Argentina moves to redress Nazi-era wrongs

buenos aires | When Diana Wang won the right to change her religious affiliation from Catholic to Jewish on her 1947 entry papers to Argentina, it represented another step forward by the current government to right past wrongs.

And it was an emotionally charged moment for Wang, president of Generation of the Shoah, a group in Argentina.

“It has been nice to celebrate the New Year as my real self,” she said.

“It’s incredible, but I feel like a more integral person,” she said, a month after a September ceremony in which the Argentine Immigration Service, Interior Ministry and Foreign Ministry re-registered Wang as Jewish. She was forced to claim she was Catholic in order to get her papers 58 years ago.

The government announced it would make the revision for Wang; that would set a precedent for others who say they too had to lie about their religion to gain entry to Argentina. The government also will waive the $75 cost of such a change.

Since President Nestor Kirchner took office just over two years ago, his administration has revised a half-century of Argentine policies turning a blind eye to the entry of Nazi war criminals following World War II, when the country had barred entry to Jews trying to escape the Holocaust. Some of the government’s major actions include:

• Opening long-closed Immigration Service records to promote the search for Nazi war criminals. The government of Carlos Menem had promised such a step in the 1990s, but strict control and bureaucratic snags over the dissemination of files and documents made the promise a farce.

• Ordering the removal of a plaque in the Foreign Ministry honoring Argentine diplomats who supposedly saved Jewish lives during the war. Historians argued that some the diplomats had consistently refused to give Jews visas, essentially dooming them to death.

• Finding and annulling a 1938 Foreign Ministry order, sent to diplomats around the world, to bar entry to Jews.

• Disbanding CEANA, the Foreign Ministry commission set up during the Menem years to clear up the skeletons of the country’s Nazi past. The commission seemed to hide more than it revealed, and was riven by internal strife. The Kirchner government says it’s looking at revamping the commission so that it can do a major historical documentation.

Though she was only 2 at the time, Wang remembers arriving in the port of Buenos Aires on July 4, 1947, with her mother, a 34-year-old concentration camp survivor. She recalls her mother carrying rosary beads and a Catholic prayer object, both purchased in Europe so she could pass as a Catholic.

“We knew in Europe that Jews could not enter Argentina,” Wang says. “We arrived frightened to the port, but the uncertainty diminished right away when we realized all one had to do was say you were a Catholic and you entered. It was quite a change from Poland, where authorities would sniff you out as Jewish. They would insult you in Poland and do it with glee.”

Wang said it became obvious that such deceptions were practiced on a large scale when Argentine immigration records were opened and all the people who entered the country with typically Jewish names in the postwar years were listed as Catholics.

“If it weren’t pathetic, it would have seemed almost comical. Names like Levy, Epelboim, Moiselewicz, first names like Sheine, Rivka, Isaac, Shmuel — all with the word Catholic alongside their names on their records,” she said.

Wang said she now will try to get the word out in the Jewish community, so others can make the same change on their documents.

The attitude of the Kirchner administration has surprised many local observers.

In a personal letter to Wang, Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa said the September ceremony was “far more than an administrative action and clearly symbolized the decision by the government to amend a serious injustice and a historical error.”

The prohibition on Jewish entry was part of “an absurd vision of being Argentine, which had as its intention that the immigration waves would obey closed ethnic, religious and cultural norms and create a falsely homogenous social fabric,” Bielsa added.

How does Wang feel after these emotionally charged months?

“It makes me feel more proud to be Argentine,” she said.