BUENOS AIRES, Apr 27 (IPS) – Argentina has served as a refuge for infamous Nazi war criminals like Adolf Eichmann and Joseph Mengele, with the active complicity of government authorities.
And there are still efforts to conceal the country’s anti-Semitic past and events that led to the deaths of around 100 Argentine Jews living in Europe.
Since 2001, the Argentine Foreign Ministry has refused demands from international Jewish organisations for the public release of a secret circular signed in 1938 by the then foreign minister, ordering Argentine consuls in Europe to deny visas to ”undesirables or the expulsed” — an allusion to European Jews.
The groups — the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation — also continue to demand that the Foreign Ministry justify its 2001 decision to place a commemorative plaque in the ministry in honour of 12 Argentine diplomats for showing ”solidarity with the victims of Nazism.”
Recent investigations have revealed that at least one of the 12 diplomats failed to repatriate around 100 Argentine Jews living in Greece, the Netherlands and Poland, who ended up in death camps.
The rest of the diplomats, in the best of cases, merely fulfilled their consular duties in completing the paperwork for Argentine citizens who wished to return to Argentina, the organisations argue.
For the past four years, the two organisations have been calling on authorities to divulge the circular. Classified as ”strictly confidential”, it was signed in 1938 by then foreign minister José María Cantilo.
The document, to which IPS had access, was unearthed 60 years later in the Argentine Embassy in Sweden by Argentine researcher Beatriz Gurevich.
”We are asking that it be divulged and symbolically repealed,” said Sergio Widder with the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which tracks down Nazi war criminals around the world.
”We believe it would be an act of reparation that would have more pros than cons for the government,” he told IPS. But ”there are very traditional sectors in the public administration that are resisting this step towards openness,” he added.
Widder found similar resistance in the State Intelligence Secretariat and the Argentine Bishops Conference, which denied that they possessed any documents on the period in question.
The Interior Ministry, on the other hand, ordered a review of the Migration Department files, although only two of the 49 files requested by the Centre have been opened so far.
According to Widder, as many as 15 Nazi officials may still be living in Argentina under assumed identities, but the slow pace of the investigations has made it impossible to capture them.
The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation is named after a Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews during World War II (1939-1945). It is dedicated to keeping alive the memory of those who ignored orders and took risks to help Jews escape the persecution in Europe, by hiding them or providing them with fake passports.
Gustavo Jalife, a member of the Foundation, pointed out to IPS that the Foreign Ministry has the original document uncovered by Gurevich, which was described in 2002 in the book ”The Real Odessa” by Argentine journalist Uki Goñi.
But the Foreign Ministry, led by Minister Rafael Bielsa, has refused to divulge or annul the secret order, which is still formally in force.
In his book, Goñi reports that in 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Reich Main Security Office, meeting with other Nazi leaders to discuss the ”final solution” to the ”Jewish problem”, said mass deportation was impossible because third countries were closing their borders to Jewish immigration.
Referring to Argentina, the author writes that probably no other country went to such extraordinary lengths to cancel and block Jewish entry visas.
The book also tracks the complex network put in place by the first government (1946-1955) of Juan Domingo Perón (the founder of the ruling Justicialista Party) to help Nazi officials escape to Argentina.
According to Goñi, the Argentine Foreign Ministry circular, which predated Perón, was aimed at keeping Jews fleeing Adolf Hitler’s Germany out of Argentina.
Thus, he says, it backs up Heydrich’s justification that the denial of entry visas by foreign countries demonstrated that emigration was not a viable ”solution” for the ”Jewish problem”, and that outright extermination was the only answer.
With respect to the Argentine diplomats whose ”solidarity” with Nazi victims has been questioned by the Jewish organisations, Goñi provides documentary evidence in his book that casts a shadow on one of the 12 diplomats commemorated by the Ministry’s plaque: Luis Irigoyen, the secretary of the Argentine Embassy in Berlin in the 1940s.
Despite attempts by German officials to get Buenos Aires, which remained neutral until the end of WWII, to repatriate Argentine Jews from countries under Nazi rule, Irigoyen refused entry permits to around 100 Argentine Jews living at the time in Poland, the Netherlands and Greece, who were later shipped to the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen death camps.
