Memoir

My Father’s Secret Life in the Hospital of Death

Growing up in Chicago, my dad barely spoke of the horrors he witnessed during Argentina’s “Dirty War.” Then one day a doom-filled document landed on our doorstep and I finally began to understand.

My Father’s Secret Life in the Hospital of Death

Six years ago on a muggy July afternoon, the weight of history arrived with a thud at the front door of my parent’s Chicago apartment. One thousand pages, dispatched from the other end of the world without warning, bore the marks of official authority:

“T.O.C.F. Number 2, Criminal Cases 1696/1742 Bignone, Reynaldo Benito Antonio, et al.”

The author of this unexpected document, a federal judge in Argentina, made a career of prosecuting criminals of the country’s so-called “Dirty War.” The subject of his latest investigation was Hospital Posadas, a seven-story building on the western outskirts of Buenos Aires where my parents once worked as medical residents. The judge’s report recounted dark days at the hospital. My father was a character in this story. His name appeared between pages 621 and 700 inside the overstuffed FedEx envelope.

The timing was remarkable. The judge’s report landed at my parents’ doorstep, more or less out of the blue, as my father was dying of cancer. It came courtesy of an old colleague from medical school, though they hadn’t been in touch for decades. My father, 58 years old, possessed of relentless enthusiasm and generous instincts, sat slumped at the kitchen table, weary but his mind still sharp. He read the document in its entirety, his gaze intense, his face registering surprise and horror at the forgotten details of what happened. This was a final reckoning with history, personal and public.

My father’s memories of the Dirty War were difficult to dismiss, but Argentina had long faded into the background of my parents’ life in Chicago, where they had moved 30 years earlier. Aside from the pull of family and soccer fever that hit my father especially hard once every four years during the World Cup, Argentina belonged to the past. My father’s routine visits to Buenos Aires to see relatives and attend scientific meetings, culminated at home with ritual dispensations of chocolate alfajores and grim prognoses for the country’s future. There was a palpable sense of relief at not being there.

The judge’s words told a story that still haunts Argentina today. It began on March 24, 1976, when a group of senior military officers seized power, launching a bloody seven-year “National Reorganization Process” that unleashed a reign of terror known as the Dirty War. It came with promises to prop up the country’s foundering institutions and put an end to years of political chaos and guerrilla violence. Many Argentines welcomed military rule, in the name of saving democracy. In Buenos Aires, the newspapers hailed the junta — led by the fifty-year-old General Jorge Videla — as a reasonable, even welcome solution to runaway inflation and chronic unrest. Once the work of governing became too onerous for the military, it was promised, elections would be held and constitutional democracy restored. Washington’s response was no less sanguine. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, inspired by the logic of the Cold War, had only a few cautionary words for the generals in Buenos Aires: “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly.”

The problem was that the dictatorship the generals had in mind was no stopgap measure. Instead, vested with absolute authority, the military regime plunged Argentines into darkness and terror, waging war against political and “moral” enemies. The National Reorganization Process, or El Proceso as it was known, claimed up to 30,000 lives. Much like Adolf Eichmann’s bureaucratic euphemisms gave mass murder an impression of legality during the Holocaust, Argentina’s “process” masked the gruesome work of the military government: purges of suspected subversives using torture, rape, and organized killing. This was a “dirty war” against a shadowy ideological enemy the military affirmed was set on destroying the rule of law and the nation’s way of life. The leftists, the dreamers, the world-savers, the Jews, the bearded, and the socially conscious were to be ripped like weeds from the body politic. Their names belonged on lists.

Hospital Posadas, where my parents worked as medical residents, entered the regime’s web of terror on the fourth day of the coup. At ten a.m. on Sunday March 28, and again on the following two mornings, Argentina’s agents of reorganization rolled into the hospital, smashing flowerpots with the treads of their tanks. Military men dressed in fatigues, carrying weapons, file folders, photographs and lists of names, spilled onto the plaza in front of the building. Inside, patients cowered behind curtains and workers became nervous, as rumors of ominous lists swept the tidy corridors. The shorthand “Dirty War,” first used by General Roberto Viola, implied a conflict in which conventional rules of war did not apply, since the enemy relied on “dirty” guerrilla tactics. For the military, Hospital Posadas was this enemy; a source of communist infection, its doctors and nurses synonymous with subversive activity.

