Fabled as the Shangri-la of fugitive Nazis, Argentina found itself dealing with old ghosts when it was revealed that a Holocaust-denying bishop, suddenly controversial in the Catholic Church, was living in the country. Richard Williamson had been living in a secluded seminary in the outskirts of Buenos Aires for five years when an international uproar erupted over the decision by Pope Benedict XVI to lift an excommunication order imposed upon him by the late Pope John Paul II. And so Argentina, already dealing with a worrisome resurgence of anti-Semitism, has decided to deport the prelate.
Williamson is being kicked out of the country on a technicality. The government said that he had neglected to mention that he is a bishop on his immigration papers when he came to Argentina in 2003. In his papers, Williamson appears only as an employee for the tree-lined La Reja seminary outside the city of Buenos Aires, when he actually presided over the religious institution. At the ultra-orthodox seminary, run by the Society of St. Pius X, mass is said in Latin with the priest facing the altar and turning his back to the congregation. At services, women must wear long skirts and a shawl over their heads. (Read "Finding God on YouTube.")
Williamson, whose exact whereabouts are unknown since he disappeared from La Reja earlier this month, has said he believes there were no gas chambers at Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz and that only 300,000 Jews were killed by Nazi Germany, contradicting the widely accepted figure of six million deaths. The Vatican ordered him to retract, but Williamson responded that he needs to review the evidence. Nevertheless, Williamson will be obeying the expulsion order and will leave Argentina shortly, according to Father Christian Bouchacourt, South American superior for the Society of St Pius X. "He already intended to leave before the order was signed," said Bouchacourt. "We're a little tired of all this storm."
In spite of the technicality, the government made it clear the expulsion order was motivated by Williamson's negation of the Holocaust. The order, signed by Immigration Director Martin Arias Duval, states that "anti-Semitism is an ideological aberration which has cost millions of lives throughout history." Williamson's views "deeply offended Argentine society," the government said.
Among those relieved that the bishop is being kicked out is Auschwitz survivor Mira Stupnik, 80, originally from Poland, who settled in Argentina with the tens of thousands of other Jews who came to this South American nation after the war. When she heard that Williamson lived in Argentina, Stupnik contacted Catholic Church authorities unsuccessfully seeking to organize a meeting with Williamson. "I wanted him to tell me to my face that the Holocaust didn't happen," says Stupnik, who lives in the quiet Buenos Aires neighborhood of Villa del Parque and still carries the number A-15538 that the Nazis tattooed on her forearm when she arrived at the camp. "I wanted to tell him about the nauseating, sweet smell that came from the burning corpses, how the trains came from all over Europe, from Greece, from France. Their suitcases piled up on the ground outside while the Jews were taken to the gas chambers." (See pictures of Kristallnacht.)
Apart from the many Jews who found a new life in Argentina, hundreds of Nazi war criminals also escaped here after the war, among them SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann, in charge of the "Final Solution," and Auschwitz supervising doctor Josef Mengele, in charge of the going through the prisoners who arrived on trains at the camp, deciding who went to the gas chamber and who was kept alive for slave labor. Eichmann was kidnapped by a group of undercover agents from Israel's Mossad intelligence service in 1960, then tried in Jerusalem and executed. Mengele lived undisturbed in South America, first in Argentina and later in Brazil where, under a false name, he died while swimming at a beach in 1979.
Argentina has a recent history of anti-Semitism as well. More than 100 persons were murdered in two terrorist bombings that leveled the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA Jewish community center in downtown Buenos Aires in the 1990s, crimes that remain unresolved by the courts to this day and that sometimes are blamed on Middle Eastern terrorists. But in recent months a wave of marches by hooded demonstrators outside the homes of Jewish citizens and calls for the boycotting of Jewish stores in some provincial cities, in response to the incidents in Gaza, have set off alarm bells ringing in the Jewish community here, which at 300,000 is the largest in Latin America. "It's very worrying," says Aida Ender, who migrated with her parents from Europe escaping from the Holocaust 60 years ago and who is part of an e-mail chain that reports on anti-Semitic activity among other survivors. "In the smaller cities of the provinces they are painting swastikas and calling for boycotts of Jewish shops."
One of the most worrying cases came a few weeks ago when a left-wing and pro-Palestinian groups marched on the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Buenos Aires, owned by millionaire property developer Eduardo Elsztain, a partner of George Soros in Argentina and a leading figure in the Argentine Jewish community. Jewish leaders were incensed by statements by one of the organizers of that march carried on a major radio channel. "We are going to march to their business offices, to where the rats hide, to single them out, and we will take the offices if necessary, we will surround them and block them up, demanding right there, in the nest of the rats where the Zionist capital is, that they withdraw from Gaza," said one of the leaders of the marches, Juan Beica, of the fringe left-wing group Convergencia Socialista, in an interview on the popular Radio 10 station after the march against Elsztain's office.
Meanwhile, black swastikas have appeared painted on many walls of the city of Buenos Aires, including on a monument on Plaza Israel, on Figueroa Alcorta avenue, one of the city's main thoroughfares. The government has said it plans to clamp down on the wave of intolerance and Williamson's expulsion is seen as a gesture by the government to try and allay fears within Argentina's Jewish community. Rabbi Daniel Goldman, a child of Holocaust survivors who sought government action against Williamson, told the Jewish News Agency that "actions such as these clearly show that our people and our leadership refuse to live alongside a lie." For Holocaust survivor Stupnik, the bishop's expulsion came as a relief. "Justice is being done, even if it is late justice. The truth must always triumph in the end."