A Conversation About The Past

Testimony as reparation

By María Delgado

My grandfather was disappeared in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War; my father and my aunt came to Great Britain as refugee children that same year. My father died seventeen years ago, my aunt no longer can recall neither her past nor the War because of her advanced Alzheimer’s. The memory of the fighting must be transmitted; remembering is my responsibility because my father and aunt are either no longer here or unable to do it.

Emilio Silva Barrera, Josefina Musulén Jiménez and María del Pino Sosa Sosa testified in February 2012 on the hostile and imposing Supreme Court of Madrid, which, as Emilio pointed out, intimidated and scared them. And they testified in what has come to be known as the trial for historical memory against Baltasar Garzón, because they needed these truths to be heard by a society that built its democracy on the foundations of mass graves where more than 140,000 people disappeared. The act of remembering becomes thus an act of resistance, a sustained commitment their bodies engaged on, in the act of speaking out. It’s about making sure that these crimes against humanity remain on the public arena.

In 1784, German writer Schiller wrote: “the theater domain begins where the sphere of secular law ends”. Schiller believed that the theater –which comes from the Greek word teatron, the place where you watch– is an area where the laws that turned out to be dangerous or unreasonable can be questioned. The stage as an alternative sphere of justice, a place where judicial shortcomings are exposed and, even more important, where they can be corrected.

On September 29th, 2018, in Barcelona, I saw a group of actors read The Bread and the Salt. After the dramatized reading, during an open conversation, I heard Josefina Musulén Jiménez and Maria Antonia Oliver, who testified before the Supreme Court on the disappearance of her grandfather, and whose words close the film we just saw. They talked about the work of Raul as an act of transmission and dialogue, a way of making sure that many more people learn about what happened. “I thank you –said Maria Antonia– for carrying our testimonies, which is actually a form of picking up the testimonies or our disappeared, and bring them here today so people can hear them.”

The Bread and the Salt speaks to us about a past that couldn’t be talked about for many years; it allows us to listen carefully and with empathy. The Bread and the Salt helps the testimony circulate over and over on a stage where, as Schiller points out, the judicial shortcomings can be corrected. The Supreme Court may have attempted to close the debate, but we can hear the testimonies demanding justice again both in The Bread and the Salt and the stage of the El Pampero Cine film. And the audience, each one of us spectators, make our own minds and pose our own questions, just like the two actresses, Luciana Acuña and Laura Paredes, meet in front of the screen and engage with the testimony of the film; just like Rubén Szuchmacher who is directing both the trial that is reenacted for the film and the Argentine actors who read the testimonies of Emilio, Josefina and María del Pino; just like Alejo Moguillansky, whose film sets the Argentine and Spanish testimonies in a dialogue that triggers a process of reflection. And this form of dialogue helps us realize that democracy should never be a closed door but a continuous process of negotiation and debate where we relate to our inherited past providing some meaning to our present day and building the future we wish to see.

That night in Barcelona I heard María Antonia Oliver describe how she felt judged while testifying before the Supreme Court: they didn’t let her express what she meant to say. She compared it to what had happened years later when she came to seek judicial help in Buenos Aires: “When I got heard, I no longer felt like a victim”, she said. And this afternoon, during the Five O’clock Tour at the ESMA Museum, we heard her. We heard words by María Antonia, María Maggio, Jorge Castro Rubel and Lita Boitano, witnesses in the Unified ESMA Case. We heard about the children stolen in Spain, which may add up to 300,000, while the Mother of Plaza de Mayo Lita Boitano spoke about the need to locate the remains of her disappeared children. «When we talk and picture the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo —mothers and grandmothers— it means there are children and grandchildren here”, says María Antonia. Mothers, grandmothers, children and grandchildren speak of absence. Just like with the words of judge Baltasar Garzón and former prosecutor Mercedes Soiza in the film, they remind us what literary critic Shoshana Felman calls «the responsibility of truth ». «We come», as María del Pino Sosa Sosa says, «for justice». Maria Maggio insists on the right to truth and justice.

The debate we heard during the Five O’clock visit reminds us of the interconnectivity between these events in Spain and Argentina. Philosopher Aleida Assman points out that: “The introduction of the Argentine terminology and symbols served as an external trigger for Spanish memories to remerge in the arena of social debates “. Daniel Rafecas, a federal judge who tried crimes against humanity, points out that there were 17 years of impunity in Argentina, and recognizes the importance of the crack Garzón opened for both Argentina and Chile. Anthropologist and Head of the National Memory Archives Mariana Tello reminds us that justice was built up from the bottom both in Spain and Argentina. But the attention has been the greatest difference between both countries. Again, the importance of the act of listening.

Ana Messuti, a lawyer in the Argentine case against crimes committed by the Franco regime, has talked to us today about the universal nature of these crimes and the importance of international human rights rules. Twenty-five years ago, the Serbs in Bosnia seized the city of Srebrenica and, in the two weeks that followed, slaughtered more than 8,000 Muslims. In the 25th anniversary of the beginning of that massacre, only two weeks ago, I heard the president of the Association of Srebrenica Mothers, Munira Subasic, speaking in a ceremony that took place in the outskirts of the city, at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and cemetery:

«My first message is for war criminals, those who committed the crime of genocide. We will pursue you and we will never wear down. One of us will always be there to chase you. It is our right and our duty.«.

Every time we hear these testimonies, every time a grave is dug up, as Emilio Silva reminded us, we engage in a conversation with the past. We must, as Jacques Derrida reminds us, listen and talk to the ghosts. The testimonies stand as reminders of injustice, of what is yet unanswered, of those who haven’t been tried yet, of the horrors of impunity. As The Bread and the Salt author Raúl Quirós reminded us, “the death of the dictator didn’t end the Franco regime”. The traces of Franco are still very present in Spanish society.

In Antigone, one of the most ancient plays of Western culture, Antigone dies because she feels the ethical responsibility to bury her brother Polynices. Antigone must take action. We have the duty of giving a proper burial to our dead so they can rest in peace. In Hamlet, Shakespeare’s famous play, his father’s ghost rules over his son and forces him to remember. And Hamlet must take action. Mariana Tello has reminded us that if the dead don’t rest, neither will the living. The testimonies of Josefina, Emilio and María del Pino takes place through the ghostly presence of Argentine actors Eugenia Alonso, Mauricio Minetti and Ana María Castell, who demand we hear them through the grainy Zoom images. They are acts or re-appearing. They are the ones who return. “A work of theater”, says Conti Cultural Centre director Lola Berthet, “is always a work a memory”. These testimonies remind us that the debt we have with our dead ones, as Mariana Tello said, “stops being an issue of the victim to become an issue of us all”.