Miriam Petranker remembers the cooks and maids her father hired to attend to their family's needs. "We lived in a nine-bedroom home surrounded by orchards," she says, referring to her birthplace in the Polish town of Kolomeia. "We were very rich."
But that was before the Nazi troops invaded, confiscating homes and businesses belonging to Jewish families. As a teenager, Mrs. Petranker hid out in a Polish forest before being captured by German troops and sent to a slave labor camp. She was freed by Russian soldiers in 1945 and arrived in Argentina three years later. She is her family's only survivor.
Today, Petranker exists on the brink of poverty on a meager government pension. She has one last hope that she will be compensated for her family's financial losses.
Her faith has been bolstered by a recently launched investigation in Argentina to track confiscated wealth from Jewish victims, including so-called "Nazi gold" looted from European nations' treasuries and concentration camp inmates, whose watches, wedding bands, and gold fillings were melted down into gold bars.
South American countries have long been suspected of being repositories for Nazi riches. Now, recent declassified documents from the US State Department and Argentine Foreign Ministry as well as independent investigations by Jewish groups are confirming those suspicions.
"Argentina is not only a likely refuge for Nazi criminals, but also has been and still is the focal point of Nazi financial and economic activity in the hemisphere," wrote US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau in 1945. Documents released by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, allege that Swiss bankers and businessmen used diplomatic pouches to smuggle Nazi assets to Argentina, including $20 million belonging to war criminal Hermann Goering.
Following such leads, Argentine Foreign Minister Guido Di Tella said on April 17 that his government would form a special commission with a one-year mandate to investigate claims that stolen assets were secretly transferred into the South American nation at the end of World War II. Argentina "owes it to our Jewish citizens to set the record straight," he told reporters.
Last November, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center began its investigation after Argentine President Carlos Menem ordered the Central Bank to surrender its wartime archives. Bank officials, however, found only five books covering some 400 gold shipments between 1938 and 1951 from Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Hungary, and Japan. According to Hector Biondo, the Central Bank's deputy manager of operations, most books were destroyed, since Argentine law requires the bank to keep records for only 10 years.
"We have found all that we are going to find," Mr. Biondo says. "And until somebody shows me otherwise, I believe the gold shipments registered in those books were all normal transactions."
Sergio Widder, the Wiesenthal Center's Latin America representative, remains skeptical. "Why weren't those books destroyed?" he asks. "We suspect that there are more." Mr. Widder says he has also been frustrated by the Central Bank's failure to respond to the Center's request to investigate the accounts of 334 Nazis and associates who made fortunes in Europe during the war from slave labor. He has sent a similar request to the central banks of Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
The 13-page list includes: Josef Mengele (alias Helmut Gregor), the "Angel of Death" of the Auschwitz concentration camp; Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels; Adolf Eichmann (alias Ricardo Klement), who oversaw the deportation of millions of Jews; and Erich Priebke, an SS captain who was extradited in 1995 from Argentina to Italy, and is currently on trial in Italy for participating in the 1944 massacre of 335 Italian civilians.
US documents say Goebbels deposited nearly $2 million in a Buenos Aires bank under a friend's name; Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop deposited a hefty sum in the name of a cousin; and Nazi Labor Party leader Robert Ley bought a large farm near Bahia Blanca, under the name Franz Borseman. Many Nazi war criminals found refuge in Argentina, including Eichmann, Priebke, Mengele, and Eduard Roschmann.
A REPORT soon to be published by the Buenos Aires-based Delegation of Jewish Argentine Associations (DAIA) alleges that the Nazi exodus to Argentina was made possible by then-President Juan Peron, a fascist sympathizer, and his wife, Eva, popularly known as "Evita." Mr. Peron, who ruled from 1946 to 1955, had such close relations with the Nazis that the US considered barring Argentina from entering the United Nations.
He sent missions to seek out Nazi technicians, ordered Argentine consulates in Italy to stamp the passports of known Nazi war criminals, and formed a virtual "welcoming committee" in Buenos Aires to meet Nazi refugees upon arrival, according to Project Testimony, the five-year investigation by DAIA involving some 22,000 once-secret Nazi documents from the archives of the Argentine Foreign Ministry.
Project Testimony, the first documented account of Argentina's Nazi past, was made possible in 1991 when President Menem signed an accord to open secret government files to the DAIA.
"We found many documents had been destroyed, but the archives were so disorganized that the government had probably lost track of some of the papers we eventually found," says Beatriz Gurevitz, the project's former director. It has long been speculated that the Nazis paid the Perons for refuge and that Mrs. Peron arranged for transfers of Nazi gold to Argentina in 1947 during a three-month trip to Europe.
Jorge Camarasa has spent 15 years researching Nazi activity in Argentina. He is writing a book about Mrs. Peron's European tour, which he claims laid the groundwork for Nazi war criminals and their collaborators to emigrate to Argentina with stolen wealth. "I found no documented proof that the Nazis paid the Perons," he says, "but there were many indications."
In Madrid, for example, Mrs. Peron met with Hjalmar Schacht, the president of the Reichsbank and Hitler's Economics Minister. In Switzerland, she opened three safety deposit boxes, which her husband made many unsuccessful attempts to claim possession of up until his death in 1974.
Ample evidence also exists that German businessmen with Nazi links made substantial investments in Argentina through some 100 German companies such as Siemens, Bayer, and Mercedes Benz. In 1945, a memo from the American Embassy in Buenos Aires to the US secretary of state estimated German assets already at more than $1 billion pesos, which would be $10 billion today.
Nevertheless, "I think that after 50 years justice can still be attained," says Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress in New York. "What's most important is to have a full accounting of what happened. After moral restitution, policy issues can then flow."