LOS SAUCES, Chile -- "I know Boris didn't drown here. He would have
never risked his life trying to cross these rivers," said Olga Weisfeiler,
sitting on a rock and gazing at a place where two rivers come together in the
Andean foothills. It is here that her brother, Pennsylvania State University
professor Boris Weisfeiler, was last seen, in January 1985.
Olga and her daughter Anna, 20, residents of Newton, Mass., traveled to
Chile last month to meet with government and judicial officials in search of new
evidence on the fate of the Russian-born mathematician, who vanished 10 days
after arriving in Chile on Christmas Day 1984.
Penn State professor Boris Weisfeiler was
reported drowned in 1985 in Chile, but declassified documents
suggest an abduction. (Family Photo)
Initial police reports stated that Boris, then 43, drowned while trying
to cross the confluence of the Ñuble and Los Sauces rivers, about 200 miles
south of the capital, Santiago. But some of the more than 250 pages of U.S.
government documents declassified in June 2000 suggest a different story: that
Boris may have been arrested by a military patrol, accused of being a "foreign
extremist" or spy and handed over to a sect-like German settlement nearby called
Early in December, Olga for the first time traced the tracks of her
brother, traveling south with a group of her lawyers to the cities and towns
Boris had visited, crossing the Los Sauces river on a cable car and trekking
along the river to the place where local farmers say he was last seen.
"It was a very strange feeling," Olga, 59, said in her thick Russian
accent. "Along the road, I was sitting in the car trying to see through Boris's
eyes, what he saw on the bus when he traveled south. We met a local man who said
that he saw Boris's footprints and showed us the place where his footprints
apparently came to the river.
"It was very sad. It was hard," she said, sobbing.
Boris sought political refuge in the United States in 1975 after being
branded "anti-Soviet" -- for refusing to sign a letter against a colleague --
and suffering repeated anti-Semitic attacks. He became a U.S. citizen in 1981.
Three years later, Olga said, he decided to spend vacations in solitary,
mountainous areas of southern Chile, a country he knew nothing about.
On Jan. 14, 1985, the day that Boris was due back to work from one of
those trips, he failed to call Olga, who still lived in Moscow. She began to
worry. Concern turned to fear when she received word from Boris's friends that
his backpack had been found near a river.
A Chilean court declared Boris dead two months later, after several
search missions failed to recover his body. A private investigator hired by the
Chilean Mathematical Society to investigate the disappearance concluded three
months later that Boris had accidentally drowned.
When Olga read the report, she felt that no real investigation had
taken place. And a reference to the German community unsettled her: "The
possibility that Dr. Weisfeiler entered Colonia Dignidad can be discarded, since
it is [about 60 miles] from the place where he was last seen."
Colonia Dignidad, or "Dignity Settlement," is 37,000 acres of secluded
territory established by Paul Schaefer, a former Nazi soldier who fled Germany
in 1961 after being charged with sodomizing boys. A seemingly peaceful farming
community that owns the most modern hospital facilities in the region, it has
been accused by Chilean authorities of child abuse, retaining residents against
their will, segregating families and inflicting harsh punishments -- including
electric shocks -- on its members.
During the 1973-90 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Colonia
Dignidad was used as a detention and torture center by the Chilean secret
services, according to survivors who later testified of brutal treatment there.
Under Chile's democratic government, Schaefer and 27 other leaders of the
settlement have been charged with sexual abuse of boys. He remains a
That her brother may have ended up there is something Olga would learn
only 15 years after his disappearance, after she moved to the United States with
her children, Lev and Anna, and began writing to members of Congress, Jewish
organizations, universities, human rights groups, the State Department and the
U.S. Embassy in Santiago, asking for help.
"I felt guilty and never had a good night's sleep, thinking that maybe
Boris was alive somewhere and I wasn't doing enough," she said.
The consistent response from U.S. officials, she said, was that they
had no relevant information.
Then things began to change. In 2000, the Clinton administration
declassified documents related to Chile. Among them was a cable dated June
It contained a report that a military informant had approached the U.S.
Embassy in Santiago claiming to have been part of an army patrol that arrested
Weisfeiler on Jan. 4. "We then took off his shoes, tied him up and took him into
Colonia Dignidad, where he was turned over to the chief of security for Colonia
Dignidad," the documents quoted the man as saying.
The patrol had thought that the lone hiker was a Russian spy, the
informant said; by his account, Colonia Dignidad interrogators decided Boris was
a "Jewish spy."
What might have happened after that is unclear. The informant said
other army members had seen Boris alive 21/2 years later, making bricks on the
Colonia Dignidad grounds. But the declassified documents mention another
informer, deemed by officials to be less reliable than the first, as saying he
was executed there.
"I know these documents by heart," Olga said. "I have read them over
more than 10 or 20 times. First I was in shock, then I started to take notes, to
try to make some sense of it all."
In 2000, Chilean police raiding Colonia Dignidad found a file folder
marked with Boris's name. Inside was a copy of the mathematical society's
"Boris was at the wrong place at the wrong time," Olga
Mario Ruiz Zurita, head of a legal team defending Colonia Dignidad
members since 1996, said that "it is absolutely false that Mr. Weisfeiler was
taken to Villa Baviera," the name the settlement now uses. He said the place
where Boris disappeared was about 60 miles away from the settlement. The main
entrance is approximately that distance, but another entry is about 10 miles
Now that she has these and other documents that suggest embassy
officials were concerned that Boris might have been taken to the Colonia, Olga
said she believes that for years the U.S. government didn't level with her. "The
embassy had much information indicating that Boris may have been kept prisoner
in Colonia Dignidad, and that he was alive there more than two years later, but
didn't do much about it," she said.
The U.S. Embassy in Santiago declined to comment on actions by its
staff in the 1980s. But an official at the embassy said it is "concerned about
the case of Boris Weisfeiler. We have been in permanent contact with Chilean
officials at the highest levels, and have offered the help of the FBI to the
judge investigating the case."
Olga said that the embassy is now quite helpful and that the new U.S.
ambassador, William Brownfield, has promised her it would continue pressing for
Olga said she often feels she is running out of time, and unsure
whether she can find her brother alive. On her trip to Chile, she was ready to
even go inside the Colonia grounds, but feared passing by Boris and not
recognizing him. "That is my nightmare," she said. "I wish it could end soon so
I can continue to live my own life. My children are waiting."