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In Argentine Haven for Fugitive Nazis, April Means Chocolate Eggs and Hitler Parties

Twenty years after the capture of Erich Priebke, some in Bariloche are trying to come to terms with the city’s legacy of silence

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People gather at the Civic Centre of Bariloche, Argentina, on April 8, 2012, to look and have a taste of the town’s 8.5-meter-high Easter egg, certified by the Guinness Records as the world’s largest. (Francisco Ramos Mejia/AFP/Getty Images)
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As a little boy Hans Schulz, the blue-eyed son of a Hitler Youth member, would walk uphill half a block each afternoon from the German school to his white stucco house in the Argentine ski resort of Bariloche, steps from an icy lake hugged by Andean peaks. Inside he’d often find his dad—the president of the town’s German Argentinian Cultural Association—sitting with his vice president and close friend, an austere, well-respected delicatessen owner named Erich Priebke.

Priebke, who was also director of the town’s German school, the Colegio Aleman, would bring his wife over, and they’d all dance in the living room. At Halloween, he appeared dressed up as a pirate. Eventually, Priebke—who arrived in Argentina after World War II—ousted Schulz’s father, a native of the town, as president of the German association. “He entered Bariloche,” Schulz remembers, “and climbed, climbed, climbed.”

Last October, Priebke died in Rome, where he spent his final years under house arrest serving a life sentence for his role in carrying out the massacre of 335 civilians at the Ardeatine Caves in 1944, when he was a captain in the Nazi SS. But from 1946, when he was smuggled to Argentina, until 1994, when the TV journalist Sam Donaldson confronted him on a Bariloche street, Priebke lived a comfortable, if fabricated, life in this Bavarian-styled city at the bottom of the world.

Priebke’s interview with Donaldson and subsequent extradition to Italy to face trial for war crimes drew the world’s attention to the fact that Bariloche, founded more than a century ago by a Chilean of German ancestry, had become a quiet haven for fugitive Nazis. Priebke was outed by his former comrade Reinhard Kops, a Nazi espionage agent who lived in the town under the name Juan Maler. Josef Mengele reportedly turned up there, briefly, after fleeing Buenos Aires following the Mossad capture of Adolf Eichmann in 1960; an entire cottage industry sprang up around the legend that Hitler himself faked his suicide and took up residence at a compound outside the town.

Today, 20 years after Priebke’s arrest, Bariloche is still struggling to come to terms with its Nazi legacy. Some, including members of the alpine town’s small Jewish community, say they are happy to simply forget and let the past die with the Nazis who lived there; others are determined to leverage the link to draw tourists. Yet others, like Schulz, insist it’s past time for their remote German colony to come to terms with the Third Reich and the Holocaust in the same way Germany itself has. “Bariloche has stayed in the past,” said Schulz, now a balding schoolteacher with a stately demeanor. “Priebke died, but the ghosts are still here.”

***

I spent Easter morning watching men in white chef shirts and hard hats drive pick-axes into a three-story chocolate egg. Bariloche is famous for its German chocolate, and the annual celebration, next to a stone bell tower in the Plaza San Martin, has made the Guinness Book of World Records. This year there were thousands of people crowded in the square: sweet tooth-crazed kids with bunny ears leaping fiercely for pieces of chocolate tossed to the crowd; giddy women scaling security gates to photograph the stenciled monstrosity; the city’s mayor and other local officials smiling benignly on the chaos.

Meanwhile, just outside of town, a more exclusive all-night celebration was winding down. April 20 wasn’t just Easter—it was Adolf Hitler’s birthday, his 125th, in fact. The journalist Abel Basti, who has written a controversial book claiming that Hitler escaped to Bariloche and lived here for decades, told me the birthday parties used to be held at a hotel downtown but have moved to obscure estates in the years since Priebke’s arrest. Basti, who has also written tour guides to Bariloche’s Nazi sights, said he had a spy at this year’s party but laughed when I asked if he could get me in. “It’s too dangerous,” Basti told me when I suggested tagging along. He had been cracking jokes and chuckling through our interview at a German biergarten, but suddenly he shifted tones. “I’m not sure he’s going to talk to you,” Basti told me. The “spy,” he said, was supposed to be helping him find the last picture of Hitler alive in Latin America, proof that has so far remained elusive. “This is serious territory,” Basti went on. “I laugh to be able to deal with this all the time. Otherwise I’d write and I’d write and then I’d commit suicide.”

A few days later, Basti agreed to give me a phone number for his alleged spy, a stocky telephone-company worker in a baseball hat who told me he wasn’t Basti’s spy at all. “I’m writing my own guide,” the man, Pedro Filipuzzi, told me. And that wasn’t all. “I’m thinking of starting a tourist company out of this,” he went on, excitedly. “Abel was smart because he made the first tourist guide to Nazis in the world, but I’m making the first one for Buenos Aires.”

