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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.

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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