as the hype swells around the opening of the movie version of "Evita," researchers have uncovered new skeletons from the former Argentine first lady's checkered past.
The movie, starring Madonna in the title role, portrays Eva Persn as a tragic heroine devoted to the well-being of Argentina's downtrodden masses. But the Dior-wearing populist might have looked better in jackboots and swastika tiara. Recently unearthed documents suggest Eva and her husband, dictator Juan Persn, helped smuggle fleeing Nazis into Argentina at the end of World War II and received hundreds of millions of dollars in Nazi money for doing so.
Declassified U.S. and Argentinean intelligence documents unearthed by the World Jewish Congress show that Juan Persn established a secret escape route for Nazis through Spain and Portugal and into Argentina. The documents further suggest that Eva set up secret bank accounts in Switzerland to stash hundreds of millions of dollars the Nazis paid Juan Persn for his assistance.
World Jewish Congress Executive Director Elan Steinberg told Salon that in addition to infamous war criminals like Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele, Persn helped as many as 15,000 other Nazis make their way to Argentina -- far more than had originally been estimated -- and that they moved as much as $1 billion in looted assets from Switzerland to Argentina.
"Under Persn there was a systematic effort to bring these Nazis into Argentina," Steinberg said. "It wasn't some ad hoc arrangement where Nazis were able to sneak in. It was organized and systematized."
Steinberg and other researchers cite a declassified U.S. intelligence report filed by Gen. H.B. Legge, a senior American military liaison officer based in Bern, Switzerland in March 1945. His report, filed only days after Persn's belated declaration of war against the Axis powers, mentions the existence of a "regular air bridge" that Persn already had established between Germany, Spain, Portugal and Argentina. According to the report, the air bridge assisted in the escape of senior Nazis officers and officials to Argentina, as well as the transfer of their assets.
Steinberg provided Salon with another declassified U.S. document, dated Feb. 7, 1945, from the Treasury Department to Acting Secretary of State Joseph Crew, which states: "Argentina is not only a likely refuge for Nazi criminals but also has been and still is the focal point of Nazi financial and economic activity in this hemisphere."
Another declassified secret document, dated April 11, 1945, from the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires to the U.S. State Department, estimated the value of Nazi Germany's investments in Argentinean banks, ranches, insurance companies and commercial firms at $1.645 billion. Other Nazi investments in Argentina amounted to "many millions" more, according to the report.
Eva Persn's direct involvement with fleeing Nazis is cited in other documents. Post-war files from the Catholic Church suggest Eva met with Hitler's fugitive deputy, Martin Bormann -- who mysteriously disappeared at the end of the war -- in Rapallo, Italy, in 1947 and personally arranged for his emigration to Argentina under the name of Eliezer Goldstein. The documents were first quoted in a book called "Aftermath," by Ladislas Farago.
More recently, the Spanish magazine Intervu cited a declassified CIA report dated March 23, 1973, which says that Eva visited Swiss bankers in Bern, Lucerne and Neuchatel in 1947, setting up secret bank accounts to hide millions of dollars that she and her husband were paid by the Nazis they helped reach Argentina. The bank accounts came to light in 1973, according to the CIA document, when Argentinean officials tried to get their hands on the money, which had appreciated greatly in value as part of the Eva Persn Foundation.
The CIA document said there was reliable evidence that money had come from "fugitive Nazis," an allegation that Steinberg of the World Jewish Congress says he believes is true. For the past three years, the WJC has also been pouring over previously classified documents in the United States and Argentina and plans to publish the first part of its findings about the Nazi-Argentine connection later this month.
In addition to showing how payments from Nazi fugitives enriched Juan and Eva Persn to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, Steinberg said the findings will show the extent of Persn's efforts to smuggle Nazi criminals into Argentina.
"Under Persn, there was a committee of advisers whose specific task was to organize and recruit these Nazi war criminals into Argentina after the war, less for ideological reasons than for pecuniary reasons," Steinberg said. "The Nazis paid Persn for these services."
Asked if he felt these revelations warranted a boycott of the film, "Evita," Steinberg noted that the Andrew Lloyd Weber play, on which the movie is based, was not very complimentary toward Eva Persn. "As I recall, the musical didn't paint her as such a sympathetic figure," he said. "She slept her way to the top, her vanity was well known and she was portrayed as being quite corrupt. So I'm not concerned that the movie will canonize her.
"Besides, I want to see what Madonna looks like in the role."
Jonathan Broder is a regular contributor to Salon. He is a senior editor for the weekend edition of "All Things Considered" and Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Report.
"She wore a foreign uniform and she never came back. After 60 years abroad, she should be treated as someone who has betrayed the Fatherland."
-- A 68-year-old woman German who opposes naming a Berlin street after Marlene Dietrich, who opposed the Nazis and became a U.S. citizen. (From "Is Dietrich Not Worth One Dismal Street in Berlin?" in Monday's New York Times)