Life

A young journalist stumbled onto a Nazi cult 20 years ago, the true horrors of which are only now reaching a global audience. By Nadine von Cohen.

Uncovering cult horrors in Chile

Children from the Colonia Dignidad cult in Chile are shown dancing in A Sinister Sect.
Children from the Colonia Dignidad cult in Chile are shown dancing in A Sinister Sect.
Credit: LOOKSfilm / Netflix

Colonia Dignidad was the autocratic utopian vision of a man The New York Times once called the “Guru of Sadism”. I hadn’t much occasion to think of it, until a new Netflix documentary took me back almost 20 years, to a road trip in Chile. My friends and I were in search of a certain German restaurant. My parents, meanwhile, were losing their minds over their youngest child investigating a Nazi torture sect.

Leader Paul Schäfer built Colonia Dignidad, a 1780-hectare rural enclave south of Santiago, in the image of a Bavarian village. He was a self-deified tyrant who ruled with a metal fist and a bloody Bible. A Luftwaffe medic turned firebrand preacher, he fled Germany in 1959 facing charges of sexual abuse in a children’s home he founded. In 1961 he landed in Chile, another Nazi on the lam in South America.

Schäfer exploited Cold War fears of a communist putsch in divided Germany to lure hundreds of congregants to what he painted as a pious and benevolent oasis. They would do community outreach, he said, build a hospital, a school, an orphanage.

He promised them a safer, more godly life but gave them a living nightmare with tax breaks and strudel.

The compound has long operated a restaurant nearby, and visiting it remains one of the most bizarre experiences of my life. The all-German, lederhosen-clad staff were 100 per cent Aryan, making it the only place in Chile where we didn’t stick out like pale thumbs. The food was delicious and the waitstaff’s polite efficiency on brand. I spent the whole time trying to catch their eyes, should any want to plead for help.

I asked my friends what they remember from that day. “Our waiter had a glazed and robotic, but also slightly panicked, way about him,” said one. “He wouldn’t make eye contact and I remember wondering what he was thinking.”

“I just recall nice food, a playground and a creepy, creepy vibe,” said another.

A creepy, creepy vibe indeed, from the geographically awry racial purity to the giant statue out front, a thinly veiled tribute to fallen Nazis.

In 2003, I was living in Concepción, Chile, about seven hours south of Santiago. I was there with friends, attending the Universidad de Concepción and drinking pisco, sometimes concurrently.

There we were, going to classes, eating empanadas, getting accidentally tear-gassed, when we started seeing swastikas. On a wall, scratched into a desk, as wallpaper on a uni computer. I knew some Nazis had hightailed it to South America, but Chile’s meagre Jewish population made so much anti-Semitism seem disproportionate and rather unnerving.

My grandparents survived the Holocaust. Since I can remember, I’ve known what a swastika signifies. But growing up in Sydney, sightings had been decidedly rare. This is less true of the recent past, unfortunately.

Driven by curiosity and academically required to produce a cultural thesis, I started asking questions. Back then, the internet was far from the heaving mass of information it is today, but some rudimentary online digging and pestering Chileans led me to Colonia Dignidad, since rebranded as Villa Baviera, only two hours away.

I soon found El Último Secreto de Colonia Dignidad (The Last Secret of Colonia Dignidad), a book by Chilean journalist Carlos Basso Prieto. Struggling to process an entire Spanish-language tome, I requested an interview with Basso Prieto and, surprisingly, he accepted. I was just doing an assignment. I wasn’t a journalist. I wasn’t even studying journalism.

Off I schlepped to Santiago, feeling like Jana Wendt, though I imagine Jana didn’t stay in backpacker hostels. Basso Prieto was generous with his time, giving me a detailed history of the cult. He revealed that the authorities had finally acted in the mid-1990s, issuing warrants for Schäfer’s arrest. Schäfer, by then in his early 80s, had been in hiding for years.

Ständiger Onkel (Permanent Uncle), as Schäfer preferred to be called, was a prolific paedophile. He preyed on local Chilean boys as well as those in the cult. With victims estimated in the hundreds, possibly thousands, his twisted legacy includes a Chilean colloquialism for child molesters, Tios Pablos (Uncle Pauls).

