On the night of February 27, 2010, the sixth-strongest earthquake ever recorded violently shook central Chile, leaving hundreds dead, thousands wounded and conjuring up painful memories for a bereaved rabbi.
In the aftermath of the 8.8-magnitude tremor, Rabbi Angel Kreiman was found walking the streets of Concepcion in a state of bewilderment, telling passersby he was on his way to the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, where his wife had died in a bombing in 1994.
“I was in my underwear telling people I’m going to the AMIA building,” he recalled, referring to the headquarters of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association several hundred miles away from Concepcion. “I told them that it had just been blown up.”
The rabbi soon regained control of his faculties and realized he was still deeply traumatized by the loss of his wife. It was then that he decided the best way to deal with his demons was to make aliya. Six months ago, Kreiman relocated to Jerusalem in a move he says amounts to a new lease on life.
“Being here has given me a sense of inner peace,” the 66-year-old Conservative rabbi said over the phone, “and I thank God for bringing me to Jerusalem.”
For Kreiman, who for years had been a senior religious figure in Chile fighting for human rights under the regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet, life changed forever on July 18, 1994, exactly 18 years ago.
That day, a truck laden with explosives that is believed to have been driven by a Hezbollah operative detonated in front of the AMIA headquarters in downtown Buenos Aires. The huge explosion leveled the multi-storied building, killing 95 people – including Kreiman’s wife Susy Wolisnky, who was an AMIA executive – and wounding over 300 others.
“I spoke to my wife 10 minutes before the blast,” said Kreiman. “She said she would call me back because there were many people in line waiting to apply for work; 10 minutes later, the secretary walked in and told me they bombed AMIA.”
Kreiman, whose offices were on the other side of town, quickly jumped into his car and drove in the direction of the cloud of smoke and ash rapidly rising above where the AMIA building had stood, but police cordoned off the entire area and he was unable to reach the site.
For days, he waited, praying that she might be found alive, and visited hospitals and morgues where the dead and wounded were taken, trying to determine if his wife was among the unidentified victims.
His wife’s parents in Israel were the first to learn she had died when they saw her lifeless body being pulled from the rubble on CNN.
“My mother-in-law said she worried about her children in Israel being hurt in terror attacks, not the one in Argentina,” Kreiman recalled. He, along with others who lost loved ones in the AMIA bombing, feel deeply aggrieved by successive Argentinean governments.
To this day, no one has been charged for carrying out the attack or the similar one at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992.
Warrants for Iranians and Lebanese suspects have been issued, but so far no one has been arrested. Over the years, information has emerged that high-ranking Argentinean politicians, policemen and judges were allegedly involved in a series of investigatory mishaps and cover-ups.
“I’m very angry, especially at Carlos Menem,” he said, pointing a finger at the politician who was president of Argentina at the time. Last March, an Argentine court ruled Menem would face trial for allegedly thwarting the investigation into the AMIA bombing, which Israel, the US and other countries believe was carried out to avenge the previous slaying of a Hezbollah leader in Lebanon by the IDF.
But the prospects of bringing any culprits to justice are slim. Argentinean Foreign Minister Hector Timerman told Israeli and Jewish officials last year his country would not rest until it found the perpetrators, but he did not mention either Hezbollah or Iran by name, an indication that the government led by President Cristina Kirchner would not confront the two main suspects.
For a religious man like Kreiman, the death of his wife and the failure by authorities to punish those responsible for her murder have put his faith to the test.
“If I believe [in God], then I have someone to argue with,” he said. “After the attack, I suddenly understood what it must have been like for those who lost loved ones in the Holocaust. Our family arrived in Argentina in the 19th century, so we never had relatives who underwent that experience, but now I am beginning to understand.”
Since he arrived in Jerusalem, he alternates between Conservative synagogues each Friday, where he occasionally gives sermons.
He said life after making aliya has become less of an uphill struggle and that one of his biggest pleasures is spending time with his three daughters and their families.
“One of my daughters lives in Ra’anana,” he said. “Another lives in Boston and a third in Lima, but she visits me here more often than she does Chile. I’ve found my joy in life.”