The collection of perfectly preserved pieces was discovered in a secret room in the home of an antiques collector and dealer in the upscale Buenos Aires neighborhood of Béccar, and also contains objects including toys, pistols, knives and an hourglass, all embossed with swastikas. Among the more macabre items is a medical device used to measure people’s skulls to determine if they belonged to the Aryan race.
The police discovery of the items destined for sale on the black market is further proof of the significant presence of Nazis in Argentina after the war, with high-profile figures including Auschwitz physician Josef Mengele taking advantage of the protection offered by former president Juan Domingo Perón, who served his first term from 1946 to 1955.
But the country also took in thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, with that community present in all spheres of Argentinean society: the current environment minister, Sergio Bergman, for example, is a rabbi. It is Jewish groups that have done the most to rid Argentina of its Nazi past, and that have also applauded most loudly at news of this latest discovery of memorabilia.
The salesman in possession of the objects has not been arrested because it is not currently possible to accuse him of any crime. According to police he is not linked to groups with Nazi sympathies, but he is being investigated by federal courts.
This is irrefutable proof that Argentina opened the door to high-ranking Nazis after the Second World War
Ariel Cohen Sabban, President of Delegation of Argentinean Jewish Organizations
His collection was found by chance while police were searching for smuggled objects of Chinese art listed as protected by UNESCO. After officers unearthed a store of Chinese, Japanese and Egyptian work at a gallery and in a storeroom, they followed the trail back to the house of the collector. “An officer noticed something off about a bookcase and decided to move it. And there was the secret door,” Gustavo Roncaglia, federal police chief, told EL PAÍS.
“Everything suggests [the collector] was a dealer, not an activist,” he added.
Police believe the objects were brought to Argentina by high-ranking Nazi officers after the Second World War, and may even have belonged to Mengele.
“The place where he was hiding was less than 15 blocks from the house [where the objects were found]. We can’t say anything for certain but there are many medical devices among the 75 pieces found – for measuring bones and the dimension of skulls,” said Roncaglia.
“We are shocked: these Nazi objects – emblems of a tragic era in our history – make up a very impressive find,” said Patricia Bullrich, security minister in a country where vestiges of the Nazi past continue to stir up the occasional controversy. Recently, youngsters dressed up as Nazis faced off with students of a Jewish college in Bariloche, an area of Patagonia reminiscent of Switzerland where several figures of the Hitler regime sought refuge.
“There are still people who preach this ideology or make money out of it. It is part of our history we have to stamp out,” the minister said.
The chief find in the collection is the magnifying glass that could have belonged to Hitler: investigators have turned up a negative of a photo showing the Nazi leader holding an item identical to that found in Buenos Aires. “A historian we have consulted says it is original. We are in contact with the German Embassy and will speak to international historians to confirm this,” said the federal police chief.
“This is irrefutable proof that [Argentina] opened the door to high-ranking Nazis after the Second World War,” said Ariel Cohen Sabban, president of DAIA, the country’s federation of Jewish organizations.
English version by George Mills.