The Ministry of Special Cases

By Pulitzer-Prize nominated author Nathan Englander

Links for Further Investigation

By Ruth Wikler-Luker

The Jews of Argentina
The Dirty War
Death & the Body in Judaism & Argentine Culture

The Jews of Argentina

  • Jewish emigration to Argentina began during the Spanish colonial period and increased in the mid- and late- 19th century.
  • The 1880s saw Jewish agricultural settlements like Moisesville, supported by Baron De Hirsch and the Jewish Colonization Association.
  • In the early 20th century, Jewish "rufianos" ran sex trafficking rings that lured young women from Eastern Europe to Argentina and forced them into prostitution. The mafia organization that carried this out was called the Zwi Migdal, aka the Varsovia Mutual Aid Society). The testimony of ex-prostitute Raquel Liberman helped to bring down the mafia; read Glickman, Nora. The Jewish White Slave Trade: The Case of Raquel Liberman. New York: Garland Press: 2000.)/ But sex trafficking has not gone away in Argentina: read about sex trafficking in Argentina today.
  • Nazis and Jews, welcome! Starting in the mid-1940s, General Juan Perón balanced Argentina's relatively welcoming stance to Jewish immigrants with his reverence for Nazi war criminals, as he encouraged their emigration to the country as well (read Goñi, Uki. The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Perón's Argentina. London: Granta Books, 2002, or see his list of war criminals who escaped here).
  • Argentine Jews during the Dictatorship, 1970s-80s. Probably because of the Nazi influence on the Argentine military, Jews were especially targeted for disappearance during the military junta of 1977-1983. While Jews constituted less than 1% of the Argentine population in general, they represented more than 12 per cent of the victims of the military regime.
  • While Argentina's Jewish population remains the largest in Latin America at nearly 200,000, anti-Semitism is alive and well. In 1992, the Israeli Embassy was bombed and in 1994, the AMIA (Jewish community center) was also destroyed by a terrorist bomb attack. Neither of these crimes have been solved as of 2015, and there is still no justice for the victims' families. In mid-January 2015, Alberto Naisman, a 51-year old prosecutor who was about to testify before the Argentine national congress with his complaint about the Argentine government's conspiracy in these same bombings, was mysteriously found dead with a bullet in his head.
  • Despite its justifiable fear of violence and persecution, as well as a steady drain of Argentine Jews who emigrate to Israel (and elsewhere) in search of greater economic opportunity, Argentina's Jewish community is very well-organized. Get to know some of the Jewish institutions of Buenos Aires here: synagogues, schools, associations, museums, and social/sports clubs. Here is a lovely page (in Spanish) about Buenos Aires' Jewish community written and maintained by the city government.
  • The Dirty War

  • The Ministry of Special Cases depicts a couple facing the unimaginable tragedy of their own government robbing them of their only son, denying same, and responding to their appeals with impunity. The couple attempts to turn to vigilante justice when the state offers them no recourse to justice. Unfortunately, this story is typical of what many families experienced during the Argentine military dictatorship of 1977-1983, when up to 30,000 people were "disappeared."
  • The details of "disappearance" and torture described in the book are sourced from real accounts; Englander refers to the post-dictatorship report NUNCA MAS (Never Again), which is a compendium of testimonies that anyone can read online; here it is online in English.
  • The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (one branch and another branch), as well as the Grandmothers seeking their grandchildren born in captivity to their "disappeared" daughters and the H.I.J.O.S. (adult children who suspect themselves to be those grandchildren, but who may have been illegally adopted to and raised by military families during the dictatorship) all continue to be very active in seeking justice.
  • In recent news: the grandson of Estela de Carlotto, the founder of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose daughters gave birth in captivity and then were killed and who have been looking for their grandchildren for all these years, has been"found".
  • Death & the Body in Judaism & Argentine Culture

  • As The Ministry of Special Cases suggests, during the dictatorship Argentine families faced not only the loss of their loved ones, but also the denial of their absence by official sources and the literal absence of their bodies. We use bodies to mourn; without confirmation of death or an actual body to bury, families of the "disappeared" were left with a question mark instead of a grieving process.
  • The Ministry of Special Cases further probes the issues of death, burial, funerals, shiva, and cemeteries by defining Kaddish as a defacer of graves, Lillian as a seller of life insurance, and both Kaddish and Lillian as defacers, through Mazursky's "favor," of their own bodies, even in the absence of their son's.
  • All of these themes tap into broader questions about how Jews deal ritualistically and religiously with the body in life (in regards to cosmetic surgery, etc) and death, as well as a broader Argentine cultural fascination with both cosmetic surgery and the physical body after death. Some further reading on these subject: