A Bishop Saving ‘Singers’: Tales of Torture in Pinochet's Chile
Abstract: The article provides a brief biographical introduction of Lutheran Bishop Helmut Frenz, co-founder of the Committee for Peace, credited with saving at least 6,000 lives of persecuted Chileans following the September 1973 military coup at the hands of the brutal general Agosto Pinochet. Excerpts from Frenz' book, Mi Vida Chilena, document Pinochet's acknowledgment that torture was the regime's official policy, and share the poignant story of one suspected leftist's brutal torture.
Unlearned Lessons from Another September 11th
Since the fall of 2001, for millions in the United States and around the world, September 11th conveys a singular meaning. But twenty-eight years earlier, there was another September 11th of equal magnitude in the long, skinny South American nation of Chile. On el once (‘the eleventh’ in Spanish), as it is still known there and elsewhere, Chilean Air Force Hawker Hunter aircraft bombed the Moneda presidential palace in Santiago. On September 11, 1973, tanks rolled throughout the capital and converged on the Plaza de Armas as a military coup led by Army General Agosto Pinochet toppled the democratically elected government of socialist president Salvador Allende. Reported in official government press releases as having committed suicide during the final moments before the Moneda fell into military hands, Allende's death is believed by many Chileans to have been at the hands of those perpetrating the golpe del estado (military coup).
Hailed initially by millions of Chilenos as saviors providing relief from the economic scarcity and social chaos resulting from Allende's three-year presidency, the new military junta quickly revealed its true colors as it unleashed an unprecedented reign of terror. Under the banner of ‘order’ and ‘liberty,’ the Pinochet regime launched wave after wave of repressive measures. A night time toque de queda or curfew was imposed and lasted for several years, under which anyone caught on the streets was subject to summary arrest or being shot without questioning. Thousands suspected of being leftist Allende-supporters were taken into custody, tortured and ‘disappeared.’ Conservative estimates are that more than 3,000 Chilean citizens and others were snatched up by the dreaded DINA secret police and executed. For months after the coup, cadavers routinely were spotted floating down the Mapocho River in Santiago and other parts of the country.
Within days of the unleashing of Pinochet's reign of terror, a handful of Christian leaders began to respond. Most prominent were the Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop of Santiago, Raul Silva Henriquez, and the Reverend Helmut Frenz, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chile. Together with others, these two courageous Christian bishops formed the Committee for Peace, which began offering shelter and succor to those fleeing for their lives. By the hundreds, former Allende government officials and others being persecuted by the junta's forces of terror were spirited into and granted political asylum by embassies of countries willing to receive them as refugees. The Committee's office soon also was besieged by relatives and friends of the ‘disappeared’ who had been picked up and hauled away in dark-windowed vans and cars bearing the dreaded DINA ‘investigators.’ One after another, those who had escaped with their lives came telling horrific stories of torture at the hands of the DINA and uniformed military or police officers. Their cases were carefully documented in order that the truth of what was occurring in Chile would be preserved, in hopes of someday bringing to justice the perpetrators of this brutality either in Chile or in international courts.
Helmut Frenz's Resistance
A German-born expatriate serving as a missionary in Chile for nearly a decade, Helmut Frenz held no pretensions of engaging in heroic efforts that some have compared to those of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller and other towering figures of 20th century Christianity. Time and again, Frenz said to his clergy colleagues and the broader public, “I am simply fulfilling my calling as a pastor.” Sheltering in his home some of the most sought-after MIRistas (leaders of the far-left Movimiento Izquerdista Revolucionario), delivering van-loads of asylum-seekers to dozens of embassy doorways by night, Frenz knew he was constantly risking his own life and that of his large family. Boldly, he joined Cardinal Silva and other religious leaders in public statements decrying the outrages being perpetrated by Pinochet's police, paramilitary units and armed forces. Even in the face of death threats, Frenz persisted in his unrelenting efforts to protect and pastor ‘the least of these’ who found their way to his parsonage in Santiago's Providencia district.
