Boris Weisfeiler in 1976, nine years
before he disappeared
LOOKING FOR BORIS
Olga Weisfeiler On 20
Years Of Searching For Her Brother
(Dec. 3, 2004) Olga
Weisfeiler is 61. She had just turned 41 and was living in Russia
when she learned that her brother, a mathematics professor of
stellar potential, had vanished while on a solitary walking holiday
in Chile’s rural south. She has not seen him since.
doing anything in my life any more except searching, analyzing
documents, writing letters.”
Olga is tired. It is Nov. 24 and
she is four days in to a 20-day stay. Since she arrived in Chile,
amid the chaos of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, she
has been frenziedly arranging meetings, lobbying politicians and
public figures, trying to whip up media interest. Her voice, marked
by a thick Russian accent, is hoarse.
She had come straight
from a meeting with Craig Kelly, the U.S. Ambassador to
“It went OK. He seemed very willing to help. They
promised to help. He was very sensitive to what I’m
Behind a veneer of extraordinary courage, Olga is
clearly suffering. This is her fourth trip to Chile; the first three
On Jan. 4, 1985, Boris Weisfeiler, a
Russian-born Jew, U.S citizen and professor at Pennsylvania State
University, was on a 10-day hiking holiday near the Argentine border
in Region VII. That was the last time his whereabouts were known. He
had entered Chile on Dec. 25. On Jan. 15, a Carabineros patrol found
his rucksack on the banks of the Nuble River. After a cursory
investigation, the local court concluded he had drowned. His body
was never found.
A group of American mathematicians,
dissatisfied with the court’s conclusion, hired a private
investigator to look into their colleague’s disappearance.
“He had many, many friends, all over, from Boston, MIT,
Harvard, Yale. The investigator made a confidential report. So
confidential, in fact, that in 2000, a Judge (Juan) Guzmán found a
copy in Colonia Dignidad.” Olga chuckles. Black humor is among her
It transpired that the investigator was a former
Carabinero who had been fired for corruption. One of his suggestions
had been that Boris might be in Colonia Dignidad, a mysterious
community of German expatriates. The chances Boris was there were
remote, he reported, because the Andean foothills where he was last
seen are 500 km away from Dignidad.
But, as Olga later
discovered, Colonia Dignidad is far bigger than the private eye had
suspected – not 500 km away, but 10.
In 1961, Paul Schaefer,
a former Luftwaffe medic, fled child molestation charges in his
native Germany. He founded a 17,000 hectare farming community for
fellow expatriates, a charitable organization ostensibly to provide
health care for the rural poor of the area.
religious fanatic known to his flock as their “Permanent Uncle,”
went underground in 1998 after a warrant was issued for his arrest
on 27 counts of child abuse.
For 40 years, tales of
abduction, forced labor and sexual abuse have filtered out of the
notoriously hermetic colony. Locals say colonists abducted their
children and put them to work on the land.
After the 1973
coup in which Augusto Pinochet took power, the colonists began to
forge links with the military. They became untouchable – “a state
within a state,” as Sen. Jaime Naranjo, the president of the
Senate’s Human Rights Commission, puts it.
The report of the
National Commission on Political Detention and Torture, published
last week, mentions Colonia Dignidad as “a detention and torture
center” used by DINA and the CNI, the secret police of the military
Detainees were interrogated in “underground
cells, soundproof and hermetically sealed. Prisoners in the
underground cells were stripped and tied to electrified grills.
Those who testified before the commission said among their torturers
were people with foreign accents. All the witnesses concurred that
they were subjected to mock executions, sexual assaults, violations
by animals and were forced to listen to others being
Escapees have described the colonists as an
apocalyptic cult, and the colony as a hotbed of neo-Nazism and
In 2000, a rare inspection of Colonia Dignidad
(now officially renamed Villa Bavaria) found an empty folder labeled
Boris had been living in the States since
1975, where he was tipped as a future Nobel laureate. Olga followed
him in 1988. In 2000, she returned to her home in Newton, Mass., to
find a message on her answer machine. It was the State Department.