For thirty years, my father had shared with my brother and me fragments of what happened. “I was in jail once, with other medical students,” he told us, tentatively, knowing we could hardly make sense of the story. My grasp of events at Hospital Posadas was tenuous until the judge’s report gave me a narrative from start to finish that read like a Hollywood thriller. I knew that my father was arrested and that the regime had targeted young doctors and nurses. But how a hospital and its idealistic students, seeking to touch the lives of Argentina’s indigent and infirm, came to symbolize a Marxist guerrilla movement was never clear to me. The judge’s investigation answered some of my questions.

Hospital Posadas has a convoluted history. It began with the name Perón, like everything in modern Argentina. The charitable Eva Perón Foundation purchased land in 1950 to build a hospital for respiratory medicine, the largest public hospital in Latin America. But in 1955, a popular uprising deposed President Perón, putting an end to the nearly-complete project. The next government, taking control of the site, opened a research facility called the National Institutes of Health, modeled on the U.S. NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. But this being Argentina, another coup followed, and the institute was shuttered. In 1971, officials inaugurated a new hospital at the site, taking Alejandro Posadas as its namesake. An Argentine surgeon, Posadas was the first to capture operations on film in 1899 and 1900. Hospital Posadas soon became a leader on the continent in research, clinical care and medical training.

I pressed my father for context and details to substantiate the judge’s story. From the beginning, he told me, the relationship between Hospital Posadas and the community surrounding it was troubled. Not because of anything the hospital did, but because the building’s former tenant, the National Institutes of Health, became the subject of rumors in the 1960s; whispers that research protocols used the local population in medical experiments, like laboratory animals or “little Indian rabbits.” Hospital Posadas inherited a community relations problem. Residents of nearby Carlos Gardel, a villa or district carved out in 1968 as part of a national plan to eradicate shantytowns, expected better treatment from the new hospital. Men from the slums sought employment as janitors and window washers and found a captive audience among doctors like my father, who in the spirit of the times, championed progressive causes such as the plight of the poor.

A coterie of doctors and nurses began working to improve the hospital’s standing in the community. Heeding the call of social justice, they introduced pediatric home visits, traveling to provide local families with the services of the spotless, well appointed Posadas. But these initiatives met resistance inside the hospital, where medicine was expected to cure disease, not solve social problems. Managers and an older generation of doctors opposed the self-directed efforts of maverick employees. “We couldn’t hide from Argentina’s poverty and simply pretend it wasn’t there,” my father explained. The hospital’s leaders thought otherwise.

At a June 1973 assembly, heated debates about the hospital’s role in the community reached a climax. Two thirds of hospital employees in attendance, including my father, voted to replace the Posadas administration with new blood. This workplace coup signaled larger shifts in society. Argentines were in a leftist mood, weary of the black-and-white binaries of the Cold War. They took inspiration from Chile’s Salvador Allende, a doctor-turned-socialist head of state. During this season of strikes, protests and occupations of public buildings, the Young Turks at Hospital Posadas were also participants. Their activism, and the dismissal of the institution’s directors, would not be forgotten three years later when the tanks arrived.

While reading the judge’s report, I remembered my father once telling me,in hushed tones, that as a medical resident he was called to a remote location to help a surgeon perform an operation on a patient whose identity was shrouded in secrecy. Half-listening to this story, the self-absorbed teenager that I was, I missed its significance. Years later, sitting at the kitchen table, the judge’s words before me, my father’s blue eyes still twinkling in his sunken face, I put the pieces together. I suddenly understood why he and his cohort became targets in Argentina’s Dirty War.

