By Maxine Lowy*

Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame
Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places.  Hannah Szenes, 1944

On a southern hemisphere spring afternoon in 1974, on November 18 to be exact, a young woman was walking along Emilia Tellez Street in a neighborhood northeast of downtown Santiago. Upon approaching the corner with Ossa Avenue, she noticed a white Chevrolet pickup truck that abruptly parked along the curb.
Sensing danger, she began to run. From the truck, plainclothes men fired one, two, three, and four times, perforating her abdomen. They forced her into the vehicle and sped away at top speed.

Her name was Diana Frida Aron Svigilsky, a 24-year-old journalist in charge of communications for the MIR at the time, when the military dictatorship had been in power in Chile a year and two months.  She was subsequently seen at the Villa Grimaldi detention and torture center, at the Military Hospital and at a place on Santa Lucia Street where the DINA secret police sometimes brought prisoners to recover from torture before resuming interrogations. After the interlude at this place, Diana was never seen or heard from again.

Nearly 50 years later, on the south side of the corner, an apartment building rises several stories, while on the north side of the corner, vehicles occasionally enter and exit a small strip mall, where tall palm trees stand guard at the entrance. A place like this is not retained in our memory longer than the seconds it takes the hundreds of cars to pass by it every day.

On Saturday, March 16, at Fanor Blanco Plaza, a small triangular-shaped plaza two blocks from that corner, nearly 200 people gathered to witness the unveiling of a monolith that will return the figure of Diana Aron to the neighborhood where she last lived, the same neighborhood where she was abducted. The memorial is the culmination of a project that during more than three years was driven by the Agrupación Judía Diana Aron (AJDA, Diana Aron Jewish Association) to rescue from oblivion Diana and the events that occurred there. The governmental National Monuments Council recognized it as a site of memory and the project was supported by the Ñuñoa municipal government.

Among those who addressed the public were Ñuñoa mayor Emilia Ríos, Ñuñoa Heritage Department director Alejandro Ancalao, Diana’s sister the psychologist Ana María Aron, and her close friend Loreto Rebolledo, the first woman appointed dean of the University of Chile’s Communications and Image Institute (ICEI).
Representatives of the Journalists Professional Guild, Villa Grimaldi Peace Corporation, and the former Santa Lucia Clinic Memory Site also spoke.

Mayor Emilia Rios noted, “This is an important date that will be remembered as the first time the municipal government has collaborated directly in marking the memory of victims of the dictatorship on our public territory. […] In so doing, we remind the community that horror passed through our neighborhoods as well. It has been a collaborative effort that we have to deepen. […] My congratulations to the organization that has made this contribution to the community and our municipality in Diana Aron’s name.”

Ana María Aron is a psychologist specialized in trauma management. Working through pain is something she knows about first-hand, after years of uncertainty associated with the never-ending absence she and her family experienced after the forced disappearance of her younger sister. At the event she affirmed, “This memory site is so very important because it not only remembers Diana. Dianita remains in the hearts of all of us who knew and loved her. This is a reminder that 50 years ago very terrible and painful things took place in our beloved country. […] When young people don’t remember it is because the old folks have not told them. It is our responsibility as people who have been in this world more years to tell what happened over and over again, so it will never happen again.”

Seeds of social conscience
Diana and her sister Ana María, along with their brother, grew up strumming a guitar and singing traditional Jewish songs. They also sang popular pop songs and publicity jingles for their parents’ radio program. The Aron family was well-known within the Jewish community. In 1920 their great grandfather Samuel Rotter was one of the founders of the Círculo Israelita synagogue in Santiago and both their mother Perla Svigilsky and their father Elias Aron were leaders of various Jewish institutions. The family was also immersed in the non-Jewish world around them. Colleagues and friends of her father, who published the pop music magazine Radiomanía, often visited the family home.

Ana María Aron notes, “Our family had a strong social commitment with the poor, with those who were suffering, keenly aware of our own position of privilege. This went for Jews and non-Jews alike. We had to help others.”

Another salient element of this family’s culture was the history of the Holocaust. In 1950, when Diana was born, Auschwitz had only been closed 5 years. The ashes of extermination were still recent memory.  The family knew survivors with concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms who had found refuge in Chile, and the historic novels of León Uris, such as Mila 18 about the Warsaw ghetto uprising, were voraciously read and re-read.

Perhaps these elements sowed seeds of social conscience in Diana.

