In a private residence in the suburb of Beccar in Buenos Aires Province, through a passageway hidden behind a bookshelf, police officers believe they have found the largest collection of Nazi artifacts in Argentina’s history. A bust relief of Adolf Hitler and swastika-inscribed boxes carrying harmonicas lie among the 75 objects uncovered in the collector’s home. “There are no precedents for a find like this,” said Nestor Roncaglia, head of Argentina’s federal police.
The authenticity of the findings is particularly unprecedented. “Most pieces are stolen or are imitations,” said Roncaglia. “But this is original and we have to get to the bottom of it.” The investigation began when authorities found artworks of illicit origin, some of which were listed on UNESCO’s “red alert” list as stolen artifacts, in a gallery in northern Buenos Aires. On June 9, Interpol, the international police force, raided the house in Beccar on an international arrest warrant. The private collection violates Argentina’s cultural heritage law, which mandates that such artifacts be held in public domain. The collector, who was not home at the time, remains under investigation. He has not been charged.
Investigators and members of Argentina’s Jewish community suspect that high-ranking Nazis brought the objects to Argentina after World War II, when the country became a refuge for the most notorious war criminals. Thousands of Nazis, Croatian Ustasha fascists, and Italian fascists arrived in Argentina at the permission of President Juan Perón, who led the nation from 1946 to 1955, according to the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center in Buenos Aires. The evidence that best reflects this time period is a photo negative of Hitler holding a magnifying glass. The actual lens was found elsewhere in the collection.
Authorities have traced some objects to particular people. They found medical devices associated with Dr. Josef Mengele, who led the Third Reich’s eugenics program. He fled to Argentina to avoid prosecution for war crimes in Europe. “We know the history, we know of the horrible experiments conducted by Josef Mengele,” said Ariel Cohen Sabban, president of the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations, the country’s largest Jewish organization. Mengele lived in Buenos Aires for a decade and died in Brazil in 1979. But his craniometer, a tool he used to measure people’s heads as a means of verifying racial purity, lives on in Beccar.
Federal Judge Sandra Arroyo Salgado will determine the fate of the collection. The Ministry of Security requests that it be donated to the Holocaust Museum of Buenos Aires. “We believe it important that the horrible memories of those years end up in an institution dedicated to commemorating the millions of victims of Nazism,” said Gerardo Milman, Argentina’s Secretary of Homeland Security. For now, the most concrete vestiges of the Holocaust in Argentina remain caught in the hands of investigators.