As part of the second phase of the Chile Declassification Project,
documents pertaining to Boris’ case had been made public.
was shaking, waiting and waiting. I stayed home when a big FedEx
truck came with a package. My hands were shaking.” She started
reading and rereading. “Night and day, night and day. I couldn’t
eat, I couldn’t drink, I just cried.”
Until then, Olga had
gone on hints and hunches, digging for scraps of information under
her own steam. The declassified paper trail was remarkable.
“There was a telegram from 1985 from the Consul General (in
Santiago, Jayne Kobliska) to the State Department saying that the
place where Boris disappeared is close to Colonia Dignidad, less
than 10 km. So, at the time of his disappearance, he was very near,
or even on, Colonia property. The Department of State had these
documents but they didn’t go there.”
A year after Boris
disappeared, an informant came to the U.S. Embassy in Santiago. A
letter records that, on the basis of a tip that Boris was still
alive inside Colonia Dignidad, Ambassador Harry Barnes was reluctant
to close the file. Olga has searched for the informant, without
success. Consular staff she has spoken to remember
“I understand (the letter) was a small thing, but
for me and for Boris it was his life.”
documents (now stored on the Boris Weisfeiler Web site) chart the
internal traffic at the U.S. Embassy, which grew suspicious after
two officials visited Boris’ last known whereabouts and heard
conflicting accounts from local Carabineros. They couldn’t decide if
Boris’ rucksack had been wet or dry when they found it; a local man
denied having seen footprints near the Nuble; and Boris’ passport
and papers were missing.
The telegrams and memos record how
the Embassy hatched plans to save Boris, who, it now suspects, may
still be alive. They note the gruff reticence of the Chilean
authorities, whose promises of an investigation were
At the heart of the Embassy’s rouse that Boris might
be in Colonia Dignidad is a man who surfaced in 1987, calling
himself “Daniel” (he was, of course, not the only Chilean to use
that pseudonym, but that’s another story).
telegram of June 23, 1987, to the State Department contains a
transcript of a statement Daniel made, though he never visited the
Embassy. His true identity is still unknown.
Daniel said he
had been part of the military unit patrolling the perimeter of
Colonia Dignidad in 1985, which had detained a foreigner with a U.S.
passport and a letter saying he worked for a U.S. university. They
took the man to Colonia Dignidad, where he was placed in a cage and
interrogated until the conclusion was reached that he was a “Jewish
spy.” The patrol left the suspect in the hands of the
In 1990, Daniel surfaced again. Maximo Pacheco, a
human rights lawyer, revealed a report, apparently written by
Daniel, in which he recounted how an American named Boris W. with a
Pennsylvania driver’s license was deposited at Colonia Dignidad by
an Army patrol.
Then, in 1997, Daniel made his last
appearance. A radio show in Santiago received an anonymous call
about the American at Colonia Dignidad. That was followed by a
handwritten note to the U.S. Embassy saying Weisfeiler had been
tortured and killed by Germans in Colonia Dignidad.
had changed his story. Other tips had suggested Boris was handed
back to the military. Daniel himself had said until then that he had
been left inside the Dignidad compound. Now he said he had been
killed. Why the switch? Olga toys with two possibilities.
“Maybe he wanted to get more attention. He didn’t get much
attention in the previous two statements. Now he says he was killed
by Germans. Maybe he dislikes Germans – Colonia Dignidad Germans,
official Germans. Second, he wants to get attention for Boris’ case.
Maybe he found out he was killed in ’97.”
And who is Daniel,
a man who took a tremendous risk in coming forward while the
military government was growing weaker but no less vicious?
“I’ve published so many pleas saying please, please come
forward. If he’s alive, he doesn’t want to be found.”
Pinochet was relieved of power in 1990, one of the first acts of
Patricio Aylwin’s elected government was to set up the National
Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by attorney Raul Rettig,
to document the dictatorship’s human rights violations. The U.S.
State Department contacted Olga asking if she wished to report
Boris’ case to the commission.
“I jumped from the chair and
said, ‘Yes of course I want to.’”
Two years later she
received a letter from Chile.
“I couldn’t understand it and I
went to work, running around searching for people who know Spanish.
