Visiting Guatemalans see shades of Shoah in their plight

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In 1982, Guatemalan soldiers, trained by U.S. Green Berets, carried out operation "Scorch the Earth," a crack counter-insurgency assault in which hundreds of Maya villages throughout Guatemala were looted and torched.

The campaign killed many people. Some survivors fled to the mountains or to Mexico. But those who stayed in their villages knew that soldiers were always nearby. One day when Juana Gomez Ramirez was 9 years old, she returned from school to find her village of Copal AA ransacked, her mother crying and her father bleeding after being beaten, lassoed and tied up by soldiers.

Whenever Ramirez saw the smiling soldiers beating up the Maya farmers, her blood would boil. She vowed that she would not let these war criminals escape justice.

Last month, Ramirez, who is now 25, visited several Bay Area Jewish groups to tell her story along with Marcos Morales, the 30-year-old mayor of Copal AA. The trip was sponsored by the Jewish Sanctuary Coalition, a local group dedicated to helping the Maya.

One of the pair's stops was at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El — where, Ramirez said, her story made many congregants cry.

"They were moved by our talks; that's good," Morales said. "We want solidarity. We want them to hear our message."

Copal AA's ambassadors also ate dinner in the sukkah of Emanu-El Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, and compared the custom with one of their own.

"After building a home, all the neighbors come for an outside meal so no evil will come," Morales said. "Later, we will pray toward the skies for a good harvest."

Whether it's building new homes or planting crops, "accompaniers" from the JSC have been living in Copal AA since 1995. The accompanier, an American citizen skilled in teaching agriculture, reports to the outside world any atrocities committed by the army. Dan Sudran, JSC's founder, said the soldiers fear these accompaniers.

The JSC was founded in 1986 after Sudran, who lives in San Francisco's Mission District, met several Guatemalan refugees. Comparing their plight to that of Jews during the Holocaust, Sudran organized with local synagogues and churches to provide food, shelter and clothing for Guatemalan refugees who had recently moved to the Bay Area. In 1995 the group sent the first of its "accompaniers" to Copal AA, an isolated village located near central Guatemala.

"We wanted to do more than just write to Congress," Sudran said, drawing a laugh from Morales and Ramirez when the comment was translated to Spanish.

In addition to Spanish, the two Mayas speak Man, their native tongue. When Morales and Ramirez visited Brandeis Hillel Day School on their tour, the language fascinated the students, who had studied ancient Maya culture shortly before the Guatemalans arrived.

After teaching the youngsters some words in Man, the visitors attended Shabbat at Jewish Community Services of Oakland and Piedmont. After the service, they met a Holocaust survivor who showed them an identification number tattooed on his arm by the Nazis.

"When that man showed me his tattoo, I thought of my father and all the others beaten and tortured by Guatemala's army," Ramirez said. "The tattoo reminded me of their scars and bruises."

"I hope our government's appointed Truth Commission from the peace accords will bring Guatemala's war criminals to justice," added Morales.

Last December, a treaty signed between Guatemala's military government and the leftist guerrillas ended 35 years of war. However, Morales and Ramirez said they do not trust the regime and urged the Jewish community to pressure the Guatemalan Embassy.

"Since the treaties were signed, the Guatemalan government has been asking the International Community for money," Ramirez said. "We don't believe the money is going for schools and medicine, but is being used to support the corrupt and luxurious lifestyles of the generals instead."

According to Sudran, "Many Mayas…draw inspiration from the Jewish history of struggle and liberation."

The presence of the death squads make the situation in Guatemala "a Jewish issue," Sudran said. "We thought it shouldn't only be the [Catholic] churches" who help the Maya, he said.