Ron Rosenbaum

What Philip Kerr Says About Argentina and His Novel

First of all I am grateful for his swift response to my inquiry, and I am no less an admirer of his work. I owe him and readers an apology for my hasty misconstrual of his “Author’s Note”: as Kerr’s remarks in an e mail below make clear the 200,000 figure is from the effects of the secret, sinister anti-semitic “Directive 11” and the Argentine government’s wartime denial of refuge to Jews, not to the post war work of Nazi war criminals and their sympathizers in the Argentine government although his novelistic speculation is based on the ersistence of strories to that efffect.

The exposure of long denied “Directive 11”, the work of historians like Uki Goni was something new and shocking to me and the fact of its forgottenness after exposure makes Kerr’s novel all the more important. As does his revelation of the presence of death camp designers such as Hans Kammler in Argentina which give some credence to stories circulating about the work of Nazi war criminals in Argentina –as Kerr puts it speculation “about the possiblity of a concentration camp for Jews in Argentina’s remote forests”.

Kerr adds something chillling in his “Author’s Note”: “According to Uki Goni Argentine governmment ministers demanded ‘ a solution to the Jewish problem’ in the country. But the existence of such a camp has, Kerr notes, not “been confirmed”. Which is why he wrote his novel. To explore the not-unthinkable possiblility. And to spur the investigation into the shameful reality of Argentine complicity with Nazis and Nazi practices that made it thinkable.

Here’s what Kerr e mailed me via his publisher:

1) Directive 11 was a secret edict signed into being by the Argentine government in 1938. It stopped Jews coming to Argentina. There were lots of Jews who wanted to go to Argentina because Argentina already had a very large Jewish population. The Junta was certainly anti-Semitic in that it felt there were too many Jews in the country. Plus the Junta were greater admirers of the Nazis. When Uki Goni suggested in his book that 200,000 Jews died as a result of the Junta’s policy in relation to the Jews, what he means – and by extension what I meant – was that 200,000 European people who wanted to go to Argentina between 1938 and 1940 were prevented from going there and, as a result, died in European death camps. That’s a very different thing.

I do not mean that 200,000 were murdered in Argentina. And nowhere do I say this.  Other countries refused Jews, of course. But certainly the Argentine government was the only government that refused to repatriate Jews who were actually their own nationals, knowing full well what would happen to them in Germany.

2) The Argentine Government kept Directive 11 a secret. Especially after the war when they began to curry favour with the USA. All documentation was destroyed in 1955. Truth be told even the Argentines themselves probably don’t know what really happened between 1938 and 1945.

3) Goni mentions that there were rumours in Argentina of some kind of concentration camp in the jungle for illegal Jews during or after the war. I wanted to make use of that idea in my novel. In other words my novel treats this rumour as the ‘What If’ basis for the story. What if it had been true? What if there had been a Directive 12. But I make it clear in the author’s note that no such camp has ever been confirmed as having existed.

4) However, I felt this was a fair ‘What If’ scenario because of Argentina’s human rights record then and afterwards when thousands of its citizens disappeared for political not racial reasons. There were indeed plenty of prisons and camps were political opponents were kept. Most of them were never seen again. Many of them were indeed thrown out of airplanes.

Another reason I felt it was a fair ‘What if’ scenario was because Argentina was one of the few countries in the world where, for a while, thousands of Nazi war criminals lived quite openly. As many as eight thousand. And of course, it’s almost certainly true that large sums of Nazi money ended up in Peron’s hands.

5) Hans Kammler the architect of the death camps, and the Nazi missile program boss was indeed the second most powerful man in  the SS at the end of the war. It seems likely that he was one of the ‘scientists’ who went to the USA as part of the paperclip program. I have no evidence for saying that he went to Argentina beyond the fact that almost everyone else went there including Mengele and Eichmann.

6) I dare say there will be many Argentine people who might get upset by what’s in my novel. And they should remember that it is only a novel.
However, it does also seem to me now that it is an inevitable corollary of having had thousands of SS war criminals in your country that other people such as myself should speculate as to what they might have got up to while they were there. We can say that each country had its tame Nazis, but this was nothing on the scale of the numbers that were in Argentina. When Israeli agents kidnapped Eichmann from Argentina, the official government line was that he wasn’t in the country at all. Nor was Mengele.

And let’s not forget the public reaction in Argentina following Eichmann’s kidnap was not to say how could a man like that be here in our country, but to spark a wave of anti-Semitism. From the announcement that Eichmann was in Jerusalem until the trial had ended,  in 1962, it was not safe to be a Jew in Buenos Aires. There were several anti-Semitic riots. Many Jews in the city were kidnapped and murdered. One girl had a swastika carved on her body before she was murdered.

In 1992, the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires was attacked; 29 people were killed and hundreds injured. A Jewish community centre was bombed in 1994.

This was not a country that was ever comfortable with its Jewish population.
I might say it still isn’t. As recently as 2005 the US government issued a memorandum expressing concern about anti-Semitism in Argentina.(see
www.tau.ac.il/Anti-Semitism.)

Hope this helps to make things clear.
Phil