During the 1930s and 1940s, Latin America became a perfect place for exiles from Europe to find shelter, not only Jews fleeing persecution during the war, but for Nazis escaping prosecution as war criminals.
In 1933, following the Nazi accession to power, 10% of the German Jewish population (53,000 persons), as well as 10,000 Germans who were not Jews, fled the country, creating the first wave of emigrants.
The rise of the Nazi regime forced more people to consider fleeing to other continents. By October 1941, it is estimated that half a million Jews had managed to leave Nazi-occupied territory.
In the search for solutions to escape Nazi Europe, thousands of people eventually emigrated to South America on tourist visas. Traditionally, the Americas were viewed as lands of economic prosperity and traditional immigration.
In order to get a visa for South America, it was also common to pretend to be a farmer or convert to Catholicism. A number of consuls and officials sold documents at high prices.
However, Nazi propaganda also fuelled antisemitism already present in South America, which resulted in most of the countries eventually having more and more restrictive immigration policies.
The post-war period saw a new wave of immigration to the continent. This time it was Nazis fleeing Europe to avoid facing trials. Latin America appeared to be a good place to hide. Most of them would end up living their lives there, sometimes without even changing their names. Others, like Adolf Eichmann or Klaus Barbie, were eventually caught by the Mossad or Nazi hunters.
Legal exit from Nazi Europe
As Nazi persecution escalated in the 1930s and 1940s Latin America, along with Palestine and the US, became a haven for Jews.
The bureaucracy of the Third Reich forced anyone seeking emigration to satisfy many requirements including a valid entry visa to a foreign land.
This led to an increase in the use of Latin American visas often granted by either greedy or idealist diplomats.
One of the most successful rescue operation through visas was led by George Mantello.
Born in Transylvania in 1901, George Mantello was a successful Jewish financier and textile manufacturer. During one of his business trips, he met and befriended Salvadorian consul José Arturo Castellanos Contreras.
Small countries that could not afford an extensive staff of diplomats, often offered positions to businessmen who were trying to escape the Nazis. José Castellanos appointed Mantello as the first secretary to the Salvadoran consulate in Geneva to save him and his family from deportation.
Whereas papers from other Latin American countries were being sold for high prices, Mantello and Castellanos began secretly issuing Salvadoran passports for free. They ended up delivering at least 13,000 certificates to Central European Jews and with them the right to seek and receive protection of the International Red Cross and the Swiss Consul of Budapest. Each passport was good for an entire family. It is believed that this effort saved 20,000 – 30,000 Jews throughout German-occupied territories.
In an effort to stop the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz George Mantello sent more than 120 Swiss newspapers reports of the Auschwitz protocols and details of the operations inside the camp. The revelation triggered massive street protests in Switzerland and reactions from several governments. This contributed to the Hungarian authorities to stop the trains that had been deporting 12,000 Jews per day at the time.
“The Guatemala Transfer”
In Nazi Germany, the desire to get a visa for a foreign land to escape persecution was so high that Jewish families sometimes fell for scams promising a way to flee the country.
An example of this is the story of the so-called “Guatemala Group”, who were twelve elderly Jews living in Berlin who were told by the Gestapo they could legally leave Germany by buying some factory shares in Guatemala. The Gestapo extorted large sums from the group on the false promise that they would be able to obtain visas for Guatemala.
Eventually, the group managed to obtain visas for Sweden.
A Place to Escape
In most Latin American countries, antisemitism was on the rise in the 1930s and the immigration policies of traditional destinations such as Argentina or Brazil started becoming more and more restrictive. For some countries, however, the migration of Jewish refugees was a political and economic opportunity.
For example, Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo delivered 5,000 visas to European Jews in the hope of bringing money to the country.
An unlikely haven was Bolivia. Following the Anschluss and Kristallnacht, it was one of the only countries in the world to welcome Jews. From then until the end of the war, 20,000 refugees, mostly from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia settled in the country.
The driving force behind the creation of the Jewish settlement in Bolivia was Mauricio (Moritz) Hochschild, a German-born Jew and one of the “Big Three” tin tycoons of the country. His political ties with then-president German Busch and his control over mineral production helped in the creation of the Bolivian refugee-aid committee (SOPRO) in 1939.
