was very young and wasn’t really prepared for sex in any way and it was a disappointment. But losing my “virginity” for the second time made up many times over for the sordid experience of the the first time. It was 3 years later as we were both really ready to be in love and enjoy it. It was a deeply romantic experience.
We could escape the nightmare we were living in Buenos Aires in Uruguay or Brazil – even though these countries, especially Uruguay, also had their dictators, but for us, being there meant being free. All of them minded their own business. Each dictator, whether Pinochet or Videla, was only interested in torturing his own. The Uruguayans tortured their citizens, the Argentines theirs (Argentines were especially bloodthirsty, they also killed many foreigners and are still wanted by international courts in many countries). This is why even though Uruguay had its dictatorship, for me it still represented freedom and my girlfriend and I could be in love there and not have any problems.
I don’t remember how I communicated with my parents or where they were when I returned to Uruguay from Brazil. I suppose they were in Buenos Aires. I guess that my father, who was David’s semi-adopted father since his had died of a heart attack just a few years before in Patagonia, was trying to figure out if David was still alive. Sadly, I don’t remember almost any contact with my parents during this time.
What I do remember is that my return to Buenos Aires was a shock. Finding out about David’s disappearance upset me so much that I became seriously ill. The doctors said I had diphtheria. I don’t know what I had, but I do remember two things: First, that I had so much pus in my throat that it suffocated me and that they gave me shots of Keflin. Second, I was so sick it lasted 2 weeks and I lost 9 kilos. That’s how I lived learning of David’s disappearance. David, who I had spent my childhood playing with and who was my only cousin. The guy that had showed me a condom for the first time and when he asked me what I thought it was I told him quite seriously that I thought it was a balloon. The other thing that happened that made me especially sad was that Rody’s father (he was one of my buddies from the trip to Brazil), learned what had happened with David and forbid Rody to see me. Rody obeyed him and I felt horribly betrayed. It caused me much anguish. I felt like a pariah, an untouchable. Years later I understood. The army murdered as if it were battling an imaginary epidemic. They went after everyone. If you were stained, if you were touched in any way, the military would kill you.
To top things off as soon as I got better my mother sent me again back to my father’s house where I didn’t want to go not because of my father who I adored but his wife Alicia Creus who I detested for treating me so poorly. She had four children of her own and treated me as a pariah at my father’s home. At this time I was waiting to begin classes at NYU where I had applied and been accepted. To do something with my time I decided to look for a job. My father didn’t plan for his exile at all and left his life in Buenos Aires in chaos. In the previous year I had been in regattas in the Rio de la Plata, and I knew a man who owned a shipyard through my mother and he offered me a job as a carpenter’s apprentice. I took it since my plan was to work in a factory and not in an office. The plan was partly ideological. As I said, I was a socialist and I believed workers were being exploited (although I believe that in any labor market where there is unemployment, workers will be exploited), but since I was a logical person I remember how my friends and I used to say that it was absurd to talk about fighting for workers rights without ever having worked. In addition, I felt that if I wanted to understand how laborers lived, I had to be one. That’s how I ended up working in a shipyard in San Martin from March to June of 1977. My memories of that time are of working a lot, spending loads of time with my girlfriend, having plenty of sex, being really in love, being really afraid of Ford Falcons, because they were the cars the military and the plainclothes cops used, and thinking I had to get out before I was supposed to begin military service (they took my cousin away the night he was supposed to report for army duty). And I thought of planning my life around the state of siege we lived under and warning sirens and worrying about my stepbrother who took a lot of drugs with his friends and sold them too.
The days as a carpenter’s apprentice were eternal. The first day of work the head carpenter looked at my pianist’s hands (I don’t play the piano but I have been told more than once I have a pianist’s hands) and I saw a smile appear on the face of Joe Tenazas (the nickname was my friend Max’s idea) and said to me “but you haven’t worked a day in your life, have you?”. For my lack of experience he put me to work sanding keels of boats and at the end of the week I was dead. Workers lives were shit, that much was clear, I had learned the lesson. But I refused to quit, I kept sanding keels waiting for lunchtime to eat the asado (Argentine grilled meat) that is an Argentine worker’s only luxury. I think that people who have never done manual labor, like most of those who read my blog, don’t know what it is to sand a keel continuously for 8 hours. Of course to put it simply it is worse than they can imagine. When today I write articles saying that the French laws for a 35 hour work week are ridiculous I am writing about jobs like those I do now where sometimes I work 70 hours in a week or more. However, I understand perfectly well how someone whose job it is sanding keels while watching a clock that ticks at the same rate as it does when you’re having a cavity in a tooth filled would want a 35 hour workweek. Beyond that I understand how someone would rather sit at home and collect unemployment. In the middle of all this misery – where in addition to sanding and sanding I also had Joe Tenazas telling me when I did my work badly (and the worst was that he was right). But one day on the shipyard PA system asked if there was someone in the floor who spoke English. I ran to the manager’s office saying yes. And that was my last day as a laborer, at 17 (and I had just turned 17), I went into management and never left. Not only did I translate the contract for a job to build a 21 foot sailboat, but I also got into the negotiations and ended up getting them better terms from the French designer whose name I do not remember. I stayed in management there until I went to the United States and my first job in the United States while I was a student ended up being consulting for them. That was my first realization that I had a talent for business. And my last day as a carpenter, a job that I was terrible at.