Just as locals were suspicious of Posadas as a source of elitist expertise and state control, the military regime that laid siege to the hospital spun its own tale about the site. The generals proclaimed doctors and nurses willing accomplices of communist subversion. Rumors circulated of underground tunnels that linked the building to left-wing guerrillas in the community. “A clandestine cell took over the hospital,” announced one newspaper, singling out for blame “doctors appointed in 1973,” who treated “seditious individuals wounded in confrontations with the forces of order.” According to the official narrative, radical elements had turned a prestigious public institution into a center of terrorist activity, replete with caches of weapons and a hidden operating room. These alleged guerilla-sympathizers and gun-runners were to be punished for using the hospital to abet the nation’s enemies.

The militares arrived at Posadas with a mandate, passed down from the highest levels, to circumvent legal structures in order to “cleanse” the facility of potential threats. Led by Reynaldo Bignone, the Secretary of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a dour man who spent years in Franco’s Spain, troops rained chaos on the hospital. A place of healing became a war zone, where uniformed men administered a daily regimen of torture and terror.

The first order of business was the rounding up of suspected individuals whose names appeared on lists. My father, upon learning he was a marked man, conferred with an ambulance driver who offered to spirit him away under the cover of wailing sirens. My mother was off that day. “To be on a list meant to disappear,” testified a hospital employee, “because no one knew where the detainees were taken. But worst of all was that no one knew what they had done to appear on a list.” My father, resolving not to put others at risk, steeled himself for detention. He had not done anything wrong, he concluded, so there was no reason to be afraid.

An hour after tanks breached the hospital entrance, a colleague spotted him crossing the building’s central hall, hands behind his neck, prodded by a soldier pointing a weapon at his back.

On the first day of the siege, Bignone’s men seized sixteen doctors and nurses. Roundups with more severe consequences followed months later. The detainees spent the morning under armed guard in an overheated staff lounge, the setting for the previous day’s lunch breaks and social gatherings. The room’s only telephone dangled from ripped wires, an indication of the group’s severed contact from the outside world. At noon, federal police arrived at the hospital, and an hour later, naval forces stormed the room and began calling names and loading prisoners onto vehicles while firing shots into the air. The judge’s report includes testimony from several surviving witnesses. Each one recalled the same detail in the chaos of the day: the buttons flying off my father’s wool sweater as he was hurled against a wall. The captives of Posadas, placed under the authority of “the national executive,” were transported to Devoto Prison, the country’s largest, which would soon specialize in dealing with subversives. Troops divided the group by sex and put them in cells until their release on April 9.

The hunted men and women of Hospital Posadas formed a tightly-knit circle. Like all medical residents, they shared intense around-the-clock schedules. Among the detainees were three married couples and a pregnant woman. Friendships and romantic relationships had flourished over the years, including one between my parents. These doctors and nurses approached medicine with a social purpose and had managed to redefine the hospital’s mission by orchestrating the removal of its administrators. They differed in many respects from the general population, but the list of names brandished by the militares reflected Argentina’s immigrant past. Assigned to a cell with colleagues, my father endured the drudgery of two weeks’ captivity in the company of Monteverde, an internist and intensive care specialist; Kravetz, a fellow gastroenterologist; Giles, a nurse; and a staff member called Ferreiro.

The hospital’s first casualties endured a terrifying ordeal. After ten days of confinement, the sixteen men and women, including my father, departed Devoto Prison in trucks, not knowing what fate awaited them. A doctor in the group recalled the silence that descended over the group while driving through a shantytown in the southern part of the Flores neighborhood:

“We thought they weren’t taking us to federal police headquarters (Coordinación Federal). We thought they were going to kill us somewhere right there. We reached police headquarters, finally, and as they unloaded us, civil police officers stood there with weapons. They put us up against a glass wall…These people cocking guns and engaging their silencers. Then one of them says, ‘These piece of shit Jews, they should all be killed.’”

Striking fear into the detainees and flaunting the regime’s antisemitism, the police released the group, but only after retaining their money and personal effects. Then, using new legislation that excluded “subversives and terrorists” from civil protections, officials stripped them of their right to practice medicine in Argentina. An exodus followed as members of a formerly happy group, dedicated to work and one another, fled a troubled continent. Leaving behind a familiar world, losing the proximity of friends and family, the sixteen employees of Hospital Posadas departed a country that was no longer theirs—my parents to the U.S., others to Brazil, Britain, Spain, Canada and Israel. For some at the hospital, there would be no such exit from history.

