Colonia Dignidad Part I

What a Southern Andes, Chilean Village Has to Do with The Plan:

The gate at Colonia Dignidad

In The Plan, I wrote a subtheme around a place in South American known as Colonia Dignidad.  In this strange community that lies deep in the Andean foothills of Chile’s central valley, a group of German expatriates once lived—all members of a utopian experiment. They resided there for decades, separate from others who lived around them, but were widely known and admired, and respected for their cleanliness, their wealth, and their work ethic.

Their neighbors, however, had no idea of what was going on behind the fences that separated this community from the other Chilean families.

In The Plan, Clinton Moore, Dr. Dan Bell, “Frank,” and Tara Means are fictional characters. But Dr. Boris Weisfeiler, who I write about, was a Russian-born mathematician who lived in the United States before going missing in Chile in 1985, at the age of 43. He had taught at Penn State University until he went on his biking trek in the Andes where he was captured by colony guards, tortured and killed.

Most North Americans have never heard of Colonia Dignidad or Dr. Weisfeiler, and that included me, until I started doing research for The Plan. Then after learning about this colony, and its possible ties to the United States, one of my purposes in writing this book (set for release in early October), became to learn more and share my new knowledge about this secret torture colony in South America.

I will be blogging about Colonia Dignidad in the next few weeks. And then I will have a surprise announcement to make! So please follow and I will enjoy hearing your comments.

 

Part I Paul Schaefer Starts the Movement

The land comprising Colonia Dignidad stretches across 70 square miles, rising gently from farmland to low, forested hills, against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains. Today this community has a new name—Villa Baviera—and is becoming integrated into Chile. But for decades, it was totally isolated. The only connection that its members had to the outside world was a long dirt road that wound through tree farms and fields of wheat, corn, and soybeans.

“The road passed through a guarded gate, and led to the center of the property, where the Germans lived in an orderly Bavarian-style village of flower gardens, water fountains, and cream-colored buildings with orange tile roofs,” writes Bruce Falconer, for The American Scholar.

This researcher describes today’s colony as comprised of modern apartment complexes, two schools, a chapel, several meetinghouses, and a bakery that produces fresh cakes, breads, and cheeses. “There [once] were numerous animal stables, two landing strips, at least one airplane, a hydroelectric power station, and mills and factories of various kinds, including a highly profitable gravel mill that supplied raw materials for numerous road-building projects throughout Chile. On the north side of the village was a hospital, where the Germans provided free care to thousands of patients in one of the country’s poorest areas.”

Who made all of this possible? And how did something so good turn into something so bad? Was the United States involved? If so, how?

Despite these questions, here is some of what we do know: a charismatic preacher named Paul Schaefer, now deceased, founded Colonia Dignidad in the early 1960s. Only until several years ago, Schaefer remained in charge.

While he lived most of his adult life in Chile, he spoke little Spanish. His followers mostly spoke German, and the colonos of Colonia Dignidad, as they were called, dressed in traditional German peasant clothes—the men in wool pants and suspenders, the women in homemade dresses and headscarves.

Schaefer wore newer, more modern clothes that denoted his stature, according to Falconer. “His manner was serious; he seldom smiled. The effect only deepened the sense of mystery that surrounded him.”

Outsiders were rarely invited into the grounds of the colony. An old Chilean newsreel, filmed at Schaefer’s invitation in 1981, gives a rare glimpse of life inside the community, showing it to be a utopia in full and happy bloom.

 

Schaefer, living out his life as a prisoner before he died.

“A carpenter assembles a new chair for the Colonia’s school. A woman in a white apron bakes German-style torts and pastries in the kitchen. Teenaged boys clear a new field for planting. Children laugh and splash in a lake. Schaefer himself, wearing a white suit and brown aviator sunglasses, takes the camera crew on a tour. Standing next to the Colonia’s flour mill, he extols the quality of German machinery.”

The television crew is led to a petting zoo, where the reporter feeds chunks of bread to baby deer and plays with the colonos’ collection of pet owls. “The newsreel concludes with a performance by a 15-piece chamber orchestra composed of young, female colonos in flowing white skirts and colorful blouses. The music is beautiful and expertly played.”

The newsreel should have stopped right then; the reporters should have packed up their equipment and gone home! It was all a lie. But how would they have known about the torture that was going on at Dignidad, with all of these attempts to make life look so good for these colons?

It took years for the authorities to learn the truth, and then too many more years before they shut down this camp and imprisoned Schaeffer. What went on in this Andean inferno and why? What is being said in today's trials taking place in Santiago? Was the Penn State professor merely in the wrong place at the wrong time?

What goes on in this remote village today?

I’ll write more about Colonia Dignidad in Part II.