As Frenz's heroic Christian witness and human rights endeavors became recognized around the globe, he was awarded the prestigious Nansen Award by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1974. First granted to Eleanor Roosevelt 20 years previously, the Nansen award ranks in global prestige second only to the Nobel Peace Prize, for which Frenz was also later nominated. Upon receiving the Nansen medallion in Oslo, Bishop Frenz declared, “I try to identify myself with those who are suffering in our world, for I find that in giving myself to them, I encounter Christ the Lord.” Finally, in October 1975, while traveling in Europe in search of funds and political pressure that might help halt the reign of terror in Chile, Helmut Frenz was declared persona non grata by the Pinochet government and refused reentry into his beloved Chile. Frenz lived out the remainder of his active ministry in Europe, continuing his service to refugees and the earth's ‘tired and poor.’
Upon his retirement as Executive Director of Amnesty International in Germany, Frenz returned to Chile where he remains today. In 2007, Chile's current democratically-elected president, Michelle Bachelet, invited him to the restored Moneda Palace for a formal ceremony in which she awarded him full Chilean citizenship following an overwhelming vote by the Chilean Senate. In conferring this high honor upon the one formerly declared an ‘unfavorable person,’ President Bachelet declared, “With this law, the Republic of Chile recognizes Pastor Frenz great commitment to our community, and his courageous dedication in defense of human rights during the most painful and darkest hours of our history.” She commented further upon Frenz's “permanent identification with the most vulnerable among us, to whom he has dedicated and continues giving maximum efforts.” Many Chileans today believe that no other action has fostered a greater measure of national reconciliation, beginning to close at last the most frightful chapter in Chile's long history.
Having resisted for three decades the encouragement of many to record his memories and preserve for posterity his own and others' courageous witness during Chile's darkest hours, Frenz finally acquiesced and published in 2006 Mi Vida Chilena (My Chilean Life). When I visited him in his home in Santiago during a period of ‘semi-sabbatical’ from my presidential duties at Gettysburg Seminary, Helmut presented me with a copy of his book and asked that I write and share my impressions. Inasmuch as it had been my privilege to serve as a vicar during his final year in Chile, I devoured the book as fast as my rusty Spanish reading ability would allow. Cascading memories flooded my consciousness from that life-changing internship more than three decades ago. I determined that Helmut's heroic story, and even more importantly, the stories of those he and the Peace Committee saved and salved needed to be made available to English-language readers.
In the brief excerpts from Mi Vida Chilena that follow, the tale and testimony of a prisoner who was tortured in one of Pinochet's most infamous hell-holes are rendered. But first, an encounter between Pinochet and the Peace Committee co-chairs reveals the dictator's bald acknowledgement that torture in Chile was not an infrequent aberration, but official national policy to make its political prisoners ‘sing.’ Equally chilling as recalling Chile's reign of terror is the recognition that similar policies have been markers of the United States' stance toward political prisoners during the administration of George W. Bush. The lessons of an earlier September 11th failed to be grasped by those responsible for appropriate responses after the last one.
Michael Cooper-White, President, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg
A President and Two Prelates: November 13, 19741
Two bishops bearing a thick file are en route to the lion's den. We serve as co-presidents of the Committee for Peace, which for the past year has been deeply involved with persons who are being oppressed, persecuted, tortured and executed by the army and secret services of the military dictator Pinochet. And not a few, after being detained and transferred, have ‘disappeared,’ without hope of being found, as if the earth itself simply swallowed them up. After about a year of our work with the Peace Committee, we have arrived at the conclusion that in Chile human rights are being systematically violated, especially by means of an oppressive system of torture run by the National Intelligence Services (DINA). We have proof that anyone who falls into DINA's hands ends up being tortured. Accordingly, we have decided to personally provide Pinochet with a well-organized presentation documenting the systematic application of torture. We consider it both wise and a matter of simple decency to go first to the head of state, before sharing our conclusions with the public media. We are sufficiently naïve to hold out the possibility that Pinochet is genuinely unaware of the horrors and cruelties that have occurred on a massive scale since the coup d'état. Our documentation has been carefully collected. It includes the names of many whom we know have been torture victims. The list is long. Additionally, documents describe the various methods of torture, as well as known torture chamber locations—Recuerdo Villa Grimaldi, José Domingo Cañas, Cuatro Alamos and various carabinero[national police] stations. We have photographs that clearly demonstrate the physical consequences of torture, and medical reports certifying painful injuries resulting from repeated torture. The data compiler who accompanies us bears a summary of the barbarous cruelty. My Catholic colleague, Bishop Fernando Ariztía, and I have carefully prepared our documentation, and the demands that we will present. In order that we do so with all due respect for the president, we have decided not to use the brutal and accusing word ‘torture,’ but will instead refer to it euphemistically as ‘physical pressure.’ We desire to be heard, at all costs, in order to set forth fully our demands.
I should confess that I was feeling very bad at the time, thinking that perhaps Pinochet would throw us out or even have us arrested. To calm my anxious state, I had put on my ‘battle gear,’ as it came to be called by the Cardinal Archbishop of Santiago, Raul Silva Henríquez: black suit, black shirt with white plastic clerical collar. On my chest shone my official bishop's cross, hanging by a purple ribbon.
At 9:45 a.m. on November 13, 1974, Pinochet received us in his office on the 11th floor of the temporary seat of government, the Diego Portales building. The actual governmental headquarters, Moneda Palace, had been bombed during the coup on September 11, 1973. Pinochet is alone, standing up very straight behind his desk, which sits diagonally in the room. The fingers of both hands are propped on the desk. Behind him in the corner, the Chilean flag. President, general and dictator—all in this one person—imposing, and instilling fear. The greeting is brief and formal: “Gentlemen, be seated!”
We sit in brown leather armchairs. We introduce ourselves and describe our work. Pinochet appears relaxed and sure of himself. We present to him our extensive documentation. As we are making our case, he reviews our material, page by page. When we speak once again about the ‘physical pressure’ being applied repeatedly by DINA agents to victims during interrogations, he interrupts abruptly, “Do you mean to say torture?”
We respond affirmatively and from then on use the word ‘torture.’ Now we can be even more direct in stating our concerns: in Chile, the secret police and other organs of the state daily and systematically are treating citizens in ways that are barbarous, cruel and humiliating. “Honorable General, we present you with these documents as proof of our accusations and demands [that they cease].”
We conclude our presentation, and Pinochet continues leafing through the documents revealing torture. He has arrived at the section that establishes proof of those who have been detained, transported and disappeared. Among them appears the name of the Spanish priest Antonio Llidó. Bishop Ariztía prepares to expound further on the case of the disappeared Father Antonio, but Pinochet brusquely interrupts him, pointing his finger at the priest's picture and declaring, “This is no priest! This is a terrorist!”
Giving us no further opportunity for discussion, Pinochet gets up to dispatch us with a brief soldier's declaration: “Look here, gentlemen, you are both priests who work within the church and can have the luxury of being merciful and generous. I am a soldier, and as the Chief of State I am responsible for the entire Chilean people. The people have been attacked by the ‘bacteria’ of communism, which I must eradicate. The most dangerous communists are members of MIR [the Leftist Revolutionary Movement]. They must be tortured, for that is the only way to make them ‘sing.’ Torture is necessary to root out communism.”
With those words, Pinochet put an end to our audience.
[In preparation for our meeting] we believed we had thought of everything—but not this discourse justifying torture. We had anticipated his denial of the possibility that torture was taking place within his government. I thought he might play down torture, as an occasional undesirable excess on the part of subordinates, for which he bore no direct responsibility. I had fully expected that when presented with our ample documentation of torture, he would pretend surprise and say he had no knowledge of it whatsoever. But none of this. No pleading ignorance, no downplaying, certainly no pretended indignation! Instead, a justification of torture, with full acknowledgement of the cruel, inhuman and humiliating events taking place.
A Tale of Terror2
Soon I begin to receive alarming news from my ministerial colleagues in the southern cities of Puerto Montt, Osorno, Valdivia, Temuco and Concepción, and in the north, in Valparaiso, regarding numerous criminal acts that are being perpetrated by soldiers against Unidad Popular followers. They also have discovered the necessity of hiding persons in their homes and churches. Our minister to German seafarers in Valparaiso, Martin Posselt, informs me in early October 1973 of the dramatic situation in the Port of Valparaiso. The Chilean navy has come to be known in these days as especially adept at brutal torture. In the Valparaiso port, they are using old ships as prison camps. The conditions in these torture ships are out of control inasmuch as no civilians have access to them. Martin Posselt has become aware that in one of the many ships a German citizen named Werner Simon is being held prisoner. His relatives have informed us about his detention and subsequent transfer to the torture craft Lebu.
In the Committee for Peace, we have already become aware, from eyewitnesses, of the inhumane and cruel treatment aboard the Lebu. One simple method is to force male prisoners to lie naked on the deck in the blazing sun until their skin burns, cracks and becomes infected. This torture persists for days on end, with increasing suffering, which also renders nighttime sleep impossible. Here we are dealing with a method of torture that leaves no one with dirty hands. For systematic torture utilizing electricity, prisoners are taken from the ships to Valparaiso's Naval College, known as the place of education for Chile's elite. It can be said that now it is also a place of special, ‘elite’ treatment. From this torture center, Werner Simon, in grave condition with broken bones, was transported back to the ship.
The fact that Werner Simon is a German citizen gives me the opportunity to intervene by means of contacting the Consul General in Valparaiso, beseeching him to appeal to the local military authorities for Simon's immediate release. I happen to know that this Consul General is sympathetic to the military regime. He was very reserved in our first contact, informing me that Mr. Simon has not registered with the German consulate and therefore is not recognized as a German citizen residing in Chile. It takes a goodly measure of pressure to motivate the Consul General to intervene with Chilean military officials on behalf of a suspected ‘German communist.’ Finally, together with our local Valparaiso pastor, Jochen Harder, I pay a visit to the Consul General. It appears that he has investigated and learned more about Simon's situation, so that when we report what we have heard he declares emphatically, “And that's only the half of it! They also burned his testicles a bit. As for the others, they are free to sit on the deck and sunbathe.”
In order to fairly assess such declarations by an official representative of the Federal Republic of Germany, one must read Mr. Simon's own official declaration, which he wrote at my request for Amnesty International shortly after his release. His testimony is both frightening and compelling. I was among the first to hear Simon's first-hand account of suffering on the Lebu and at the Naval College of Valparaiso. I will never forget how painful it was—it is in fact nearly impossible to express with words such suffering at the hands of torturers. Insofar as there are no words with which to adequately acknowledge such suffering, often we simply wept together while holding each other tightly.
Working with Ambassadors and Embassies
Werner Simon's release after 39 days of imprisonment accompanied by torture, surely resulted from crucial interventions, albeit overdue, on the part of the German Consul General. Simon was able to go home for only a few days, after which he is required to appear daily at a police station. He is constantly afraid of being detained again, and is also scared for his two adult children who could be taken in his stead. Consequently, we decide that we will sequester both Simon and his children and seek their asylum in the German ambassador's residence in Santiago. This will be difficult, inasmuch as Ambassador Lüdde-Neurath has refused to receive refugees. In a brief conversation, he dismissed my suggestion [that he grant political asylum] on the basis that as a representative of the German public he has received no authorization from Bonn for such action. Calmly and objectively, I respond that in that case we must concern ourselves with such instructions. “That I will leave to you,” was his response, not counting that I would quickly turn my verbal proposal into action.
The German embassy is in the central city on the 7th floor of an office building. One can only ascend to it by elevator, and therefore entrance is easy to monitor. As the doors open on the seventh floor, one is faced immediately with an armed German guard who inquires regarding the visitor's intentions. Upon even hearing the word ‘asylum,’ the German guard pushes the ‘down’ button and the elevator goes back down. In other words, it is virtually impossible to get into the German embassy without official approval.
The same is true of the ‘international territory’ of the ambassador's residence. This fabulous mansion is located on grounds resembling a park, encircled behind by a high wall with an iron gate fence in front. Its entrance area is guarded by two large white dogs with black spots. While these two dogs may have originally been symbols of social prestige, now their purpose clearly is to intimate anyone who might consider gaining entrance to the ambassador's residence. I consider this a huge scandal.
Something similarly scandalous exists even at the embassy of the Papal Nuncio, the Vatican's official representative. It too sits on a side street behind a high wall. Its entrance is a tall and imposing gate. If one pushes the doorbell, the gate opens slightly and clearly visible is a Chilean policeman armed with a submachine gun. Allowing an active Chilean police officer on its territory signifies in essence that the Nunciatura has given up its status as international territory.
