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Boris Weisfeiler in 1976, nine years before he disappeared
Courtesy of


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.

“I’m not 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 Chile.

“It went OK. He seemed very willing to help. They promised to help. He was very sensitive to what I’m suffering.”

Behind a veneer of extraordinary courage, Olga is clearly suffering. This is her fourth trip to Chile; the first three were fruitless.

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 strengths.

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.

Schaefer, a 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 government.

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 tortured.”

Escapees have described the colonists as an apocalyptic cult, and the colony as a hotbed of neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism.

In 2000, a rare inspection of Colonia Dignidad (now officially renamed Villa Bavaria) found an empty folder labeled “Boris Weisfeiler.”

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.

“I 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 nothing.

“I understand (the letter) was a small thing, but for me and for Boris it was his life.”

The declassified 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 hollow.

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).

An Embassy 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 colonists.

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.

Daniel 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.”

After 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 Dignidad.

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.

“The 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.

“He was told ‘we don’t have funds for this project.’ This project? This life?

“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 steam.

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.

“I 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 truth?

“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 another.”

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 vacation.”

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 decline.

“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 minds.”

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 (