BUENOS AIRES (May. 12)
Argentina’s Foreign Ministry is under scrutiny as historians, researchers, Jewish organizations and a broad swath of the country’s cultural elite demand the repeal of a controversial 1938 order prohibiting visas for Jews fleeing the Holocaust. They also are demanding that the ministry justify a commemorative plaque it placed in honor of 12 Argentine diplomats who critics say did not do enough to help Jews trying to flee the Nazis.
The so-called “Directive 11,” issued in 1938 by Foreign Minister Jose Maria Cantilo, was transmitted to all Argentine embassies and consulates around the world. It instructed diplomats to deny visas to “undesirables or the expelled,” a reference to European Jews.
A few years ago, while on a research project, historian Beatriz Gurevich discovered a copy of Directive 11 in the archives of the Argentine Embassy in Stockholm.
“We knew of the existence of this order, but until Gurevich found it we had no physical evidence,” said Uki Goni, an Argentine journalist who has written two books investigating former President Juan Peron’s assistance to fleeing Nazi war criminals in the 1940s and ’50s.
The plaque in the front lobby of the Foreign Ministry building is a tribute to 12 Argentine diplomats who, according to the text, “showed solidarity with those who were victims of Nazism.”
However, the image of at least one of the diplomats, Luis Irigoyen, is being re-evaluated as Nazi documents show that he refused to accept the repatriation of some 100 Argentine Jews rounded up by the Nazis in France, Germany, Greece, Poland and the Netherlands. They later were sent to the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen death camps.
In September 2003, Goni and officials of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation met with Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa and asked that Directive 11 be formally repealed. They also asked Bielsa for the ministry’s justification for the names on the controversial plaque.
A similar appeal was presented to Bielsa by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The Foreign Ministry has not acted on the requests.
Asked about these two matters in late April, Bielsa said, “The plaque was not placed there during this administration, but if there is evidence to the contrary, we would certainly act to remove it.”
However, Gustavo Jalife of the Wallenberg Foundation said Bielsa was given that evidence at the 2003 meeting.
“Investigations by Uki Goni and Haim Avni,” an Israeli professor, “have shown that Irigoyen, instead of aiding Jews, in fact did nothing to save them from a certain death,” Jalife said. “As far as the other 11 diplomats, there is no indication that they did anything more than aid Argentine Jews — or said in another manner, they just did their job.”
In his research, Goni found several documents of Nazi official Eberhardt Von Thadden, who acted as Adolf Eichmann’s go-between with the various diplomatic representations in Berlin.
In the documents, Von Thadden describes months of effort to get Irigoyen to repatriate 100 Argentine Jews living in various European countries under Nazi rule. Von Thadden explained that Irigoyen had no interest in dealing with these Jews, and in fact steadfastly refused to intercede on behalf of 59 Argentine Jews from Warsaw whom the SS was willing to hand over for deportation to Argentina.
Ignacio Klich, head of CEANA, the Foreign Ministry’s Commission to Clarify Nazi Activities in Argentina, defended the commemorative plaque. The names on it were chosen in large part based on CEANA recommendations.
“One has to understand the context within which these diplomats were working,” Klich said. “Given that extreme situation, these 12 diplomats stood out among their colleagues.”
Klich said some of the diplomats even saved Jews who were not Argentines.
Klich says Goni’s book “The Real Odessa” is unfair since it doesn’t show that despite the government’s restrictions, “Argentina was the Latin American country which took the largest number of Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1945.”
That caused an outcry from Jewish groups, especially among Holocaust survivors.
“It’s absurd to talk about Argentina in a positive way regarding taking in Jewish refugees before, during or after the war,” said Diana Wang of Generations of the Shoah in Argentina, a group of survivors and their children. “Jews had to swim across the river from Uruguay and cross the dangerous border with Bolivia.” Her family, like many others, “had to lie and say we were Catholics before they would allow us to enter.”
Klich also said Goni should go after people like his own grandfather, Santos Goni, a former Argentine consul in Bolivia, whom Klich accused of refusing Jews visas to Argentina during the 1930s and ’40s.
Goni readily admits this.
“There’s a very personal factor in my request” to repeal Directive 11, he said. “My grandfather was one of those who directly applied this order” and turned Jews away in accordance with Directive 11.
“Certainly there is that factor that my grandfather played a terrible role,” Goni said. “But it’s about time the Argentine government opened all files and rectified past errors.”
For almost half a century, Argentine governments refused to open files related to the entry of Nazi war criminals and other questionable activities during and after World War II.
In the last decade there have been many promises, but still a limited opening of the archives. The current president, Nestor Kirchner, also has made commitments but seems to have fallen short of arranging for a complete release of documents.
Neither Kirchner nor his interior minister or foreign minister responded to repeated requests for interviews for this article.