Connect to share and comment

Argentina's anti-Semitic past

A Holocaust-denying bishop's extradition recalls Argentina's history serving as a refuge for Nazis and anti-Semites.

But despite the publicly severed ties between the Axis powers and Argentina, the military opposition (of which future president Juan Peron was a member) cultivated strategic deals with Nazi officials during World War II. And after the war, Peron's ascent to the presidency led to an influx in Argentina of Nazis fleeing a vanquished Germany.

These Nazis sought refuge all over South America. But — as journalist Uki Goni chronicled in his book "The Real Odessa" — Argentina was the region's only country known to actively encourage the immigration and employment of former Nazi party members.

Historian Jorge Camarasa, who has written extensively on the post-war Nazi exodus to South America, guesses that between 15,000 and 20,000 Nazis and collaborators settled in Argentina after the war. Between 200 and 400 of them had been responsible for war crimes, experts say.

To date, five of those war criminals have been extradited from Argentina to countries where they can be prosecuted. And Adolf Eichmann — who became infamous for his direction of Hitler's "Final Solution," which sent millions to concentration camps — was captured by Israeli intelligence forces in the suburbs of Buenos Aires.

That was almost half a century ago, and Camarasa says that nature and history have changed the landscape since then. "I doubt that there are still any Nazi war criminals left in Argentina," Camarasa said, calculating that the youngest officers in 1945 would be about 90 years old by now.

But others are not so sure. Widder, of the Weisenthal Center, says he's "moderately optimistic" that there are still Nazi war criminals living in South America, and that they will be found. Of course, there's no denying that even the healthiest of them don't have many years left. Hence the name of the Weisenthal Center's initiative to find and bring them to justice: Operation Last Chance.

The initiative has turned up 515 suspects from almost 30 countries worldwide.

The bulk of them are not believed to be in Argentina — a handful of European countries that fell under Nazi control in World War II dominate the list, and the U.S. and Canada also turn out to be popular Nazi refuges. But Argentina has yielded some of the most important war criminals in history, and just may be the current home of Operation Last Chance's most wanted fugitive: Aribert Heim, also known as "Dr. Death."

The New York Times reported evidence last month that Heim died in Cairo in 1992, having lived out the end of his life under an assumed Muslim identity. But Ephraim Zuroff, director of Operation Last Chance, is unconvinced. "The fact that his body can't be found is too perfect," said Zuroff, emphasizing that forensic tests of a corpse — DNA, dental structure — are the only sure way to establish someone's death.

And Zuroff thinks there's evidence that Heim is still alive. "Why hasn't his family claimed the 2 million euros in his bank account, which they could have done by simply presenting the death certificate?" he asked.

Zuroff, who claims responsibility for the investigations leading to all five of Argentina's previous extradition requests, said that he has invested much of the last four years searching for Heim in consultation with the German police. "We analyzed this case from every possible angle," he said, "and the suspicion was that he's probably in Patagonia," a large, picturesque region of southern Argentina and Chile.

There have been a number of reported sightings of Heim in the area in recent years. Operation Last Chance offers a hefty reward — the bounty just increased to 1 million euros — for information leading to Heim's apprehension.

Since those at the Weisenthal Center have no authority to make arrests, however, it's unclear what would happen even if "Dr. Death" or another war criminal is found in Argentina. “Is there the political will to investigate them and bring them to justice?” Zuroff wondered when he came to South America in pursuit of Heim in 2008.

But Zuroff is feeling more confident about local political will nowadays, having seen the strong Argentine response to the Williamson affair.

"There's no question that there's been an incredible change in Argentina from the days in which they were looking for Nazis to help them until today," he said.

Related GlobalPost dispatches:

Analysis: The pope and Hitler Youth

German Catholics leave the church

A new sort of off-shoring

The rise of Argentinian wine

The good times have dried up