Among the documents discovered by Goñi in his research were several from the office of German official Eberhardt von Thadden, the link between Eichmann (responsible for the deportation of Jews to extermination camps) and the foreign diplomatic corps in Berlin.
The official describes in detail months of fruitless efforts to get Irigoyen to repatriate around 100 Argentine Jews living in the three European countries in question.
Mr. Irigoyen emphatically explained that Buenos Aires had no interest in this matter, wrote von Thadden.
With another document, Goñi shows that Irigoyen, in his second meeting with von Thadden, claimed that the passports of 16 Argentine Jews living in Warsaw, who the SS had handed over to him to send back to Argentina, were ”fake”.
Goñi argues that even if the passports were false, Irigoyen’s actions clearly do not merit homage.
Nevertheless, his name is still engraved on the plaque in the Foreign Ministry that was placed next to documents provided by the Commission for the Clarification of Nazi Activities in Argentina (CEANA), created in 1998 to organise recently declassified documents that demonstrate Argentina’s past as a haven for Nazi war criminals.
CEANA’s work has been controversial. Sources who asked not to be identified told IPS that the Commission may have been set up to ”conceal rather than clarify.” Many of the original members, like Gurevich, have left CEANA because of discrepancies with the way it has carried out its work.
Foreign Minister Bielsa remarked to IPS: ”If the plaque is based on a lie, it will be removed.”
But Deputy Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana, after pointing out that the plaque was not put in place by the current administration of President Néstor Kirchner, said it would not be removed ”unless there is decisive evidence pointing to the need to do so.”
The coordinator of the Commission, historian Ignacio Klich, explained to IPS how the names on the plaque were chosen, and said ”The Wallenberg Foundation has no evidence against any of the 12 diplomats, except for Goñi’s book, which has some problems.”
In his view, ”The Real Odessa” does not provide a ”complete version” of events, because despite the restrictions, Argentina was actually the Latin American country that took in the largest number of Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1945.
Argentina today has the largest Jewish community in Latin America, about 250,000 strong.
Although Klich acknowledged that the 12 diplomats ”were not fighters in the Warsaw ghetto, nor did they acquire the stature of a person like Wallenberg, they did some things that stood out,” he argued.
”They don’t merit the Nobel Peace Prize, but they did stand out among their colleagues of the time who took hostile or indifferent attitudes” with respect to the Holocaust, he said.
However, it is not the Wallenberg Foundation that should provide the evidence justifying the commemorative plaque, but those who created it, said Foundation member Jalife.
Klich said it is ”undeniable” that Argentina was the last country to cut off ties with the Axis countries and the last to declare war on Germany, just before it was defeated.
”Starting in 1928, Argentine immigration policy became more and more restrictive, especially for refugees and Jews,” he said.
Nonetheless, ”the other side of the story” shows that during the same period, this South American country took in around 45,000 European Jews, although roughly half of them entered illegally, according to the archives that were recently declassified.
Klich did not respond to a question about the secret circular, which is still not available to the public.
Deputy Minister Taiana said the only classified documents held by the Ministry refer to the 1982 Malvinas/Falkland Islands war that Argentina lost to Britain. But Goñi and members of the Wallenberg Foundation said Bielsa told them in 2003 about the secret circular found in the embassy in Stockholm.
This month, President Kirchner and his wife, Senator Cristina Fernández, travelled to Germany and visited the Dachau concentration camp where 200,000 prisoners were held and 45,000 died in the gas chambers.
Upon leaving Dachau, Kirchner lamented that the Holocaust occurred ”with the silence and complicity” of the civilian population, and said that Germany, by opening the camps up to the public, is ”a model to be followed, showing how a society can move ahead without forgetting or denying its past.”
Kirchner and Fernández have received at least two letters from the Wallenberg Foundation calling for the disclosure and repeal of the 1938 circular and the removal of the plaque if no evidence is produced to justify it. There has been no response to the letters.
But the left-leaning president and his wife have played an active role in pushing for more in-depth investigations into the 1990s bombings of the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, in which more than 100 people were killed.
Kirchner has also taken a proactive stance on human rights issues, handing over the Navy School of Mechanics, the most notorious torture centre during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, to human rights groups, and ordering the removal of the portrait of ex-dictator Jorge Videla from the Military College.