Argentina protected Nazis, files show

March 18, 1992|By Dallas Morning News

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Confidential files made public Feb. 3 by order of President Carlos Menem show what many have long suspected: Argentina offered refuge to some of the world's most wanted Nazi war criminals and protected them for decades.

The men felt so safe in Argentina that several, such as Josef Mengele and Josef Franz Schwammberger, shed fake identities and went back to using their real names.

When international Nazi hunters closed in and sought help, police stalled repeatedly. The information police finally turned over was incomplete and misleading, the files indicate.

Even when police inspectors did try to shadow Nazis, the results resembled the Keystone Kops more than "The Odessa File."

The long-awaited look at the Nazi files has been painful to many in Argentina's Jewish community, the largest in Latin America.

Anti-Semitism, long a problem in Argentina, has stirred again. Someone recently painted swastikas on the walls of the cemetery where former dictator Juan D. Peron is buried. Extremists who deny the Holocaust took place have surfaced.

Mr. Menem's sudden decision to open the documents occurred after a trip to the United States, where Jewish groups pressured him to end the secrecy.

Leading Nazi hunters have long maintained that Argentina sheltered more war criminals than any other country in the hemisphere.

"It's a fact that they were detected, but never did anyone dare to give an order to detain them," wrote the news magazine Somos, which first published the files. "There was never the political will to fight them."

Argentines and foreigners who have spent years trying to see the musty files cheered the first step in "coming clean." Still, they wondered aloud about missing documents and entire volumes that appear to have been purged.

Argentina gave passports to 100,000 Germans after the war, the majority of them Nazis, said Samuel Kaplan, who leads the Jewish group B'nai B'rith in Argentina.

Peron, Mr. Menem's political godfather, directed the immigration. Besides Mengele, who is believed to have died while swimming in Brazil in 1979, Argentina harbored a half-dozen well-known Nazi leaders.

They included Adolf Eichmann, the colonel who designed the Third Reich's massacres of Jews. In 1960, Eichmann was abducted from Buenos Aires by Israeli commandos, tried in Israel, convicted and executed.

Another SS official, Walter Kutschmann, was accused of leading an execution squad that killed more than 1,500 Jews in Poland and Russia. He died of a heart attack in Buenos Aires in 1986 after police arrested him and were about to extradite him to Germany for trial.

Schwammberger was captured in 1990 at age 78. He is being tried in Germany for torturing and killing thousands of concentration camp inmates in Poland.

Under Mr. Menem's decree, the government must release all records about the Nazis in the coming days. So far, most files have come from the Federal Police Office on Foreigners.

Still missing are files from Argentina's immigration office, the military intelligence branch, the central bank and provincial police departments.

Jewish groups do not expect major revelations.

The papers released so far are full of trivia that show how Nazis lived with ease in Argentina until Eichmann's kidnapping.

The 2-foot-tall stack of papers contains few astonishing facts. But it confirms the worst speculations about the extent of help that European countries and the Vatican offered to fleeing Nazis.

Kutschmann, for instance, entered Argentina as a priest, with papers provided by the Spanish government. Postwar governments in Italy and West Germany aided others. Mengele got his passport from the International Red Cross. (The Red Cross and the Vatican last month said they helped only war refugees in need of humanitarian assistance.)

The documents do not solve several of the enduring mysteries of Argentina's Nazi connection.

Chief among those is why Peron allowed so many Nazis into the country. The word among Argentina's intelligentsia is that he took in hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of dollars for opening the doors.

Others believe that Peron, a fascist, wanted the newcomers to advise his air force.

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