VILLA BAVIERA, Chile – It was early in 1962 and Helmut Schaffrick felt blessed. Together with his wife and seven children, he took a boat and sailed away from a Germany in ruins. On the horizon he imagined a Christian paradise where he would begin a new life along with another 300 compatriots.
His journey ended in the woodlands of southern Chile where the exiles founded a community to help those most in need. They called it Colonia Dignidad (Dignity Colony).
To finance it, the Schaffricks, like other families, had sold the house where they lived in a small village in northern Germany. Helmut and his wife Emi scraped together 30,000 marks that they handed over to their leader and spiritual guide, Paul Schafer.
Almost illiterate, small and afflicted with a series of physical disabilities, Schafer was gifted with an immense power of conviction.
A German army medic during World War II, Schafer took advantage of the country’s post-war disorientation to recruit the faithful from Baptist communities. He soon formed a group of devoted followers, including children that he sexually abused.
When prosecutors began to investigate, Schafer fled to Chili with most of his devotees. Some 90 children traveled without their parents. Schafer told them it was only for a temporary stay.
“They were tricked. They thought they would build a place where they would do good works and live like good Christians. They found nothing but slavery and suffering,” said Horst, a son of the Schaffrick couple.
After settling on an isolated ranch between rivers and mountains, Schafer – aided by a small circle of faithful followers – requisitioned all the colonists’ documents and imposed an “iron-fisted totalitarian regime,” according to attorney Winfried Hempel, born in Colonia Dignidad.
Sixteen-hour work days, brutal punishment and implacable surveillance allowed Schafer to create a disciplined microsociety, ruled by his absolute power and a vengeful God.
For those born and raised in this universe of horror, the pedophilia, punishment and slavery were the only realities.
After the military coup in 1973, Schafer offered his installations to Augusto Pinochet’s secret police. Colonia Dignidad became a key element in the dictatorship’s regime of repression.
The basements used to store potatoes were turned into torture and interrogation chambers directed by Schafer himself. Around 350 people were tortured. More than 100 were murdered and buried on the colony’s grounds.
Democracy finally managed to knock down the impenetrable walls of Colonia Dignidad. Schafer fled in 1997 when the justice system began investigating him. He was nabbed in 2005 and died five years later in a Chilean prison.
When the outside world at last penetrated the community, the colonists were stunned. They were lost. Many returned to Germany, others decided to stay.
Today Colonia Dignidad is called Villa Baviera and has been reinvented as a tourist complex, though a hundred German settlers still live in the enclave.