And then, well, thank you for nothing.” Buried in the Rettig report
was a reference to Boris Weisfeiler. No action could be taken
because his case remained “unresolved.” In a cruel bureaucratic
irony, because the relevant documents were at the time still
classified, the U.S. Embassy had only supplied Rettig with scant
background information on Boris. The commission had not seen the
burgeoning files containing reports by consular staff, the State
Department, the CIA and the FBI, containing considerable evidence
that the answer to the Weisfeiler riddle was to be found in Colonia
What those files also revealed was that the State
Department had turned down an official request from the Embassy for
funding to hire a Chilean lawyer to take on Boris’ case. The
attorney, Alfredo Etcheberry, had been gathering evidence since 1985
and, in 1989, sought U.S. backing to reopen the case. On the
declassified cable, the amount requested is redacted.
attorney was claiming for four full days of work in 1989. How much
can that be? Two or three thousand max.”
Eight months after
the request was filed, the State Department granted permission to
hire Etcheberry, “provided the cost of the legal services will be
paid for with the post’s funds.” A second request to the Embassy’s
administrative departments was also denied. The consul general had
relentlessly hounded both departments, to no avail.
told ‘we don’t have funds for this project.’ This project? This
“After that, I made a huge cry for help to senators
and congressmen for information on Boris Weisfeiler. I received the
same reply from every one: ‘He went to travel, he ran into trouble,
his body has never been found, the case is unresolved. If we hear
anything, we’ll let you know.’
“My son asked me ‘what do you
want from them?’ I said that I don’t know, just that it’s not
supposed to be like that.”
But the case was finally reopened.
A Chilean journalist, Viviana Candia of La Segunda, who had spoken
to Olga’s son Lev, had contacted an attorney who was looking into
the case. It was reopened one day before the statute of limitations
of 15 years expired. And, through the 90s, it began to gather
Politicians in the States and human rights groups took
up the cause. In 2000, Olga was contacted by journalist Pascale
Bonnefoy, whose exposés in La Nación have done much to strip back
the fog of misinformation generated by the colonists and their
potent allies. She helped organize a publicity blitz during Olga’s
visit to Chile in March this year.
The media stir yielded no
new information. But a letter from Edward Kennedy to U.S. Secretary
of State Colin Powell got Boris on to the agenda for President
George W. Bush’s meeting with Lagos in July. After that meeting,
U.S. officials assured Olga that the White House “will continue
handling this matter with the Chilean government, both in Washington
and in Santiago” (ST, Oct. 6).
Last week, Olga delivered
another letter from Sen. Kennedy and one from Rep. Barney Frank, and
was among 400 signatories of an open letter to Lagos demanding
Colonia Dignidad be disbanded.
Does Olga think her brother is
still alive? She pauses. “I don’t know. I want to think so, I hope.
But if, as in Pascale Bonnefoy’s article, he was given back to the
Army, I think there’s no possibility that he is alive.
know he can survive. My hope is that he’s in Colonia Dignidad and he
survived there. If he survived two and a half years, as Daniel said,
he would survive longer. If he was given back the military, the
possibility is slim.”
Does she believe she will ever find the
“Yes I do. I’m sure I will. I don’t know how much of
my life it will take but I will get to the bottom of it, one way or
And that will involve more visits to Chile. “I
don’t have a choice. I’m spending a lot of money, I’m not taking any
vacations. But Chile is my destination. It’s not my dream
Last Saturday, she made her first visit to Colonia
Dignidad (See Today’s News Briefs), which, since Schaefer was
indicted on pedophilia charges and fled in 1998, has been in
“They knew my name. The people we talked to never
denied my brother’s presence there … but no one has been willing to
give information. The gate of Colonia Dignidad may be opened now,
but not the minds inside. And so we need to fight to open their
The Chilean government will not discuss Boris’ case
because it is still under investigation, an indefinitely open file
which cannot be closed without new information.
“I am not
angry. I am disappointed. You know, anger will not move things. You
need hope, patience” – she laughs – “and political correctness. But
at least now the Embassy has promised to help me. I want any end. At
this point, any end. I don’t have my choice but, you know … I hope
he is alive. He is 63 now.”
By Tom Burgis