The story of my arrival in the United States is another of my absurd adolescent plans. Everything in this world was logical, even so, my cousin had disappeared in the most illogical way. My argument was as follows: I had been accepted to NYU in New York but instead of flying to New York, I flew to San Francisco. Why? Because how was I going to live in a country I did not know. I’d been to every state in Argentina except San Juan and Catamarca (and still haven’t), so I had to cross the US before getting to New York. And since my cousin didn’t return, my father had finally realized that things were really dangerous in Argentina and the best thing was if we left as soon as possible. The strange thing was that one part of the American government, the Republicans, dedicated themselves to training armies in South America to torture and kill civilians, the other party, the Democrats, and in our case the beloved New York Senator Patrick Monyahan, rescued us and gave my father and the rest of our family refugee visas. A couple of years ago I got to thank Senator Monyahan in person at a dinner in the home of Jim Wolfenson, who was then in charge of the World Bank.
All of this means that not only had I traveled 8000 kilometers between January and March of 77, but in addition between June and August I traveled 6000 more. This time I traveled from San Francisco to Los Angeles, then Santa Fe, Phoenix, the Grand Canyon, Denver, Boulder, Omaha, Des Moines, Toronto, Montreal, Niagara Falls and many other places before getting to New York. But in the States it wasn’t easy to hitchhike. The second time a homosexual tried to put his hands on me I realized that sex in the US was nothing like in Brazil and I bought myself a Greyhound bus ticket that let me cross the US for only $75.00.
Crossing the United States was perhaps more interesting, although certainly a lot less fun than the trip through Brazil. It wasn’t about the language, which I spoke well enough, it was more that people in the United States seemed strange to me, I didn’t understand them. One difference with Brazil was that the buses were full of people traveling alone, sometimes psychotic. In Brazil, they invited me to a wedding, in the United States no one gave me anything without expecting to be paid. No one seemed interested in me and I felt incredibly alone. There came a moment where thinking about all that I had survived in Argentina, I missed Buenos Aires where at least if you were a victim you were someone. In the US, I was nothing to anyone.
I was so happy to get to New York and see my father and even his wife seemed nice to me, not to mention my joy at seeing my sister Paula and even my step siblings. They were my family and they were all together in Grand Central Station to meet me. And so that’s how I came to the end of the journey that began in the library in the Ministry of Education and ended in New York, at New York University to be precise, where I was going to start my classes and where my father had gotten a job as a professor. A voyage where I was the one who lived and my cousin David Varsavsky did not. My cousin for whom I built the only athletic center at the Toledano de Alcobendas High School (north of Madrid) a place where the kids, the majority of who are Jewish, play every day seeing his name.
Why did I decide that his memorial should be an athletic center filled with children? Because David only had his youth. I feel that other kids will best understand his short life. And I decided that it should be a Jewish school, because even though I am not religious, the anti-Semites that murdered him don’t make subtle distinctions, they hate those of us who are Jewish, religious or not, like we were a plague. I am not saying that they killed David because he was Jewish because I don’t know that for a fact, but statistics show that a person was 12 times more likely to be killed by the army if he was Jewish.
In Spain, there was one person who understood perfectly the gesture of building an athletic center in Alcobendas, Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, who today is mayor of Madrid. When Ruiz Gallardón was the president of the Madrid’s autonomous government, I don’t know how, but he showed up at the opening of the athletic center and made a very moving speech. He had studied David’s story and he told it very well. The second homage to my cousin was to found Educ.ar. Even though Educ.ar is not directly linked to David Varsavsky, for me it is that and more, it is part of a strategy of prevention so that no other city can ever again be so brutally taken over. During the reconciliation process in Argentina, the Argentina that treated me so badly, what was very emotional was meeting the actual soldiers now reformed in the Campo de Mayo. It’s hard to believe that it was the Argentine army that distributed and still distributes the computers donated by Educ.ar. There are people who cannot forgive. I can. When I was with Commandant Bendini and his colleagues I really felt that the Argentine army would never again do what is so well described in “Never Again”.
Why have I done so many things for David? In part, because I loved him like a brother, I should also be clear that I was never sure which Varsavsky the soldiers came looking for the day they took my cousin away. And I’ve never been able to absolve myself of quite all of the guilt that I saved myself by being in Brazil. Because I had declared myself a socialist and I know that my cousin David was just a guy who went to a trade school and had learned to repare radios and televisions to earn a little money. Nothing more.
To return to being 17 years old? For me it has been incredibly traumatic. I would never exchange that year for the happiness I have today at age 47, with 4 children and with much loved Argentine, Spanish and American friends. Now I leave that year, 17, to my eldest daughter, who just celebrated that same birthday, but she is celebrating with 4 girlfriends on her way to Ibiza. That is the story of being 17 years old. My turn was very special and its story merits being told, although I can’t say I would recommend my path to anyone.
ADDED 6 YEARS LATER IN FEBRUARY 2013: I read what I wrote and I see that not all that starts poorly ends poorly. My life got worse actually after the year I was 17. My arrival to NYC was very traumatic. The sister of my cousin David exiled in Caracas was killed by a drunk driver when she was 8 months pregnant and she died but her daughter survived. My father died when I was only 22 and left me emotional destroyed and in financial hardship. I struggled at university during my first years, struggled with English, struggled with the competitiveness of the American education system, struggled with NYC of the late 70s that was nothing like what NYC is today. But if you persevere and happiness is your goal you may get it. It happened to me. My life got progressively better and my best years, the best years of my life have been this last ones. A lot I owe to Nina my wife. And to Alexa, Isa, Tom, Leo, the 4 kids I refer to in my story. To them we can add Mia who is 18 months now and is a little star. And in 3 weeks David will be born. Yes, David will be born again!
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