The Jewish diaspora has had a significant presence in Argentina since the middle of the nineteenth century. The country received an influx of Jewish immigrants from Europe during World War II (WWII). Argentina has one of the largest Jewish communities in the world and the largest in Latin America with a population of about 200,000, according to the World Jewish Congress. Although estimates differ, informed sources report that there are approximately 200 Holocaust survivors remaining in Argentina. Argentina’s Museum of the Holocaust recorded 900 confirmed Argentine citizen victims of the Holocaust, and their investigation continues.
Many Nazi war criminals and sympathizers also emigrated to Argentina after WWII to escape prosecution, including Josef Mengele, the SS doctor who performed experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Adolf Eichmann, one of the organizing minds behind the Holocaust.
Argentina was one of the few non-European countries to endorse the Terezin Declaration. While Argentina does not have any known immovable or movable property issues dating from the Holocaust era, the Declaration’s section on “The Welfare of Holocaust (Shoah) Survivors and Other Victims of Nazi Persecution” does apply, particularly in terms of social welfare and monetary restitution.
Several Argentine NGOs spearhead work in social welfare and monetary restitution for Holocaust survivors. With the support of Jewish welfare NGO Fundación Tzedaká, several survivors have applied for specific restitution programs from European governments, such as pensions for those who were forced laborers or survived internment in concentration camps or ghettos. Fundación Tzedaká (a Hebrew word that roughly translates as “justice,” “righteousness,” or “charity”) also runs its own initiatives such as medical assistance drives, food security assistance, social events, and educational workshops. Most funding for Holocaust survivor programs comes via the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), based on allocations from several sources, including the German government, Swiss Banks Settlement, and the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims. The Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas (DAIA), the umbrella organization of Argentina’s Jewish community, is a member of the World Jewish Congress and is affiliated with the Claims Conference, both of which are involved in Holocaust-era settlements. DAIA and the country’s Holocaust Museum concur that in 10 to 15 years, most social welfare and monetary restitution claims will cease, as remaining Holocaust survivors are advanced in age and these programs are not transferable to family members.
The Argentine government and NGOs present a wide array of programs on Holocaust-related archival access and remembrance. Most of their commitments in this area relate to Argentina’s membership in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
Immovable Private, Communal/Religious, and Heirless Property
The government and local NGOs are unaware of any Holocaust-related immovable property claims in Argentina. According to a 2017 European Shoah Legacy Institute report, Argentina does not appear to be “a party to any treaties or agreements with other countries that address restitution and/or compensation for immovable property confiscated or wrongfully taken during the Holocaust.” The country’s Secretariat for Worship specified that it does not have any records of restitution claims that Holocaust survivors pursued through the Government of Argentina; it noted that such cases would have to be handled through international agreements given the lack of relevant domestic legislation. NGOs in Argentina are pivotal when it comes to assisting victims attempting to navigate such claims.
Fundación Tzedaká reported that although the Polish government in 2018 permitted claims on immovable property from overseas residents, to its knowledge no Argentine resident has made a claim. The NGO suggested that most Jewish Argentines are of Polish descent, and the lack of claims by Argentine Jews could be related to the complicated restitution process in Poland. Fundación Tzedaká has assisted clients in applying for monetary restitution from other governments, such as Germany, Romania, and Serbia.
Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art
Most government and civil society sources voiced doubts that there was any Holocaust-related movable property in Argentina. All agreed that some of the Nazis who came to Argentina after WWII used false names in an attempt to immigrate as refugees; therefore, they rarely arrived with large amounts of belongings. Both Fundación Tzedaká and a law firm that had been involved in assisting Holocaust survivors with restitution claims stated that they have not processed claims for any movable property.
The existence of smuggled Nazi-looted and confiscated art in Argentina is possible, however, given that other items from the period have surfaced in recent years. For example, the Argentine Federal Police confiscated what was thought to be the largest cache of Nazi memorabilia outside of Europe in a raid on a local antiques store in June 2017. These objects are believed to have been either smuggled into Argentina by Nazi escapees or forged. Through DAIA, the Jewish community became a party in the case against the antiques shop owner, asserting that their sale allegedly violated either the antidiscrimination law (if they were forgeries) or the patrimony law concerning import controls of cultural artifacts (if found to be genuine). These pieces were donated to Argentina’s Holocaust museum. This case suggests other items might have been smuggled out of Europe in the aftermath of the war, but to this day none have surfaced that involve Nazi-confiscated or looted art. None of the items confiscated in June 2017 were reported to be property stolen from survivors.
Argentine museums do not do provenance research on their collections, and there have been difficulties researching the activities of Argentina’s art market during the Holocaust. The Argentine Commission of Inquiry into the Activities of Nazism in Argentina, created in 1997, concluded that no looted art was or is held by the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. The Commission admitted that it had not checked any other state-run museum and that it faced difficulties researching the activities of Argentina’s art market during the Holocaust, particularly those of the Witcomb, Wildenstein, and Muller art galleries.
Judaica and Jewish Cultural Property
As with other movable property, sources neither in civil society nor in the government had any reports of restitution claims regarding Judaica or Jewish cultural property in Argentina. Argentina received 5,053 books and 150 museum and synagogue pieces from Jewish Cultural Reconstruction after WWII. So far as is known, no provenance research has been conducted on these holdings or on other Judaica that may have reached Argentina during or after the war.
Access to Archival Documents
In 1992, the government announced that it would open the archives related to Nazi arrivals in Argentina, extradition requests for Nazi war criminals, and laws that prevented Jewish immigration during the same period. In 2017, the government initiated the digitalization of the archives for convenient access and further study. It has shared copies of these digitized archives with DAIA and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and researchers can access the documents through these organizations.
The government created the Truth Commission for Nazi Activities in Argentina in 1997 to investigate Nazi immigration to Argentina and possible government acquiescence at the time. A study published by the commission found 180 cases of confirmed Nazi war criminals who entered Argentina. The government did not repeal a 1948 law barring Jewish immigration to Argentina until 2005.
Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites
Argentina’s active civil society organizations take a multifaceted approach to Holocaust remembrance. Concerning Holocaust primary source education, Argentina’s Museum of the Holocaust is at the forefront of compiling oral testimony from survivors. Through the institution’s “Apprentice Project,” these survivors entrust their stories to new generations that in turn are expected to further disseminate them to their younger peers to keep the memory of the Shoah alive. NGOs also remember the Holocaust in ceremonies they sponsor, sometimes with the Israeli embassy or connected to events commemorating the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA).
In 2006, Argentina became the only Latin American country to be a full member of IHRA. In keeping with that membership, the government hosts a yearly Shoah memorial event on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is organized on a rotating basis by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Science, and Technology; the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights; and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship. The latter ministry hosted the 2018 event at the Shoah Memorial Plaza in Buenos Aires at which President Mauricio Macri became the first sitting president to attend as a speaker, along with the DAIA president and a Holocaust survivor. Other provincial capitals hosted the event in prior years, illustrating a commitment to encourage all levels of government to participate in Holocaust remembrance.
Argentina also established a Permanent Advisory Council in 2002 that functions as the local chapter of the IHRA. The presidency of this council rotates among the aforementioned three government ministries and includes the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Racism, as well as many civil society organizations. Chief among these NGOs are DAIA, AMIA, B’nai B’rith Argentina, the Anne Frank Center (Centro Ana Frank), the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Plural Jai, the Holocaust Museum Foundation, the Center for Holocaust Studies, the Argentine Judeo-Christian Confraternity, and many more. The Council convenes monthly to exchange information and discuss initiatives such as remembrance events, workshops, seminars, production of documentary material, and academic curricula.