Bariloche on the front burner
Officials from the city and the sister cities program have responded to news that Bariloche, Aspen’s newest sister city, was a Nazi haven by promising to meet with local Jewish residents. They will also request a formal letter of explanation from Bariloche’s mayor.
Aspen Jewish community leaders have expressed concern about Aspen’s ties with the Argentinean town and anger over the mayor’s reaction to the news.
A high-ranking Bariloche official yesterday defended the town’s past, saying that prominent Nazis were accepted into the community because the population was unaware of their crimes.
Don Sheeley, Aspen’s sister city coordinator, said he will meet with local Jews to address their concerns at a time and location yet to be determined.
Sheeley also said Aspen’s population should remember the mission of the program is to promote dialogue and cultural exchange.
“We understand that this is a sensitive topic, so we’re hoping to meet with the local Jewish population and see if we can’t find some common ground on this issue,” Sheeley said. “We’re also hoping to get a letter from Bariloche’s mayor, explaining the town’s position.”
Rabbi Mendel Mintz, president of Aspen’s Jewish Resource Center, said that news of Bariloche’s past “touched a nerve” among Aspen Jews. He refused to comment further, but said he will be meeting with Aspen’s Jewish community to consider a possible collective response.
A prominent member of the Jewish community told The Aspen Times on condition of anonymity that many Jews were “furious” with Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud’s response to news of Bariloche’s past. In a March 18 article, Klanderud said that “to resurrect something that’s nearly 60 years old is irresponsible.”
Klanderud said she is working to address the concerns of Jews in the community. She said she encourages dialogue among Aspen’s population, but needs to “gather more information” about Bariloche’s past before offering further comment.
She said the March 18 article in The Aspen Times, which relied heavily on the reporting of the British Daily Telegraph newspaper, was unreliable and needed confirmation. The Telegraph article appeared after a controversial guidebook to former homes of Nazis in Bariloche was published by a local author.
“We are fact-finding as we can,” Klanderud said. “[The Aspen Times] story was based on a story based on a book. People start reacting from very deep feelings about this, but whatever is factual needs to be considered, too.
“I will be talking to Bariloche’s mayor about this.”
Bariloche’s mayor could not be reached for comment yesterday. Carlos Caniu, the director general for Bariloche speaking on behalf of the mayor, said Nazis did reside in the town, but that this should not reflect poorly on Bariloche’s residents.
Caniu, who recently moved to Bariloche, said local citizens did not know the Nazis had committed crimes until 10 years ago, when senior SS officer Erich Priebke was extradited to Italy to stand trial for ordering the execution of 335 Italians.
“[The Nazis] adapted themselves to our community,” Caniu said through an interpreter. “They worked as any other citizens. We don’t think they should have been rejected in any way just because they were Nazis.
“When [SS officer] Priebke was convicted 10 years ago, we started associating who everyone was. Obviously, if someone committed a crime, he should be condemned,” Caniu added later.
Bariloche sister city official Nicolas Spagat has a different take on the town’s history. Spagat, a Jew who has lived in Bariloche since 1945, said in the Times’ March 18 article that residents were aware that Nazis were embedded in the community.
“There were Nazis here,” Spagat said. “It was an amazing time … there were German Jews and German Nazis all working to build a community … it was a small town. What were you going to do, shoot the Nazis?”
Aspen’s Jewish community is waiting to hear the response from Aspen and Bariloche officials before taking a position on the issue, according to Mintz. Nahum Amiran, an Aspen resident with Israeli citizenship, said whatever the outcome, city officials should address the issue thoroughly and carefully.
“The reaction of certain officials pooh-poohing this story as if it’s nothing, making an instant reply, shooting from the hip, is very upsetting,” Amiran said. “There are people with numbers on their arms still living among us.”
Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is email@example.com