October 19, 2013
BUENOS AIRES: Bariloche, a popular Argentine tourist resort ringed by the Andes, where Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke found refuge after World War II, has kept mostly silent on its long history as a home to Nazis. For 40 years, Priebke lived undisturbed among its citizens, until he was finally extradited to Italy in the 1990s over a World War II massacre for which he has never expressed regret.
Since his death in Rome last week at age 100, Priebke's body has been in limbo, with Argentina refusing to accept the remains so that he might be buried next to his wife in Bariloche. For many modern-day inhabitants of the scenic hotspot, World War II and the Holocaust are distant historical events that leave little time for serious soul searching over the likes of Priebke.
But in their day, the Nazis of Bariloche lived under a profound sense of impunity in the isolated town. Priebke went about life under his true identity, even though he entered Argentina in 1946 under the pseudonym Otto Pappe.
Thousands of Nazis, Croatian Ustasha fascists and Italian fascists arrived in Argentina with the blessing of president Juan Peron, who led the nation from 1946 to 1955 and again briefly in the 1970s, according to the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Working first as a waiter, then as owner of a delicatessen and finally as owner of a consulting firm, Priebke was liked and respected in the German community. He was the president of Bariloche's German-Argentine cultural association and would celebrate Adolf Hitler's April 20 birthday alongside the town's other Germans.
"Bariloche was heaven for the Nazis, whose presence was a taboo. Today, the old Germans are in a pact of silence. Nobody wants to tell the story of their parents or grandparents. Nobody wants to have a Nazi in the family, even if they're dead," said Abel Basti, author of several controversial books on Bariloche's Germans.
The past catches up
Priebke's past caught up with him when a local writer, Esteban Buch, who was particularly interested in the painter and Belgian collaborator Toon Maes, wrote a history of Bariloche's exiled Nazis. Buch established a formal link between the aging man and the Gestapo officer who was responsible for the 1944 massacre at Italy's Ardeatine Caves that killed 335 people, including 75 Jews.
"He spontaneously told me about the Ardeatine episode, arguing that it was a simple execution of orders from Adolf Hitler," Buch, still surprised, told AFP.
Until then, Priebke had only been one of the town's rumored famous Nazis.
"It was recently confirmed to me that my book was the origin of the arrest" of the ex-officer, who was extradited to Italy in 1995 and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1998.
Because of his age and poor health, Priebke was allowed to serve out his sentence under house arrest at his lawyer's home.
Former Nazi intelligence officer Reinhard Kops, wanted by Jewish organizations for crimes against humanity, died at 86 in Bariloche under the pseudonym Juan Maler. Dr. Josef Mengele, who used Auschwitz prisoners as medical guinea pigs, lived in Buenos Aires, and perhaps even Bariloche.
Carlos Echeverria, director of "Pact of Silence," a 2006 documentary on Priebke, says that European governments were complacent.
"The Christian, European Democracy left the fugitives in peace; Priebke didn't hide himself. In the 1950s, the German government reincorporated SS and gestapo members. Priebke was left alone here his friends were in the German state apparatus."
According to Sergio Wieder, head of the Simon Wiesenthal centre in Latin America, there is no current evidence of criminal Nazis in Argentina or the region, but, he warned, "we cannot rule out anything."