The refugees obtained visas in one of the Bolivian consulates established in Europe (Zurich, Paris, London, Berlin, and Vienna) and arrived by ship in Chile where they took a train (that became known as the “Jewish Express”) to La Paz.
Bolivia was in an economic slump which made them more likely to accept productive Jewish agricultural settlements. If the results never matched Hochschild’s expectations, his work still helped thousands of Jewish refugees.
Following the end of the war, another wave of refugees came to Bolivia. Among them Holocaust survivors trying to reunite with their families, and also a few Nazis, the most famous being Klaus Barbie. The living conditions of Bolivia, with social problems, high instability and inhospitable climate made it difficult for the refugees to actually stay in the country at the end of the war. Most of them either moved to neighbouring countries, such as Argentina and Brazil or went back to Europe.
In the 1930s, Latin America became a haven for political refugees. All over the continent, associations and journals were created to oppose antisemitism, often rooted primarily in the local Jewish community. In Argentina for example, the newspaper ¡Alerta! Was publishing the report: Por la Fraternidad, contra el odio racial.
Although Mexico didn’t take Jews, refugees from the Spanish Civil War were granted entry and among them, German-speaking fighters of the International Brigade. In time, a group of hundreds of antifascists gathered in Mexico in the hope of assembling all the anti-Hitler forces of Latin America.
The group created the Club Enrique Heine under the presidency of German writer Anna Seghers and published a newspaper, Alemania Libre (Free Germany). The club presented various cultural events in German such as concerts, conferences, or operas. The creation of the newspaper was a big step for the organisation and its first issue, in 1941, a direct provocation to Nazi fascism. With a print run of around 4,000 copies, the paper advocated for a clear opposition to the German Nazi community in Mexico.
One of the main tasks of the movement “Free Germany” was to help German-speaking political refugees materially and legally. Thanks to the growth of the newspaper and the organization of an antifascist congress, they started collaborating with other countries to create the Latinamerican Comite of Alemanes Libres. Famous figures of resistance against fascism collaborated with the paper, like the brothers Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Pablo Neruda and Xavier Guerrero.
The movement Alemana Libre came to an end in 1946 when most of the antifascists refugees went back to their countries.
“We want to help eliminate Hitler’s regime from the roots. We are in favour of a total destruction of the Nazi state apparatus, of the Gestapo, of the SS, the SA and all the forces that have actively collaborated to construct and maintain Hitler’s dictatorship. With this base only will we be able to construct a free and democratic Germany.”
The growth of antisemitism exacerbated by Nazi propaganda was increasingly reflected in the attitude of governments toward the Jewish population.
Some countries of the region already had some history of antisemitism. The Paraguayan Nazi party, for example, was founded in 1927 in Villarrica and recognized two years later by German NSDAP, making it the world’s oldest foreign Nazi party. The presence of a German community and the political situation in Paraguay made it possible for the party to thrive there. The affinity of the Paraguayan government for Nazism continued after the war during the 35 year-rule of military officer Alfredo Stroessner.
The Nazis didn’t create Latin American antisemitism but rather cultivated it using the massive afflux of Jewish refugees coming from Europe in the 1930s. They were often backed up by the catholic church, the most important religious institution of the continent.
The main medium of Nazi propaganda all around Latin America was the press, much of which constantly played on fears of Jewish and Communist invasion. The antisemites would exaggerate the size of the Jewish population present in each country in order to scare the readers. Jewish immigration was also often associated with the Bolshevik threat, as reflected in the Argentinian newspaper Clarinada.
At the end of the war, a system of escape routes called “ratlines” were opened helping Nazis to flee Europe, mostly to Latin America. Of all the countries which became havens for Nazis on the run, Argentina was the most popular one, partly thanks to then-leader General Juan Perón’s sympathy for European fascists.
Argentina already had a poor track record in terms of antisemitism during the war, despite being the South American country with the most Jewish refugees.