The Bariloche Hitler party, he explained, was closely linked to a Buenos Aires Nazi. The night before, he told me, he’d called the host club pretending to be a guest and asked, “Is Adolf’s party still on?” They told him yes, he insisted—but he hadn’t been able to get past security. “I counted 48 cars just outside the gate, and there were many, many more inside,” Filipuzzi told me, his eyes wide and his voice amplifying. “In Buenos Aires,” he went on, “there’s a restaurant that has a Hitler toast, but here’s the grand party.”

“I thought you were looking for the last photo of Hitler alive, to help out Abel?” I asked. “Well, of course I’m looking for it, too,” Filipuzzi replied. “But on my own. Everybody’s looking for it.”

A few hours before I met Filipuzzi, a taxi driver had claimed he could drive me to a “Nazi commune” four hours away for a few thousand pesos, or a few hundred dollars. I’d told him I was interested, but then he showed up red-eyed to my hostel door and said he’d actually need to drive me to another German town three hours away to find someone there who could help us access the supposed Nazi mecca—and wanted payment up front. “This is the only chance,” he said, angry, when I told him I would pass on the offer. He stormed off.

***

Bariloche is a sizable city, but most of its Nazi attractions are within a few-block radius, including Priebke’s Colegio Aleman, also known as Primo Capraro, and other German cultural institutions. Along with its thriving ski and chocolate industries, it attracts hippies and intellectuals; yet, as with tourist towns everywhere in the world, there are always people like Filipuzzi or my taxi driver looking to expand the trade. Even the city’s official tourist office, located in the Plaza San Martin, will provide information from Basti’s tour guide to Nazi landmarks if visitors ask for it.

One place rarely visited by tourists is the home of Jorge Priebke, son of Erich, a quiet cabin with a flower garden patrolled by a pack of ferocious Dobermans. The house, across from a lush pine-filled park and two blocks from the Colegio Aleman, is sealed off by two metal gates. I opened the first and called out for Jorge at the second, where I met the dogs barking and pouncing at my legs. A mousey gray-haired woman with glasses asked what I wanted; when I said I was a journalist, she yelled that he’d gone out of town and added that he’d had a heart attack. Jorge Priebke has given a handful of interviews, but now that his father’s dead, the woman—his wife—told me, he wanted to be left alone. “He’s done,” she said. But then she kept talking about her late father-in-law. “It’s really not fair, they all said he was such a bad man, like it was all his fault,” she whined through the metal gate. “And after he died they were all like ‘poor man.’ But you know how they are.”

“Who? The world? The town?” I asked.

“The Jews,” she replied. “They’re always like that. But Señor Priebke did a lot for this town.” Then she shooed me off her property, telling me she had guests inside awaiting food. “All right, ciao ciao,” she said, by way of goodbye.

Hers was far from the only defense of Erich Priebke I fell upon in Bariloche. “It was unjust,” said Luis Schlik, the manager of a bar where I sat down to eat and write, when he learned what I was working on. A native of northern Argentina, Schlik is of Austrian descent and moved to Bariloche 12 years ago, long after Priebke had been removed to Rome. Yet his opinions were firm: “He followed orders. What about a pilot with his plane that threw bombs over a city and killed civilians? Why isn’t he an assassin? They received an order. It’s the same with Priebke.”

At the Casa Raul bookstore, where I bought a copy of Basti’s Nazi guide, the owner, Nelly Garcia, leaped to defend her children’s former leader at the Colegio Aleman, calling him “this poor guy.” When I asked if the school had the Holocaust in its history curriculum, she said no. “There are worse massacres that don’t get taught,” she said, “like Russians killing gypsies. Why do we have to study the Holocaust?”

***

One of the most prominent Jewish leaders in Bariloche is Carlos Suez, whose DVD store is a block away from Erich Priebke’s old house and across the street from Reinhard Kops’. When I visited him, he shrugged off questions about his town’s Nazis. “In every place in the world you’ll find anti-Semitism,” he told me. At this point, he insisted, most local residents don’t know who Priebke is any more and don’t care. “He doesn’t have importance,” Suez said. “I see Nazism here as something overcome.”

But that laissez-faire attitude isn’t good enough for Schulz, the history teacher, who believes that even if other townspeople have moved on, he still has a responsibility to atone for his own complicity in allowing men with a direct role in the Holocaust live out their days undisturbed by justice. “In Bariloche there was never a public debate about Nazis,” Schulz told me when we met for tea at the famed German chocolate shop Rapa Nui in downtown Bariloche. “It’s like having an assassin in your house and never talking about it. You get sick.” For him, the town’s Hitler industry is necessarily evil. “It’s a way to rescue Hitler, to say they didn’t kill him,” he said. “I lived with negators of the Holocaust. I came from the inside. It’s a very personal thing.”

Schulz sifted through piles of old photos at our cafe table, including one of his dad with the mayor of Bariloche and a young, grinning Priebke. Schulz shows this picture when he gives the lecture “Argentina and the Nazis,” in a new discussion series by an American tour company that passes through Patagonia. “I kept talking to Priebke when he was in jail in Italy, we’d send letters back and forth. I wanted to learn why all this happened,” Schulz told me. “He died still saying that the gas chambers didn’t exist … claiming he never had any problems with the Jews in Berlin.”

