From the Silence of a Prison Cell in Uruguay

By Ilan Stavans

Published June 18, 2004, issue of June 18, 2004.
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‘Silence is the real crime against humanity,” states Mauricio Rosencof in his wrenching autobiographical novel, “The Letters That Never Came.” He ought to know: Rosencof, who was accused of being a subversive and attempting against Uruguayan sovereignty, spent 13 years in prison before regaining his freedom in 1985, with the return of the democracy to Uruguay and the declaration of an amnesty for political prisoners. Of those 13 years, 11 1/2 were spent in solitary confinement and almost total inactivity.

His cells were filthy and barely 3 feet by 6. His diet was atrocious and he spent long periods on the verge of starvation, sometimes drinking his own urine to stay alive. He was tortured savagely and repeatedly and had to be hospitalized on several occasions. Except for a 30-minute visit with members of his immediate family once a month, he saw no one, talked to no one and heard no human voices except those of his captors, who were under strict orders to address him only with insults and commands. To pass the time, Rosencof would watch a spider on the wall, studying the web it carefully designed. Or else, he would set his mind free, revisiting every moment in his life, from his childhood in a working-class neighborhood in Montevideo to his apprenticeship as a journalist, his experience as a playwright, and his involvement with the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional (MLN-Tupamaros), an urban guerrilla movement active in Uruguay from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. But never, ever, did he capitulate to silence.

A best seller in the Spanish-speaking world when it first appeared in 2000, and the first of Rosencof’s books to be translated into English, “The Letters That Never Came” is a stunning document, rendered successfully by Louise B. Popkin. The device it uses is at once elegant and suggestive. While Rosencof was in captivity, a shadowy image kept popping into his head. “It was, of all people, the postman in our neighborhood in Montevideo,” he would later tell the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. The postman was a messenger of hope.

During their first years in Uruguay, the Rosencofs regularly received letters from their relatives back in Belzyce, Poland. “Marriages, births, deaths, even how many eggs the red hen had laid. Papa would read them to us at Sunday dinner over Mama’s chicken soup. The letters were in Yiddish and I didn’t understand them, but in prison I clearly remembered the joy he experienced with every one.”

Mysteriously the letters stopped coming in 1936. It was clear later that, after the Nazis had invaded Poland in 1939, Rosencof’s Polish relatives were transferred first to the Lublin ghetto and from there to Auschwitz and Treblinka. In “The Letters That Never Came,” Rosencof himself completes the correspondence.

The first part of his autobiographical novel evokes the neighborhood where he came of age. In vivid colors, he depicts the struggles of Yiddish-speaking immigrants to the Southern Cone. He mentions Khevl Katz, the legendary Argentine-Jewish songwriter whose original lyrics mixed Yiddish and Spanish in a vernacular not unlike the Spanglish of Latinos in the United States today; the Jewish cemetery La Paz, in Montevideo, where approximately 98% of the nation’s Jews are buried; the cuenteñicks, door-to-door peddlers who were paid by their Jewish customers in installments. Interspersed among his reminiscences are the letters that he imagines his European relatives would have written from the ghetto and from the camps. In the rest of the book, Rosencof relives and reflects upon his experience as a prisoner. Via his imagination, he returns to the dungeons, where mentally he composes a long letter to his parents.

But Rosencof’s poignant work is about survival as well as suffering. Words link five generations of Rosencofs, the Old World to the New, the plight of a Uruguayan to that of Hitler’s victims, and his own struggle to theirs. In the solitude of his dungeon, the author feels the presence of Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and his followers. “They resisted, Papa, they resisted, it was the first uprising in all of Europe, and it was theirs, Viejo, it was ours, and that’s what gets us through….” By joining these tales of torment and endurance, Rosencof poses fundamental questions about repression, resistance and the human condition.

“These days,” he has one of his relatives write from the camps, with a moral authority born of maturity and self-awareness, “I’m wondering where our screams go. They can’t get lost, that’s unthinkable. They can’t possibly vanish, just fade away, die out, die for no reason, screams were made for a reason, they were screamed for a reason. Screams don’t die.”

No, screams don’t die. Rosencof’s imagined letters, those letters that never came, are a meditation on his Jewishness and a coming-to-terms with his pain. They are also — fittingly — his repudiation of silence and, as such, his assurance of survival.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College in Mass. This is an abbreviated version of his introduction to “The Letters That Never Came” (University of New Mexico Press, 2004).

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