Diana’s experience of living in Israel in 1967 and coming into contact with Palestinians, “… broadened her worldview and upon returning to Chile, she could no longer be indifferent to the poverty and lack of opportunities that afflicted many Chileans,” said her close friend Loreto Rebolledo. In March 1968, they both entered the first year of Catholic University school of journalism, where they became fast friends. “Her concern about others and her enthusiasm for putting her beliefs into practice led her to join the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left). With all the conviction and dynamism of her 20 years, she embraced a collective project of deep societal change.” It was a year of earthshattering events that underscored the key role journalists had to play in responsible, truthful reporting: university reform movements of France and Chile, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the massacre of students in Tlatelolco, the slaughter at My Lai in Vietnam and the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Loreto and Diana worked together at the Quimantú publishing house, created by the government of Salvador Allende to make a vast array of literature accessible to the majority of Chileans. At every place where Diana participated, she is remembered as a well-dressed young woman, often in high-heels, as was the fashion, who expressed her ideas firmly, assertively and calmly. Loreto recalls that “the passion with which she undertook everything, her commitment, her tenderness, and an almost maternal concern for others, despite her youth, were characteristics that are imprinted in everyone who knew and loved her.”

The military coup did not diminish her political and social commitment. Despite repeated pleas from her parents to leave the country, Diana never considered that possibility.

– Ana María Aron and mayor Emilia Rios, photo by Paulo Slachevsky

Jewish resistance of two generations and two continents
In November 1944, the same month but thirty years earlier than Diana’s abduction in Ñuñoa, 23-year-old Hannah Szenes faced a firing squad. She refused a blindfold, preferring to see the faces of her executioners.

The place was Budapest and her crime was that she had parachuted into Yugoslavia and snuck across the border to Hungary to warn Jews in that country that they were destined for Auschwitz. The legendary story of Hanna Szenes, one of hundreds of young Jews who joined the ranks of the resistance forces against the Nazis, is widely known, as it was to Diana.

In another generation and another continent, Diana Aron too was arrested for her participation in resistance actions against a dictatorship that systematically denigrated human dignity. Whereas Hannah’s heroism and courage is celebrated, in Chile, resistance against the dictatorship is often condemned and the topic remains nearly taboo.

Less known, like Hannah, Diana’s condition as a Jew may have precipitated her fate: a son of Cossacks and Nazi collaborators exercised his absolute power over a descendent of Russian Jews. When she was taken badly wounded to the Villa Grimaldi detention and torture center, army lieutenant Miguel Krassnoff Marchenko insisted in personally interrogating her. According to sworn court testimony from an informant at the scene: “What startled me was how Krassnoff came out of the torture room with his hands coated in blood, screaming, ‘Not only is she a Marxist; she is a Jew. She must be killed.” As he said this his face looked livid.”

Although many Jewish opponents of the dictatorship were arrested, and at least 22 were extra-judicially executed or forcibly disappeared, Diana’s is the only documented case in which Jewish identity was an aggravating factor in her murder.

Unlike Hannah Szenes, who is buried in a dignified grave visited by thousands, the circumstances surrounding Diana Aron’s final fate and whereabouts remain unknown. There is no place in which to leave memory stones, as is the Jewish tradition. The much-admired Hannah has been immortalized through monuments, books, museums, and her poems have been set to music. Yet the memory of Diana is not widely integrated beyond the community of human rights activists and political progressives. AJDA aims to change that through the memorial at Plaza Fanor Blanco.

Memory as moral reparation
The 1991 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission defines the obligation to undertake gestures of symbolic and moral reparation not only for the direct relatives of victims of dictatorship but also to help healChilean society as a whole. This concept frames the Nacional Property Ministry’s sponsorship of sites ofmemory, such as the memorial for Diana.

AJDA adapted the idea of everyday memorialization that was developed first in 1996 in Berlin by artist GunterDemnig, who began installing metal plaques known as Stolperstein in the sidewalks outside the last place of residence of victims of Nazism.  In 2005 the concept made its initial appearance in Buenos Aires with the “Baldosas por la Memoria” (Memory Tiles), installed since then in more than 3000 places throughout the country. The ceramic tiles “materialize the memory” of forcibly disappeared detainees during the last military dictatorship that ruled Argentina. Both are concepts of urban memory that surprise pedestrians and neighbors in their daily lives.

In Chile, similar projects are underway, notably by the Grupo de Memoria Popular of Renca, that commemorate victims of human rights violations by installing ceramic mosaics, plaques or other elements of material memory. The site of memory that profiles Diana Aron is not a ground-level plaque but still fulfills the objective of incorporating historic memory in our everyday lives, in this case, in the neighborhood of someone who perished on account of persecution by the dictatorship.

Architect Estelí Slachevsky’s eloquent design consists of a cement monolith severed by gaps that allude to the rupture of Chilean society. From its hollows emerge plants which suggest the persistence of memory and the ideals for which Diana was persecuted. On the structure’s upper section, the image of Diana was installed in the technique of painting over ceramic tile, produced by artist Carlos Lizama. It is a low-cost design that can be easily replicated to mark the steps of other forcibly disappeared detainees.

