For Argentina’s Jews, October 7 revives nightmare of 1994 AMIA terror bombing

Hamas attack also unleashes familiar feelings of grief and fear for Jewish community members whose relatives were taken hostage or killed

Sandra Miasnik, right, an aunt of Argentine-Israeli infant Kfir Bibas, a hostage of Hamas in Gaza, attends a gathering one day before his first birthday in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jan. 17, 2024. (Gustavo Garello/AP)
Sandra Miasnik, right, an aunt of Argentine-Israeli infant Kfir Bibas, a hostage of Hamas in Gaza, attends a gathering one day before his first birthday in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jan. 17, 2024. (Gustavo Garello/AP)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — On October 7, when Hamas terrorists attacked numerous targets in Israel, killing over a thousand and abducting others, Marina Degtiar felt she had traveled back in time, to July 18, 1994.

What happened in Buenos Aires 30 years ago broke her apart. A bomb-laden van exploded inside a Jewish community center where her 21-year-old brother Cristian worked.

It was the worst such attack in Argentina’s history, killing 85 — Degtiar’s brother among them — and injuring 300.

The destruction of the Argentine-Israelite Mutual Association, known by its Spanish initials AMIA, came two years after a 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina, which killed 29 people. Israeli officials say seven of the victims have never been identified.

Argentine prosecutors blamed Iranian officials for plotting the AMIA attack and said Hezbollah operatives carried it out, but no one has been convicted. Iran has refused to turn over the former officials and ex-diplomats who face charges and denies any involvement.

For many who lost friends and family to the attack, time has not healed their pain. For some, it’s been worsened by the lack of justice in the case and the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on October 7, when Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel, killing about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 253 while committing widespread atrocities.

“If you ask me how I am, I’m emotional,” Degtiar said. “I feel very sad because what’s happening in Israel affects us as humankind, as Jews, and me personally.”

Marina Degtiar poses for a photo at her home in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Feb. 23, 2024. (Natacha Pisarenko/AP)

Degtiar said she has lived two lives — one before the loss of Cristian and one after his death.

Decades ago, she used to feel that her family lived far away from the bombs they saw falling on TV.

“Thirty years ago, it was not natural, here in Argentina, to talk about terrorism,” Degtiar said. “Bombs did not explode at home like they first exploded at the embassy, or in my case, in the attack against the AMIA.”

After months of deep grief, she decided that being paralyzed by her pain was a lack of respect for her brother’s life, so she took action.

She spent years sharing her story among self-help groups and eventually became a psychologist. Currently specializing in grief counseling, Degtiar comforts those who mourn a loved one, as she has done.

Firefighters and rescue workers search through the rubble of the Buenos Aires Jewish Community Center after a car bomb rocked the building on July 18, 1994. (AP/Alejandro Pagni)

In her approach toward patients, she usually discloses that she lost someone too and thus can empathize with them.

“I built myself a life that justifies me talking about Cristian, my brother, every day,” Degtiar said. “I name my brother every day of my life.”

Argentines among Hamas victims and hostages

Sandra Miasnik didn’t find out what had happened on October 7 through the news.

The horror intruded into her home in Buenos Aires through a WhatsApp group: A screenshot showed her cousin Shiri Bibas hugging her two red-headed children above a message. “They took them away.”

Sandra Miasnik, a cousin of Argentine-Israeli infant Kfir Bibas, a hostage of Hamas in Gaza, attends a gathering one day before his first birthday in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jan. 17, 2024. (Gustavo Garello/AP)

“I remember that moment very well,” Miasnik said. “I said: ‘No, that’s not her.’ Check out the psychological defense mechanism of not seeing what you are seeing.”

She walked around her house without knowing what to do, waiting for information. Then she learned that her uncle José Luis Silberman, who migrated from Argentina to Israel in the 70s to seek a life away from the dictatorship, was killed by Hamas.

After the Hamas attack, Argentina’s Foreign Affairs Ministry revealed that seven Argentine nationals were killed, while 15 more were snatched from their homes. Among them was Mianisk’s cousin and her 9-month-old baby, Kfir Bibas, the youngest Israeli dragged into Gaza.

President Javier Milei — who has shown a public interest in Judaism — traveled to Israel in early February and called for release of the 11 Argentines who remained in captivity.

Argentinian President Javier Milei visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, on February 6, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Miasnik said the Hamas attack, though occurring far from Argentina, unleashed grief and fear that felt familiar within Latin America’s largest Jewish community.

“What Argentine can say that terrorism is (only) in the Middle East?” Miasnik said. “It’s not thousands of miles away. It’s right here, with us.”

Personnel from the AMIA community center rushed to offer support to the Argentine relatives of Hamas victims. Miasnik didn’t accept immediately.

“I thought I had stability, and suddenly I learned that I had never experienced a situation like this,” she said.

She met Degtiar after the symbolic celebration of her nephew’s birthday, and later went to her for counseling. Others approached Miasnik to share comforting words, making her feel that she was not alone.

“I have nothing to do with the religious side of Judaism, but I reconnected with my identity,” Miasnik said. “This did not just happen to my family. It happened to the community.”

Remembering the 1994 bombing victims

Year after year, relatives of victims of the 1994 attack return to the headquarters of the community center, where a new building was erected.

It was a symbolic gesture, said Amos Linetzky, AMIA’s president. “Not because of a religious issue, but because they wanted to destroy us and they couldn’t do it. They made us stronger and we are still here, in the same place.”

Founded 130 years ago, the center currently oversees cemeteries and educational institutions, promotes cultural activities and provides guidance for people in search of a job.

It is also invested in preserving history for young generations, Linetzky said. The center hosts yearly campaigns to remember the attack and pay tribute to the deceased.

“The passing of time cannot be a reason for oblivion,” Linetzky said.

Outside the building, trees were planted in remembrance of the victims. Patricia Strier, who lost her sister Mirta to the bombing, visits as often as she can.

Patricia Strier poses for a portrait with family photos including her sister Mirta at her home in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jan. 29, 2024. (Natacha Pisarenko/AP)

“I give it a kiss, I touch it, I talk to Mirta,” Strier said. “Her tree is beautiful. It’s full of leaves.”

Mirta’s death was not confirmed immediately. Strier spent a week requesting information in hospitals, morgues and police stations. She says she understands the sorrow and uncertainty of those waiting for news about their loved ones amid the Israel-Hamas war.

“At first I only thought about how this would impact my family and friends [in Israel], but then my pain increased because I saw myself reflected on the terrorist attack in which my sister died,” Stier said. “We were victims as well.”

Her pain has not diminished, but — like Degtiar — she seeks to keep her sister close by.

Marina Degtiar shows a picture of herself and her brother Cristian at her home in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Feb. 23, 2024. (Natacha Pisarenko/AP)

Seven days after the bombing, she dreamed of a younger, beaming Mirta. “Why are you laughing if we are all desperate to find you?” Strier asked in her dream. “I’m fine,” her smiling sister replied.

The phone rang after she woke up and the call confirmed Mirta’s death.

On a modest altar where she lights a Shabbat candle every Friday, Strier keeps a few photos of her parents and Mirta. Her sister rarely laughed, Strier said, and her mother stopped doing so when the bombing killed her daughter. Strier chose to remember them smiling.

“That’s how I visualize them all,” Strier said. “The light comes from above, from my loved ones, from my angels, and I have them all located, each one in its place, so as not to forget any of them.”

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