Moves on files, 1938 ruling show that Argentina is confronting past
BUENOS AIRES – The recent decision by the Argentine government to repeal a controversial 1938 Foreign Ministry resolution was the latest of a number of moves aimed at reviewing the country’s anti-Semitic past, policies that have pleasantly surprised Jewish leaders and historians. President Nestor Kirchner changed the venue of the signing of the order to repeal the 1938 resolution, Directive 11, to the government house and personally attended the ceremony, demonstrating the importance he has placed on righting past wrongs. Directive 11 was an internal memorandum sent to all Argentine diplomatic delegations in 1938 stipulating that they “deny visas, even tourist visas or safe conduct passes, to all persons who are deemed to have abandoned their country of origin as an undesirable or expelled person, whatever the motive of that expulsion.” The obvious reference was to Jews fleeing Nazi atrocities in Europe.
Last month the Kirchner government ordered the removal of a plaque in the Foreign Ministry commemorating 12 diplomats who allegedly saved Jews during World War II. When evidence showed that one of the diplomats honored actually had refused entry visas or passports to approximately 100 Argentine Jews living in Greece, Poland and Italy – who were then sent to death camps – the government immediately removed the plaque. In the weeks after Kirchner took power in May 2003, the immigration service opened its files to historians and researchers seeking information on the entry of war criminals, files closed to the public for more than a half-century. Recently, the Interior Ministry also agreed to a special request by Diana Wang of the Argentine Children of the Shoah Association to change immigration records in which Wang and her family had to lie and say they were Catholics to enter Argentina after the war. Their immigration forms now will show their religion as Jewish, and others who suffered similar humiliations will be able to change their records, according to Interior Minister Anibal Fernandez.
Among those speaking at the June 8 ceremony at the government house was Beatriz Gurevich, a historian who discovered a copy of Directive 11 in old file boxes at the Argentine embassy in Stockholm in 1998. “It’s rare that one can see the fruits of one’s work in such tangible ways,” Gurevich said, referring to the repeal of the order. She also complimented the government “because it is not easy to look back into the past. It requires moral courage.” At the time of her research in Sweden, Gurevich was working for CEANA, the Foreign Ministry commission created in 1997 under then-President Carlos Menem and charged with clearing up Argentina’s Nazi past. While Gurevich understood the importance of finding a copy of Directive 11, the CEANA authorities immediately ordered the document to be archived and not included in their report. Gurevich resigned from CEANA over that and other examples of what she considered attempts to muddy the waters rather than clear up Argentine policies toward the Nazis and Jewish immigration.
Although the document was not published in CEANA reports, journalist Uki Goni made use of it in his book, “The Real Odessa.” Goni also spoke at the government house ceremony and said for him it was historical and personal vindication. “In application of this inhuman order, my grandfather,” an Argentine diplomat, “denied visas to Jews fleeing the Holocaust,” Goni said. “This was a state secret that became a family secret and that turned me into an involuntary custodian of an abhorrent fact that until now did not appear in Argentina’s history books.”
Argentine authorities “said that anti-Semitism didn’t exist, that we were fighting against windmills,” said Baruj Tenembaum, president of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, which – along with the Simon Wiesenthal Center – has fought for years to repeal Directive 11. Tenembaum said it’s now clear that Argentina was filled with Nazi sympathizers during World War II.
Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa referred to the long battle to find and repeal Directive 11. He apologized for not having signed the decree a year earlier, saying ministry officials couldn’t locate the original order because it was hidden in another file. He complimented the talent, investigative skills and tenacity of Gurevich and Goni. Fernandez, the interior minister, said no government but Kirchner’s had taken the step of revealing to the public the wrongs committed in Argentina during the war. “Historically, we had people telling us that there was no evidence that Nazis entered Argentina,” Fernandez said. “Well, we opened the immigration service files last year, and now no one can doubt that Nazi war criminals entered here. Like it or not, that is now a documented historical fact.”