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Tracing a Mystery of the Missing in Chile

By Pascale Bonnefoy
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 18, 2003; Page A20

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)

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Initial police reports stated that Boris, then 43, drowned while trying to cross the confluence of the uble 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 Colonia Dignidad.

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 fugitive.

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 1987.

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 report.

"Boris was at the wrong place at the wrong time," Olga concluded.

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 away.

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 an explanation.

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."

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