Priebke

Priebke waves goodbye as he is extradited to Italy on Nov. 20, 1995, at the Bariloche Airport. (Daniel Luna/AFP/Getty Images)

That revisionism still finds an easy home in Bariloche, a festering infection inside the lake’s aqua waves and mountains that bleed like powder into the clouds. The city is so far from Europe that, even in today’s hyperconnected world, it can create its own version of the past, even as it tries to model itself after European cities. Carlos Echeverria, a Bariloche native who produced a documentary about Priebke called Pact of Silence, says the Nazis were honored for their German roots, in a region that often favored Europeans over native people. “There are people who continue remembering that era with nostalgia,” Echeverria told me of Bariloche’s Nazi zenith. Despite the film, released in 2006, Schulz insisted the dangerous silence still continued and that the “Nazi mentality” continued in forms of anti-Semitism and minimizing the Holocaust.

Now 58, Schulz found himself galvanized by Priebke’s arrest. “I saw him as a good neighbor,” he told me, using a phrase—“buen vecino”—I heard over and and over again by those who wanted to excuse Priebke’s Nazi crimes. He started by joining the board of directors of the Colegio Aleman, which is known as one of the best schools in Bariloche. The school, an arm of the German Argentinian Cultural Association, officially taught a state-mandated curriculum and was open to students of all backgrounds. But Schulz said when he joined the board, it was known that the contracts of teachers who taught much about the Holocaust were generally not renewed. His hope that he could change the institution from the inside was quickly dashed: In 2008, after Schulz attended an observance of the 60th anniversary of Israel’s independence held by the town’s small Jewish community, his fellow board members called him. “They asked me, ‘What were you doing there? Were you representing us?’ I told them I just went on my own, and they said they didn’t support that,” Schulz recalled. That year the directors didn’t invite him back to the board.

Schulz decided to take his two children, then 10 and 13, out of the school, and dove into working on a memoir about his family, his childhood in Bariloche, and the discrimination he saw embedded in the town’s culture. Most of the book, Mandato Paterno“Paternal Mandate”—focuses on Schulz’s father, who was born in Argentina of German descent and had been sent as a teenager to a six-month Nazi training camp in Germany to become a “Hitler Youth” just before the war. “When I published my book, the Colegio Aleman board asked why I didn’t present it to them, since they were German,” Schulz told me. “But to me the Colegio Aleman is not the Germany that exists now. I said ‘I’m German too and I don’t think like you.’ ”

School administrators never responded to my requests for interviews, and when I visited the campus—a four-story beige building with a green shingle roof—staff who greeted me insisted they had nothing to tell me about Bariloche’s Nazi culture. At least one graduate, a 26-year-old named Pablo Roig, said he remembered being shown a video documentary about Priebke and the Ardeatine Caves massacre a few years after Priebke’s arrest. Afterward the students asked the teachers what should happen to Priebke, whose case was still being appealed at the time. “She said he was older, and that people can change, and he seemed to have repented,” Roig told me, when we met in Buenos Aires.

***

Merlin Maler, Reinhard Kops’ grandson, is a scruffy blond bohemian who makes his living as a snowboard instructor. As a kid, he idolized his grandfather, who went by Juan Maler, the older man a devoted geologist who taught his grandson about rocks and often took him on fishing trips. As a teenager, he once sold Kops’ Nazi medals for money to buy a skateboard; the neighbor who paid him drew a swastika shape in the air so the boy would know what to look for as he rifled through his granddad’s cabinet.

“I was so stupid, I didn’t know what the sign meant,” Maler, now 28, told me. He lives in a plant-stuffed roof loft in his grandfather’s old house, a lavender cottage just uphill from the Colegio Aleman and Priebke’s deli. “My friend explained to me that the symbol was bad, so I didn’t sell anything else because my skateboard suddenly felt unclean,” he went on. “But the neighbor kept coming back to ask for more.”

The day Kops outed Priebke, Maler’s liberal classmates greeted him with applause at school, he remembers, but many in the German community shunned the boy for his relative’s defection. “I asked my family when I was a child, ‘Why don’t we speak about it?’ ” Maler recalled as we sat at his handmade wooden table. “My grandmother said it was too painful, and that they were taken advantage of. I always saw my grandmother as a victim of the Nazis.” The family legend, he explained, was that his grandfather fled to Argentina because he turned against the Nazis at the end of the war.

But Kops is infamous for writing anti-Semitic books and helping start a neo-Nazi community in Chile once he moved to Argentina. “He never taught me that,” Maler insisted. “I’m a lover of nature, and [my grandfather] made me that. And human beings are a part of nature, so I love them all.”

***

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In Argentine Haven for Fugitive Nazis, April Means Chocolate Eggs and Hitler Parties

Twenty years after the capture of Erich Priebke, some in Bariloche are trying to come to terms with the city’s legacy of silence