He demanded unconditional devotion from his parishioners, viewing interpersonal relationships as a threat. Friendships were prohibited, dating forbidden and conversation largely banned. Babies were separated from their mothers and the few children born into the cult raised in communal homes.

To justify his barbarity, Schäfer sermonised discipline as spiritually enriching. Sex was outlawed and heterosexual sex practically unfeasible, thanks to near-total segregation of the sexes and the libido-reducing psychopharmaceuticals with which Schäfer secretly drugged everyone. Simply looking at a member of the opposite sex could incur violent punishment.

Beatings were part of daily life, genitals were zapped with electric shock devices, and people were forced to “confess” to things they didn’t do. Cult members performed unpaid labour for up to 14 hours a day, every day. Leaving the heavily guarded, doggedly surveilled compound was verboten and escape next to impossible. Those few who did flee were captured and brutally reprimanded.

“We built our own prison,” one survivor said in the Netflix docuseries A Sinister Sect, which was released late last year.

The fortress also proved a perfect detention centre for General Augusto Pinochet, who terrorised Chile from 1973 to 1990. The dictator orchestrated the imprisonment, torture and killing of an estimated 40,000 people, including Los Desaparecidos (The Disappeared), thousands of whom remain unaccounted for.

Pinochet and Schäfer were pathological peas in a pod, the cult leader hosting the general at least once. About 3000 political prisoners were interrogated and tortured inside Colonia Dignidad and at least 100 murdered.

Basso Prieto introduced me to Olga Weisfeiler, the sister of Soviet-born American professor Boris Weisfeiler, who disappeared in 1985 while hiking in Chile. Boris’s case remains unsolved, but it is widely maintained he was mistaken for a CIA agent, kidnapped and murdered inside Colonia Dignidad.

Olga has been fighting for the truth ever since and petitioning Chilean authorities – her case is currently awaiting appeal in the Supreme Court. Her guts and tenacity are humbling and revisiting this story compelled me to reach out to her again. She remains determined as ever to achieve justice for Boris, the American Desaparecido.

Basso Prieto also connected me with Hernán Fernández, a lawyer set on bringing Schäfer down. Yet another kind human unbothered by my lack of credentials, Fernández offered to meet with me. Feeling very espionage-y, we met in a bus station cafe, where he showed me aerial photos and blueprints of Colonia Dignidad. I looked around nervously, wondering if Schäfer’s henchmen would torture me before killing me.

Pinochet wasn’t the only pal for whom Schäfer opened his house of horrors. Several Nazi fugitives allegedly sought clandestine refuge there, including Adolf  “Architect of the Holocaust” Eichmann and Josef  “Angel of Death” Mengele.

Soon after our National Lampoon’s Cult Sizzler adventure, my Nazi-busting career ended abruptly. My father’s health had declined. I returned home, largely forgetting about Colonia Dignidad until A Sinister Sect showed up.

Over six chilling episodes, survivors reveal the horrors of Colonia Dignidad, which translates, somewhat ironically, to Dignity Colony. For more than four decades, they were stripped of all agency; their physical, mental and sexual liberty routinely violated.

The documentary is intense, disquieting viewing. It’s hard to stomach even if you already know a lot about the cult – even if you’d once inadvertently joined the battle to bring it down.

The Guru of Sadism was apprehended in Argentina in 2005, charged in the 1976 murder of activist Juan Maino. In 2006, prosecuted by Hernán Fernández, he was sentenced to 20 years’ jail for sexually abusing 25 children. Further convictions followed.

Schäfer died in prison in 2010, aged 88, his five years of incarceration nowhere near enough to provide justice for his victims. A few senior members of Colonia Dignidad were also jailed for aiding his depravity but most escaped conviction or fled to Germany.

Villa Baviera is now a tourist destination. Stay at the hotel, take a horse ride, and listen for the screams of Los Desaparecidos. Many survivors still live there, some practising a cruelty-free version of the cult way of life. Some stay because they’re too scared to leave, others simply don’t know where else to go.

I just hope they’ve pulled the statue down.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 as "Chasing Dignidad".

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Nadine von Cohen is a writer, refugee advocate and co-founder of Hope for Nauru.

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