Iwas born in Buenos Aires in 1946. My mother left my father when I was two years old; it was a sudden end to a failing marriage, and she took me with her (my brother and sister, both older than me, stayed with our father). We moved into a recently finished apartment building. I still remember what must have been my first hours there as soundless images of bare walls and naked light bulbs dangling from ceiling roses. If I were pushed to associate an emotion with that early memory, unhappiness wouldn’t feature at all-just a feeling of puzzlement or disorientation.
Unhappiness would come later, once I was old enough to understand the reality of a divided family. It must have been at that time that I began to realise that our building was a postwar Noah’s Ark. Many of the residents had fled Europe before or after 1945. Among the earlier escapees was Nicolas Benoist, the leading stage designer for La Scala in Milan, and his family. I remember the impression made on my child’s eyes by his sketch for a scene in Wagner’s Ring: a gloomy, cavernous space dramatically lit by a raging fire. There was a contrast between the energy of that image in their sitting room and the air of melancholy of Signora Benoist and her young son. Some time before I met them, the paterfamilias had announced one evening that he was going out to buy the evening paper. Instead he went to the airport and took a plane back to Italy, never to return.
In the apartment above ours lived the Nicolaus family from Greece. Here the family unit had remained intact, and holy icons were the reminder of the life they had left behind. Another Greek touch were the Homeric rows between husband and wife. Occasionally I played with their daughter Tamara, who was my age, but our friendship didn’t last. During a dispute over a toy she showed signs of ancestral temper and threw my goldfish out of the window.
My favourites were the Martins, who lived across the lobby from us, and pampered me with the wistful affection of people who can’t have children. They were Austrians. Unlike the other refugees from the war, their domestic life-and they themselves-had an aura of contentment. Carlos (Karl?) was an engineer, probably in his early forties. He worked as production manager for an Argentine company which made fridges. His job was humdrum-but there is nothing dull about my memories of him.
I saw my father on Sundays-an arrangement sanctioned by a judge. My everyday life couldn’t be discussed with him because it involved my mother, and she was a taboo subject. Neither could I bring myself to mention how sad I was about her evident misery because he was suing her (for my custody, although I didn’t know that at the time), so we were left with little to talk about, other than the presents he gave me when I climbed into his car, or the films he took me to after lunch at my grandmother’s house. The sight of his face lit by the glow from the screen features vividly in my memory, because it was the only time I had him to myself, even if we couldn’t talk.
But I could talk to Carlos Martin. I could tell him whatever bothered me, without having the feeling that I was pulling the pin from a grenade. Eva, his wife, was a few years younger. It could be that she was as personable as Carlos, but I didn’t need a second mother. I was too young to classify her; now I would define her as a hausfrau, with all the warmth of the type but no stodginess. She told my mother how unhappy she was to be infertile. Otherwise, if perfect marriages exist, theirs seemed to be one.
At that age I could not identify either a refined manner or great charm, qualities I recognised later in my memories of Carlos Martin. According to my mother, he was well-read and intelligent. They made no secret of their life in Austria. Carlos had worked in the armaments industry, as most engineers did during the war, and then they had left a ruined country in search of a new start and a better life. It didn’t sound like an unreasonable explanation in Buenos Aires, where people had always come from Europe in the hope of a better future, escaping a succession of European catastrophes through the centuries. Few wanted to dwell on their European past in any detail, nor were they expected to.
My mother hated fascism and she was virulently anti-Peronist. Both subjects must have come up in her conversations with the Martins; if they had shown sympathy in either direction, she would have distanced herself. Their impeccable manners slipped only once, when my mother had asked them to dinner and they stood her up at the last moment because they had been invited to a party at Fritz Mandl’s house. Fritz Mandl had been one of Germany’s armaments tycoons; he moved to Buenos Aires in 1943, invested his fortune there, and had excellent contacts with the Peronist government. He could be very helpful to Carlos Martin’s career, something mentioned in their last-minute apologies-as well as the fact that they had never met him before.
It must have been around 1951 when the Martins announced that they were leaving. Carlos had been offered a much better job in Mexico. In five years, Peronist policy had turned Argentina from a rich country into a nearly bankrupt one, so the Martins’ decision was understandable. Friends who visited them in Mexico City told my mother that he was doing very well in his new job. They lived in a large house with servants. A year later they came back to Buenos Aires for a short visit. I had started primary school, and Carlos brought me an expensive fountain pen which became my prize possession. This, and a splendid gift for my mother from Eva, confirmed the stories about their new opulence.
My mother exchanged letters with them occasionally. She must have told them about the outcome of the case about my custody, in 1952. She lost, but then my father agreed that I should stay with her (it was an early, reversed version of Kramer vs Kramer, a film I will not watch a second time). It was during one of our afternoons in the cinema, in December 1954, that my father felt ill and took me home before the end of the movie. He had a stroke that night, and died two weeks later. My mother must have written to the Martins to tell them of my father’s death, because I remember she was very moved by their reply-in joint name, although in Carlos’s handwriting. Years later she described it to me as one of the most affectionate and intelligent letters she had ever received. It focused on the difficulty of her feelings at the time, the trauma of the court case, and the need to mourn someone she had once loved, even if that love hadn’t lasted.
My mother doesn’t keep letters. Now that my childhood is so far back in my memory, I wish I could read it, because it also spoke at length about the Martins’ love for me, and their good fortune in having me near them during those years in Buenos Aires. The luck was mutual. Carlos Martin had been as close to a father figure as I could have had from Monday to Saturday, when my own father wasn’t there.
Some time in 1956, Eva’s aunt in Vienna telephoned an Argentine friend of the Martins in great distress, asking for their whereabouts. She had been very ill, and they had come to stay with her until she recovered. Once she was well again, they told her that they were taking a short break in the south of France before going back to Mexico. After a month she had telephoned their house in Mexico City several times, but there had been no reply.
Soon after her aunt’s telephone call, a friend in Buenos Aires received a postcard from Eva Martin, bearing Indian stamps and postmarked New Delhi. She said they had been travelling around India for a while and had been very ill, but now they were well again, and they would return to Mexico City soon. They never did. That was the last anyone in Buenos Aires ever heard from the Martins. Enquiries revealed that Carlos Martin had never had a job in Mexico. Who they really were, how they paid for their luxurious lifestyle in Mexico City, where they went or what happened to them are questions which remain unanswered.
I don’t “love” them any more. It’s too far back. I wouldn’t even recognise them now. We had no photographs of the Martins, so nothing has shielded my early visual memories against the accumulation of other faces I’ve known and loved over nearly 50 years. What I remember vividly is their love for me, and I treasure that memory.
Ever since their disappearance, my mother and everybody else who knew the Martins in Buenos Aires have been certain that Carlos must have been a most-wanted Nazi. He might have been responsible for brutal crimes. He was also the man who taught me how to ride a bicycle and-having learned Spanish only after he came to Argentina-could use the diminutive and augmentative suffixes in an unusual but grammatically correct way, to turn my Christian name into the sweetest nickname possible, as if Little Big William could be turned into a single English word. But what should I do with those sweet memories of a man who may have done monstrous things?
The dilemma bothered me enough to contact someone whose life has been devoted to the investigation of Nazism, and who has brought to public attention one of the worst war criminals on record. After I told my story, I hoped for a lead which would help me identify Carlos Martin, and turn near-certainties into unquestionable truth. The answer was not what I expected. “Why do you want to know? How would it help you? Either he’s dead by now, or justice was done by others long ago. Just remember him as the loving man who was very kind to a little boy.”