On our pilgrimages to see relatives in Argentina, I never once visited Posadas. The hospital stands today as a symbol of the open wounds of Argentine history. From the judge’s report, I learned of a two-story cottage behind the hospital, known as “El Chalet.” It housed the hospital’s directors until the 1976 coup, when military officials converted the residence into a “Clandestine Imprisonment Center.” The medical colonel who took over the hospital, Julio Estévez, used the chalet as a base for his security operations. Ten hired hit men, drawn from the army, air force, federal law enforcement and the police of Buenos Aires province – called “SWAT” in a bizarre reference to a hit TV show from the U.S. – became permanent fixtures at the hospital. In addition to harassing employees and generating a climate of fear, the paramilitaries brought suspected subversives to the chalet to conduct torture: beatings, electrical shock, feigned drowning and suffocation, and burns using cigarettes and lighters. Gladys Cuervo, a trauma nurse whose name brought a smile to my father’s face, was one of the few to survive detainment, albeit with multiple fractures and permanent scars. Her testimony, appearing in the judge’s report, reveals the sadism of her captors, who for seven years performed the regime’s daily work. Her words helped corroborate the deaths of hospital employees whose bodies were never recovered. Cuervo last saw her colleague, 32-year-old Dr. Jorge Roitman, impaled and lying on the ground in a delirious state, soaked in blood and urine, the result of torture sessions that culminated with his executioners pushing a pole through his anus.

The violent deaths of twelve hospital employees in November and December 1976 occurred at a public institution that, like others, remained open for business as usual. Patients came and went, nurses administered medicines, doctors made rounds. While hospital workers lived by the Hippocratic axiom “do no harm,” uniformed men broke bodies and spirits, systematically and perversely. Locals and passers-by witnessed the arrival of tanks and trucks and armed paramilitaries dragging victims into the street. Beyond the hospital’s leafy perimeter, Argentines looked the other way when confronted with ugly realities that separated this dictatorship from the others. From middle-of-the-night raids to coworkers vanishing without a trace, many invoked the refrain that made it all possible: Algo habrán hecho — [They must have done something]. My parents were particularly lucky; my mother was not at work when the tanks arrived. My father — set free, spared even the sight of torture — benefited from his early arrest in the first days of the junta, when the machinery of state terror was not yet fully in place.

This is why my father never brought me to the hospital. He took me to see his schools, his first apartment, the university where he studied medicine, the parks where he played, even his preferred destination for bringing first dates in his youth. But never the final setting for his life in Argentina. Because from the initial days of the junta, military leaders found willing, if silent, accomplices. Today, the old narrative – that ordinary Argentines were victimized in a long-standing conflict between the military and left-wing guerrillas – still stands. It has allowed citizens to avoid confronting ideological undercurrents that aided the regime in its war against leftists and alleged subversives.

Dirty War, the phrase that reappears in the judge’s report, shows how reality was concealed, or neutralized in Argentina. Historians have shown how the Argentine military excelled at ripping language from its everyday contexts to create an alternate reality. Saying someone has “disappeared” is not the same as calling it murder. The generals came to power with weapons but won over the public with words. They promised a better future, an end to Argentina’s pathological decline from one of the world’s richest countries to an economic and political basket case. Like previous generations, they were the product of a powerful mythology that lamented Argentina’s unfinished modernity; a national utopia that never was. This trope lives on today.

For my father, the fortuitous arrival of an envelope containing fragments of this past closed a circle that remained open for much of his adult life, just before it ended. The judge’s report made public the private world of his memories. It brought together the surviving members of the Posadas group, now officially exonerated of crimes against the state. “Unimaginable,” they said in a flurry of emails and phone calls across three continents. My father, in a whirl of mixed emotions, concluded that “history defies belief.” As I sat at the kitchen table beside him trying to make sense of the judge’s story, he told me he was reminded yet again of the unfulfilled promises of Argentine democracy. My father died six weeks later.

A few months ago, at an anti-government protest, as economic and political crisis beckon once again, a family friend overheard one man’s lament on a Buenos Aires street: “Only the military can fix this.”