While officials in the Argentine city of Bariloche insist it was never a "Nazi refuge," a tidy little tourist business is growing around visits to local sites associated with Nazi war criminals like Mengele and Eichmann.
BARILOCHE — The first time Nazi fugitive Joseph Mengele sat for his driving test in Bariloche, in southwest Argentina, he failed because he didn't know his way around and wasn't familiar with the city's street names.
Mengele registered for the test as Helmut Gregor, the name he used when he entered the country a decade earlier, on June 20, 1949. His identity card, issued by the Federal Police, was no. 3.940.484. But on his business cards, Mengele, also known as "Doctor Death" for his pseudo-medical experiments at the Auschwitz concentration camp, went back to using his birth identity (though he changed his first name to José) — a testament, perhaps, to how comfortable and at home he was beginning to feel in this lakeside city in the foothills of the Andes mountains. Officially, he was now Dr. José Mengele.
There are various testimonies and documents confirming the presence of this merciless Nazi criminal in and around Bariloche. One is the driving-test anecdote, which the head of the National Radio, Francisco Caló, told journalist Abel Basti. I myself have handled one of Mengele's business cards, as well as a black notebook with names of his contacts in Argentina and Chile, and a suitcase with seals and stickers from various hotels (including the Cabo de Hornos at Punta Arenas, Chile). These were some of the belongings Mengele left in the basement of a cottage in the Alto Valle part of Río Negro province.
Acknowledging the past
Bariloche is first and foremost a mountain resort city. But thanks to the post-World War II migration of Nazis to the area, it also developed something of a sinister reputation as a refuge for European fascists. Suspicions it had become their favored hideout were confirmed with the arrest in 1995 of another local resident, former SS captain Erich Priebke.
Despite this dual identity, it took the tourism industry 40 years to think of cashing in the city's unsavory past. As of last year, visitors can now take a "Nazi Tours," which consist of almost "secret" itineraries with very discreet advertising. The tours, nevertheless, have raised interest among independent travel firms and educational institutions from the United States and elsewhere.
Groups of students or simply curious people pay tidy sums of money for a "guided visit" that allows them to see first-hand where and how people like Mengele, Priebke or even, according to legend, Hitler and his mistress Eva Braun lived — if indeed they fled Berlin, as one version claims. In general, guided visits of between one and several days to the homes of former Nazis cost between 2,000 and 10,000 pesos ($212-$1,060). An ordinary though tailored, half-day tour to any place in Patagonia costs around 2,000 pesos, so the prices are not abnormal.
These days, international and local agencies offer visits to the "Nazi Bunker" or the remains of a presumed military fort built by Adolph Hitler fanatics on the outskirts of Bariloche. To the dismay of many locals, the site has become a reference point in histories of Nazism after Hitler.
Writer and journalist Abel Basti has sold some 50,000 copies of his Nazi Tourist Guide in Bariloche and surrounding areas, plus another 100,000 other books on theories about Hitler not committing suicide but living many years in Bariloche with Eva Braun, with whom he supposedly had two children!
A legacy that lives on
The list of criminals who were in this area is extensive, and does not so much end as start with Mengele. He was followed by a string of Nazis: Reinhard Kops, an intelligence agent blamed for the deaths of thousands of Jews in Albania and owner of the pretty Hotel Campana, which remains opens; Priebke, the SS captain sentenced for his role in the execution of 335 civilians in the Ardeatine massacre in Rome in 1944; Hans Rudel, Hitler's favorite pilot who joined the local Club Andino; Adolph Eichmann, one of the brains of the Third Reich, finally caught in Buenos Aires and kidnapped by Israeli agents; and Friederich Lantschner, gauleiter of the Austrian Tirol, among many others.
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Photo of Joseph Mengele's Argentine ID document, 1956. Source: Wikipedia
For a while, at least, these former accomplices of mass murders lived in the Bariloche area as quiet residents and neighbors beyond reproach. Or perhaps not... Because the tensions around their past are like a dark stream running beneath the city's everyday existence. Some of the buildings, institutions and cultural aspects that best represent the local people, like the prestigious Primo Capraro college, the German Cultural Association, the Club Andino, the solid neatness of elegant city center homes, Bariloche's tasty cuisine and its reputed vocation for classical music, are a legacy of Germanic immigration.
"Nazism did not disappear off the face of the earth," says Basti. "It became something else. That is why we must rethink history and see how it affects us today. There are no Nazi officials in Bariloche, but their homes remain, as do their buildings and, in some cases, ideological marks."
In the city center and especially along Avenida Belgrano, there are quite a few houses inhabited by descendants of German, Swiss and Austrian migrants. There are also Frenchmen, Slovenes and Poles, though fewer in numbers. Kops's Campana hotel is on this street. Facing it is the home of Mairano Barilari, a physician said to have known Sigmund Freud and practiced hypnotism. This beautiful chalet may have been the setting of dinners attended by the Mengele and Eichmann families. The building is currently the starting point of any Nazi tour.
Historian and journalist Hans Schulz, one of the city's main biographers, says he too works "mainly with groups of tourists or students coming from North America." He believes these tours are useful for taking the sting and mystery out of this taboo subject, which middle class Argentines have long tried to ignore despite official records suggesting that as many as 100,000 Nazi refugees arrived in Argentina between 1945-1950.
When Priebke was extradited to Italy amid international commotion, the New York Times wrote that Argentines were loath to openly qualify Bariloche as a Nazi refuge. Local officials, the US newspaper wrote, believed it was unfair to label the city thus on account of a few of its residents. Since then, however, Bariloche has attracted even more interest. And now that it's finally starting to embrace its Nazi past, the city is attracting a some new tourist dollars as well.