Early one morning two years ago, soldiers of the Argentine military junta burst into the Timerman's apartment and carried off Jacobo.
Like thousands of others suspected of leftist sympathies, Jacobo Timerman "disappeared." But unlike the others, the Jewish editor of an intellectual daily newspaper surfaced after a year, obviously tortured, still under suspicion but never formally charged with any cirme. The junta "released" him to house arrest last year.
Fours guards camp out in his kitchen; their guns at the ready. They keep the radio and television blaring, invade the family refrigerator and have badgered Timerman and his wife into two or three small rooms; she cooks on a camp stove installed in a bathroom, just to avoid the noise.
The four guards are there to make sure the ailing 56-year-old journalist doesn't step outside his door, converse with others than his family or sign any documents. "When he first 'disappeared,' I never thought for a moment that he might be tortured. When I saw him again, I couldn't imagine that he had not been," Timerman's wife, Rischa, told reporters yesterday.
"They asked him questions like, 'What's Begin's connection with the (Argentine) terrorists?' and 'Where do the Elders of Zion meet?'" she said.
To those Americans who have never been questioned under torture, Rischa Timerman may be just one more famous foreign wife, trailing mournfully behind Avital Scharansky and Isabel Letelier in their common efforts to bring their husbands' plights to world attention. Each, in turn, has wound up in the United States, trying to shock the public with gruesome images and snatch a little of its influence while it is reeling with pity.
"You may ask how it's possible that after 2 1/2 years, my husband continues to be held, after all the international requests for his release, and after a military court has ruled that he is innocent of any connection with the terrorists," she said at the National Press Club yesterday.
"He campaigned for human rights, he was brave . . ." she said, adding the quick Spanish phrases, one by one, to the slower English efforts of her translator. She urged him on, interrupting, rephrasing, searching the faces of her audience as if by sheer effort she could make them understand.
"He was the most listened to, the most well known, the most admired, and" -- a pause in which her pale wide him," said Larry Birns, director of the most successful. For these reasons, he was the most hated as well."
The press conference was the first stop in a lobbying trip that included a meeting with Pat Derian, assistant secretary of State for human rights and humanitarian affairs, and 25 senators.
After meeting with Mrs. Timerman, Sen. Richard Stone (D-Fla.) placed a call to her husband from the Senate cloakroom.
"I felt it was worth a try, because sometimes it's surprisingly easy to reach Soviet dissidents," he said. "I had a 10 or 15 minute chat with him -- he said he was healthy . . . and hopeful, now."
Rischa Timerman is tiny but not frail, understated in everything but her probing light-green eyes. A patent well-dressed dignity reveals a moneyed and elegant background -- so genteel that she recoils most sharply at "the dirt these guards generate, just by being there."
That background -- and its accompanying visibility -- so far has helped make Jacobo Timerman one of the lucky ones in Argentina, a country where international human rights organizations charge that between 8,000 and 20,000 persons have disappeared. The Argentine government recently paved the way to have them declared legally dead in a blunt tactic to discourage further questioning about their whereabouts. Timerman's international stature has surely prolonged his days, and has given his wife the singular freedom of movement to travel to Washington, where she was immediately claimed as a symbol in proxy.
They Anti-Defamation League put dibs on her in New York; her trip to Washington was in custody of a Spanish-speaking rabbi who ushered her from appointment to appointment, helping her delineate the very serious situation of Jews in her country.
"Hay un clima que no es bueno -- there's not a good climate for Jews," she said carefully. "Though they're not yet murdering them in the synagogues. . ."
True, charges that Timerman is a Zionist have probably not helped his case. But it would be an unfair extrapolation to reduce his case to one of sheer anti-Semitism.
Timerman's house arrest paints a wider picture of the subjection of a whole country, and the sacrifice of its intellectuals and artists in a clumsy quest for political consolidation.
When Argentine President Jorge Videla took power in 1976, vowing to clean out leftist terrorists, among his first victims were psychiatrists.
A series of articles this summer described other victims of the junta: The young engineering student and his baby and pregnant wife, kidnaped a year ago, vanished ever since; the 26-year-old professor's son, imprisoned for the past three years in a 6-by-9 foot cell; the 21-year-old daughter of an established lawyer, picked up one night three years ago while working with a group of nuns in a poor barrio of the capital, never heard from again . . . . The junta has concentrated its attacks not only on leftists but also on the upper classes, and the well educated in general.
As for Timerman, "They don't have a case against him, they just hate eyes searched harder -- "exitoso -- the Washington-based Council on Hemisphere Affairs that does policy studies in Latin America.
"He symbolized the qualities they want to purge -- he is too brilliant, he questioned basic institutions, he gave hospitality to the ideas of pioneer thinkers," Burns said.
(Although the government originally held Timerman without comment, international pressure eventually forced it to reveal he was being investigated for "economic crimes." The alleged crimes were never officially specified, but stories in Argentina's press made vague references to Timerman's possible association with the then-famous case of Argentine financier David Gravier.
Anxious to prove a connection between Montonero guerrillas and monied intelligentsia that supported the government the military overthrew, the military announced that Graiver, who by then had been killed in a plane crash, had been the Montonero financial adviser.
Many were arrested, few were officially charged and even fewer were convicted -- all in secret trials without public presentation of evidence -- in the much ballyhooed case. Timerman knew many of them and the government did not like Timerman.)