Chilean Chronicles, Part XXXIV: On Sylvia Broder’s Courage

Sylvia Broder makes a point during a dinner she hosted at her apartment.

Sylvia Broder makes a point during a dinner she hosted at her apartment.

Our first six weeks here in Santiago have included a seemingly unending stream of glorious lunches and dinners that start late, end later and last anywhere from four to nine hours.

Thanks to dear friend Marjorie Agosin, colleagues at the University of Diego Portales, chief among them the remarkable Alejandra Matus, family connections, folks from Chicago and the Fulbright program, we’ve had the extraordinary good fortune to meet a wide range of fascinating, generous, committed and intelligent people who have opened their homes and hearts to us.

Yet even our lengthy initial meetings have allowed us to forge connections of a surprising depth, I’ve also felt an almost inevitable reserve of distance from the folks we’ve met. It’s as if, to draw from the Czech writer Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we don’t yet know if the words we are speaking mean the same thing on each side, or rather if we simply are speaking from a Dictionary of Misunderstood Words.

Now, though, we’re starting to see people for a second time, and are finding that the connections are getting deeper.

This was the case yesterday with Sylvia Broder, Marjorie Agosin’s cousin who had hosted us and two other couples for a lovely at her apartment in the Vitacura neighborhood the first Thursday after we arrived. She and the couples had previously lived in a property with five houses in Las Condes.

Sylvia and her family were in the middle, flanked on the right and left by each of the friends. The difference was more than geographic, as the friends on the left were politically left of center, while, Jorge Reizin, the husband on the couple of those who lived on the right was a self-described extreme right.

During an evening of free-flowing, jazzy conversation, among other topics, we talked about children, and, in
Sylvia’s case, grandchildren and the vagaries of home repair.

We covered the upcoming presidential election that features Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Mattei as the two of the nine candidates considered to have the best chance of winning and the complete failure of the Census to arrive at an accurate count. (Jorge advanced the theory that it was a deliberate effort by left-wing bureaucrats to enhance their power in the next government.)

Sylvia also told us about her personal history.

Her mother was a Polish concentration camp survivor, while her father was a Polish partisan who survived the war fighting in the woods like Tuvia Bielski of Defiance fame. Born in post-War Prague, she moved with her family to Chile with her sister at age 10. She did not know that she was Jewish, nor had she yet considered why, as opposed to her classmates, she had no grandparents.

But she did not tell us about the people she hid during the earliest week of the Pinochet dictatorship that took place nearly exactly 40 years.

There were two of them.

One she knew.

The other she did not.

She hid the one she had not met before in the first week after the coup.

Sylvia had gone to work at the Australian Embassy the morning of September 11, but instantly could tell something serious was happening.

She went to a friend’s house nearby, but wasn’t able to leave for two or three full days.

When she came out, she learned that the man needed help, and took him in without hesitation.

She did so, even though her action meant that she could have been detained, tortured or killed.

Even more, Sylvia advocated to help the man get out of the country.

The Australian government had not committed itself to an agreement that would have obligated it to take action to assist the man and other victims of the dictatorship, so Sylvia worked with officials of the Canadian government to provide him sanctuary.

Which they did.

Sylvia said she did not consciously think of her family’s background, her parents’ survival and her murdered relatives whom strangers had not helped, when deciding to take the man who did not speak into her home.

But she’s sure it played a role in her decision.

Several weeks later, a friend also needed a refuge.

Sylvia let him stay for closer to a month.

Her neighbor sheltered someone, too.

The fugitives hid during the day, and they all enjoyed themselves at night.

Sylvia said there were other neighbors who supported Pinochet and knew what she was doing.

But they didn’t turn her in.

The friend later escaped to Cuba, lived in other countries and eventually returned to his homeland.
Another one of Sylvia’s friends, a woman, called to take her to a family event.

After picking us all up downstairs, she took us on a knuckle-grabbing ride that evoked Woody Allen’s ride Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, and that ended for us at the bike store run by a couple who’s worked on bicycles in Santiago for 44 years.

We survived and started our walk down Providencia Avenue and past sites like the Fulbright office and Santa Isabel supermarket that have become increasingly familiar during the past six weeks.

As we walked, we were filled with a sense of quiet wonder at Sylvia’s unreflecting courage and at our great privilege of learning about the many layers she and others are already starting to reveal as we start to shed our initial interaction of host and guest and begin to relate to each other as fellow journeyers on the road of life.


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