Each stage of production was carried out by hands of solidarity. When the moment came to construct the structure, union leader and history professor Juan Gutiérrez convened others to help build it. In his words, “We didn’t come aboard this project only because we knew how to work cement. We regard compañera Diana as our compañera, even though we didn’t meet her. We have no doubt that her intention was to transform society. She has become a victim of this system that sought to erase the people’s memory.” Ulises Gallardo, a Mirista of Diana’s generation, clarified, “What has been imposed is not oblivion but rather a reinterpretation of history that leaves us out.” Another member of the crew, Daniel González, a cybernetics expert, said, “I am proud to have participated in helping to keep alive the memory of Diana Frida.” Adriana Hidalgo added, “The monolith we have made clearly shows that cooperation and companionship still exist. We five people have not lost those values.”

photo by Paulo Slachevsky

Route of Memories of Ñuñoa
Three years ago, AJDA initiated the process of organizing, designing and planning a site of memory to honor the woman who is a guiding light for this Jewish progressive organization. As part of that process, members of AJDA actively participated in the Route of Memories Coordinating Board, convened by the Ñuñoa Heritage Department together with city councilwoman Kena Lorenzini and Corporación Agitar Memorias.

Geographer Tomas González, a staff member of the Heritage Department, followed clues that led to the discovery not only of torture centers but also places where the dictatorship’s agents planned repressive practices.

The monolith for Diana Aron is the only memorial installed in Ñuñoa in the framework of the 50 years that have passed since the military coup. It will be incorporated into the Route of Memories circuit that includes the National Stadium and the José Domingo Cañas Memory Center, among others.

Alejandro Ancalao, head of the Heritage Department, spoke at the memorial’s unveiling. He affirmed, “This doesn’t only involve the construction of a physical monument. It is the recovery of the dignity that was snatched away.  Marking our municipality’s space is recognition of the tragedy that marked our history. We are happy because this work not only visibilizes the dictatorship’s crimes; it is also an act of reparation and a tribute to Diana Aron as a woman, a dreamer, and as a neighbor.”

Barrio Arturo Prat 50 years later
Diana spent a great part of her teenage years in Ñuñoa. The Aron-Svigilsky family lived on the limits between Ñuñoa and Providencia, the siblings went to primary and secondary school at the Hebrew Institute, in those years located in Ñuñoa across the street from the former University of Chile Education School.

In the first months after the military coup, Diana and her boyfriend Luis Muñoz went from house to house, sometimes alone, at other times together. One night they stayed at a hotel and could hardly sleep, fearing that the managers would report them as a suspicious couple. At some point in 1974 they learned that a friend of the Aron family had an apartment to rent. So it was that they arrived at Rosita Renard Street, which gave them a respite. The address 1269 on Rosita Renard, the block between Las Agustinas and Emilia Téllez streets, no longer exists, and there is not a trace of the house.

Known as Población Arturo Prat, this neighborhood dates to the 1930s when dwellers had to build their houses themselves. In the early 1960s when the neighborhood leader Alejandro Jiménez was young, he would go to Príncipe de Gales Street, near where a subway station now is, to pick blackberries. Where Fanor Blanco Plaza stands today up to the wall that bounds with a tall apartment building, were the playing field and building of the local Club Maltería soccer team.

Cecilia Concha Laborde, photo by Marucela Ramirez

Since 1961, a few meters from where Diana and Luis lived, has been the location of the Helen Keller School for visually disabled persons, which continues to operate there. El Griego, a small grocery store on Hamburgo Street diagonally across the street from the square, endures from the times the couple lived in the neighborhood. It is likely that more than once they bought potatoes, bread or canned goods in the store, attended by its owner Juan Cucumides, who was arrested during the dictatorship. At one point, police barged in and raided Alejandro Jiménez’s house, as they did several other houses. Facing the small plaza, where today there is a complex of red-brick apartment buildings, a number of people lived in a shanty town whose dwellers in 1975 were evicted and taken away in trucks to rural Lampa, in north Santiago.  Jimenez notes that a great number of neighbors supported Allende’s Unidad Popular government before the coup.

All along the rim of Ossa Avenue were spacious houses surrounded by large tracts of land. Perhaps in one of those houses, lunch was interrupted by the sound of gunfire that afternoon of November 18, 1974.

Today, 50 years later, perhaps a neighbor returning from the produce market, a child playing on the swings, or a couple walking their dog might wonder what the new cement monolith in the plaza is about. Maybe they will pause to contemplate the image of the young woman smiling at them from the painted ceramic tiles and bend down a bit to read the inscription on the plaque. Each and every time someone learns her name and story, Diana will reappear in Ñuñoa.

* The journalist Maxine Lowy is a member of AJDA and was an active participant in the process of organizing the memorial.