November 9, 2002

The fate of Argentine Jews in the Holocaust



Few chapters in modern history have been so studied and documented as the one called ”Kristallnacht”, ”The Night of the Broken Glass”, the pogrom that took place in all Germany on the night of 9 November, 1938.

However, even though Kristallnacht, as well as the luck of many German-Jews who emigrated from Germany before and after November 9th, are chapters on which there is a lot of literature of different nature, little is known about one hundred Argentine Jews abandoned in the Third Reich despite of the efforts of the Nazi regime to try to save them.

There are well-known stories of dozens of diplomats who, opposing direct orders from their governments and risking themselves beyond prudence, helped people persecuted by Adolf Hitlers´s regime.

Raoul Wallenberg (Sweden), Aristides de Sousa Mendes (Portugal), Chiune Sugihara (Japan), Harry Bingham IV (United States), Luiz Martins de Souza Dantas (Brazil) or Monsignor Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (Vatican), among many others saviour diplomats, make us remember that courage and solidarity are eternal values that must be passed on from generation to generation.

These modern heroes could have chosen to enjoy a good life full of comforts, by doing exactly what is expected from a diplomat. Nevertheless, thanks to the fact that they did not forget that a diplomat is above all a public servant, who is firstly accountable to the people before their bureaucratic superiors; thousands of lives were saved from the Holocaust, the greatest industrial extermination in history. Due obedience is not precisely a high priority concept in the set of values of a public official.

In his book ”The Real Odessa” published at the beginning of the year 2002 in London, which recently appeared in the US and is to be published shortly in Argentina, Argentine writer Uki Goñi tells the story of one hundred Argentine Jews ignored by the Argentine Foreign Ministry, in spite of continuous efforts by high ranking Nazi hierarchs to avoid their extermination.

”Once and again Berlin offered Argentina the opportunity to repatriate its Jewish citizens” -around one hundred- ”who lived in Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, Italy and Greece. The Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, expressed his concerns about the fate of these people.” says Goñi.

Von Ribbentrop, a conspicuous anti-Semite and the first war criminal to be hanged after the Nuremberg Trials, did not act out of any noble humanistic feelings. His strategy was to preserve, in spite of strong opposition by Heinrich Himmler, the top leader of the SS, the excellent relations that Hitler’s Germany had with an Argentina then run by Perón’s colonels. Argentina provided Germany with a discrete, yet efficient, cover for a vast network of Nazi espionage as well as an ideal ground for laundering US dollars and the provision of essential supplies required for the war effort.

In January 1943, Goñi states in an impeccably documented work, the Argentine ambassador to Vichy, Ricardo Olivera, was called by the Germans to discuss the repatriation of about fifteen Argentines living in France. The Nazis wanted to let them go and gave Olivera three months to arrange their exit. Six months later an answer had yet not been received. Von Ribbentrop even sent Adolf Eichmann in person a memo in which he reminded him of the need to preserve the lives of Argentine citizens.

In March of the same year Luis H. Irigoyen, the Secretary of the Argentine Embassy in Berlin -a delegation with many sympathisers of National-Socialism, many of them in Himmler’s secret service pocket, according to Goñi – was called and told that 59 Argentines survived in Krakow, seven in Holland and many others in Greece. Sixteen Argentine identity cards were shown to Irigoyen as proof of what was being stated. The diplomat barely glanced at the documents and said: ”They are fake. The Argentine Embassy is not interested in the bearers of these apocryphal documents”.

On January 26th, 1944, and as a result of the intense Allied pressure, Argentina finally broke diplomatic relations with the Third Reich. The Argentine Jews no longer enjoyed protection and were detained and transported to the Bergen-Belsen camp.

Not much is known about the fate of these Argentine citizens but it is presumed that most of them were exterminated. ”Argentina thus became the only country in the world to refuse the repatriation of its own citizens.”, underlines the author.

According to Goñi, Irigoyen followed the instructions of the secret Directive 11 issued by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, José María Cantilo that, without mentioning them, referred to the Jews when he instructed all the Argentine consulates around the world to ”reject visas, even those of transit or tourism, of all those people who abandoned their country of origin because they were undesirable or because they had been expelled, whatever the reasons”. Directive 11, signed on July 12th, 1938, ”was the equivalent of a death sentence for thousands of European Jews”, Goñi points out.

At best, it is at least curious, that Luis H. Irigoyen should have been included, together with other eleven Argentine diplomats, in a ”List of diplomats who saved Jews”. The list was elaborated by the ”Commission for the Clarification of the activities of Nazism in Argentina” (CEANA), an organism of the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for the exhibition ”Visas a la Vida” (Visas for Life), presented in the last edition of the Buenos Aires Book Fair.

It would be a great contribution to the historical truth that this obvious contradiction is clarified so that all the people of good will can honor unequivocally the memory of the true saviors. The Argentines who perished in the Holocaust deserve to be remembered with dignity and respect.

* (With José Ignacio García Hamilton, Jack Fuchs and the Rev. Horacio Moreno)