In 1938 in Buenos Aires, the Yiddish language was forbidden at public meetings by the police and bombs were placed in front of a number of synagogues. Under president Roberto Ortiz (1938-1942), supposedly more sympathetic to Jews, Jewish teachers and physicians were dismissed from public institutions and Jewish patients excluded from hospitals.
One of the main obstacles to the emigration of Jewish refugees to Argentina was the presence of Santiago Peralta, an energetic antisemite, who was head of the Immigration Office until 1947. His department issued a number of laws making Jewish immigration harder. The selling of visas by Argentinian diplomats became commonplace in response.
According to journalist Uki Goñi’s book, The Real Odessa, a secret agreement for mutual collaboration was signed between Argentina and Nazi Germany in May 1943, just a few months before the military coup that would eventually end up bringing Juan Perón to power. This agreement included freedom from arrest for Nazi agents in Argentina and false identities as a member of the Argentinian secret services.
Juan Perón openly admired European fascist regimes, particularly those of Mussolini and Hitler, and referred to them as inspirations. At the end of the war, many Nazis and collaborators found shelter in Franco’s Spain until the election of Perón in 1946 opened a direct ratline for them to Argentina. The two main escape routes were situated in Spain and Rome and the Catholic Church supported both. A number of clergymen materially helped war criminals to flee Europe, especially from the Independent State of Croatia.
Some of the people who escaped arrest and prosecution for their crimes via the Argentinian ratline include former SS Erich Priebke, Gerhard Bohne and Josef Schwammberger, and also some of the most famous Nazis on the run: Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann.
A few months before his death in 1974, Perón would reveal in a series of tape recordings that he had decided to save as many Nazi officials as possible from the “outrage” that was for him the Nuremberg Trials.
“In those days, Argentina was a kind of a paradise to us […] nobody since I’ve been here has ever said a word about politics. It’s completely taboo, and that’s how our people behave.”
Erich Priebke, 1991.
Josef Mengele was born in 1911 in Bavaria. He is best known for having been a physician in Auschwitz. He conducted diverse experiments on the prisoners and was part of the team that selected victims to be killed in gas chambers.
In January 1945, Mengele packed the records of his experiments on twins and people with disabilities, including blood samples, and prepared to flee Germany. As he joined a military unit as a doctor, he was arrested by US troops. The United Nations War Crimes Commission started hunting him for “mass murder and other crimes” in May 1945.
While in prison, he obtained fake documents as Fritz Hollmann and managed to hide for a few years while his name was mentioned regularly in the press and at the Nuremberg trials. Because Mengele was one of the most wanted Nazis, he had to wait until 1948 to be able use a ratline to Argentina under the new identity of Helmut Gregor.
Mengele managed to get to Argentina (officially as a mechanic) via Italy. Ha was helped by a network of Nazi smugglers connected to Perón’s government. Once settled in Argentina, he fitted in with the German community and started doing business with some of them.
In 1959, the political situation in Argentina became less favourable to war criminals. At the same time, some of the courts in Germany were preparing extradition requests against Mengele. After selling his various business shares, Mengele moved to Paraguay just a few months before Eichmann’s arrest in Buenos Aires.
Mengele went on to live hidden, first in Paraguay and then Brazil, still protected by the people who helped them escape Europe in the first place. He eventually died by drowning in 1979 without ever expressing remorse about his actions during the war.
Even if at first glance it seems like Latin America was protected from the devastating effects of The Second World War, it still had lasted impact on the region.
There was a strong connection between European fascism and the various dictatorships that the Southern Cone (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil) experienced in the 1970s. In Chile, some of the most notorious criminals of the time, Miguel Krassnoff Martchenko and Paul Schäfer Schneider, had either personal or familial ties to the Nazi party.
To this day, the biggest Jewish communities in Latin America are still located in Argentina and Brazil: countries that also have large German-speaking settlements.
Antisemitic acts have continued and the terrorist attacks on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 (29 deaths) and the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association bombing of 1994 (85 deaths) triggered a wave of Jewish immigration to Israel since the 2000s.
The Perfect Hideout: Jewish and Nazi havens in Latin America
Exhibition Type: Online Exhibition