VILLA BAVIERA, Chile – On Aug. 16, 1968, a small, crumpled piece of paper arrives at the German Embassy in Santiago. The desperate handwriting says the author’s family is locked up in Colonia Dignidad, that his children are beaten every day, that his wife is kept in solitary confinement. “Please get us out of here.” The ambassador did nothing.
The sender was Natan Bohnau, a German settler held since 1961, together with another 300 compatriots, on a ranch in the midst of dense forests in southern Chile. A “Christian paradise” to which they fled from the ravages of World War II.
But the perverted personality of their leader, Paul Schafer, turned what promised to be a paradise into a concentration camp.
Before Bohnau sent his letter, between 1962 and 1968, five youths managed to escape the enclave located some 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Santiago. After crossing rivers and fields and hitchhiking the rest of the way, they arrived at the German Embassy, where after describing the horrors suffered, they were returned to Schafer’s hell.
“Neither the German nor Chilean government did anything, though they knew atrocities were being committed,” attorney Winfried Hempel, born in Colonia Dignidad, said.
Until 2005, Schafer kept children and adults in a place operated as “a state within a state.” No country dared interfere. Germany, so as not to dirty itself with “a reminder of Nazism.” Chile, for its perpetual idealization of all things Germanic.
“Every right guaranteed by the constitution was violated, every crime in the Penal Code was committed,” the former settler said.
After six years of work, Hempel is set to file a class action suit against the Chilean government. The lawsuit, supported by 120 ex-colonists, demands that each victim receive $1 million in compensation. He is convinced they will win.
But all this comes a little too late for the settlers. Overwhelmed by debt and having to care for their elders, the community still lives on “community work,” which only in 2005 began to be paid.
Today’s inhabitants of Villa Baviera – Colonia Dignidad’s current name – wage a daily battle to survive. The majority have no wish to live any longer in a structure created by those who ruined their lives.