On the other hand, we are able to verify that all the Latin American embassies, in accordance with longstanding tradition, remain open to refugees for whom diplomatic asylum is absolutely essential in order to escape political persecution. Likewise, nearly all the other European embassies are offering diplomatic asylum to persecuted Chileans. Deserving special mention are the embassies of Eastern European countries, which in the immediate aftermath of the military coup, broke diplomatic relations with the Chilean military junta. Their buildings and international sites now are being administered at the hands of friendly states. Such is the case with the several buildings of the Cuban embassy, over which the Swedish flag now flies. The Russian embassy is under Indian management, that of Poland under the Swiss. As expected, official representatives of the East German government have also been withdrawn, handing their properties over into Finnish hands. It is precisely these embassies, under third party jurisdiction, that now play such an important role, inasmuch as the administering governments oppose the military dictatorship and extend compassion to the Chileans being persecuted [by the junta].
The Latin American embassies find themselves inundated with refugees in the immediate aftermath of the coup: the embassies of Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela and the Central American countries are bursting at the seams with Chilean citizens seeking asylum. When the military commanders discover this asylum-seeking rush, they immediately put in place permanent guards in front of all the embassy entrances. Within a few days after the coup, it is even more difficult for persecuted Chileans to avail themselves of the saving grace of diplomatic asylum, since all the embassies are now under heavy military guard. As a result, those being persecuted turn increasingly for help to the churches.
The Role of the Lutheran Church
Word spreads quickly among persecuted Chileans which churches offer hope of assistance. Apparently, our Evangelical Lutheran churches are reputed to be places of asylum. During the weeks of October and November, so many refuge-seeking Chileans approach us; and it is absolutely essential that we seek to protect them from the soldiers in pursuit. We soon find our sites unable to hide and attend to so many. Of course, all this must occur in secrecy, which understandably becomes very difficult given the fact that many of our church's members, including governing council members, are in sympathy with the perpetrators of the military coup.
Time after time, we must also hide persecuted persons in our own homes. So it is that my family now must regularly hide persecuted Chileans in our parsonage on Lota Avenue, and of course we must also feed and attend them. On one occasion, we were ‘offering hospitality’ to 19 persons. They live with constant fear of being found, tortured and executed. I am constantly searching for means by which to clandestinely gain their entrance into one embassy or another. I am indignant at the attitude of the West German ambassador, who continues to deny diplomatic asylum, giving me two reasons: (1) The GDR does not recognize ‘diplomatic asylum’—the concept is purely a Latin American fiction; and (2) He knows these ‘types’ from his sojourn in Uruguay, and they are all Tupamaros[revolutionaries] who do not merit protection.
Writing Chancellor Brandt
Finally, seeing no other available avenue, on October 27, 1963 I write a confidential letter directly to Chancellor Willy Brandt, copying the German ambassador in Santiago, as well as my ecclesiastical superior in Frankfurt am Main. The letter is written hurriedly, since a person in whom I have high confidence is leaving the next day for Germany and will personally deliver it to the chancellor.
Hon. Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany
Dr. Willy Brandt
Dear Mr. Federal Chancellor:
Since 1965 I have been living in Chile. As a pastor of the German Federal Republic from the State church of Schleswig-Holstein, I entered in the service of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chile. Initially, I served as a parish pastor of the congregation in Concepcion, Chile from 1970 until I was elected by our national synod as its presiding officer [bishop]. Since my election, I have resided in Santiago. At any time, you should feel free to make inquiry about my person and ministry with the Office of External Relations of the Evangelical Church in Germany, headquartered at Bockenheimer Landstrassed 109 in Frankfurt.
I write you concerning a very grave matter which I believe should be brought to your attention, believing that it may not come to you through ordinary channels.
The military coup of September 11, 1973 has caused a large segment of the Chilean population to fall into a state of profound affliction and intolerable human misery. In the first place, many Latin American alien refugees living in Chile find themselves under political persecution. In recent years, our church, with the assistance of the World Council of Churches, has organized assistance programs for these refugees who approached us seeking help. Together with the Catholic Church, World Council of Churches, United Nations and Red Cross, we have organized efforts to evacuate these refugees from Chile (see details in Attachment #2).
The National Committee for Refugee Assistance, of which I am president, has sought ways by which these foreign refugees can expeditiously leave Chile for another country that will grant them asylum and a homeland. We are hopeful that within a few weeks we will have resolved the refugee situation, dependent of course on the willingness of the Chilean government to continue respecting our efforts in this cause.
For me it has been clear since the beginning that we should not limit our efforts to foreigners. Naturally, it is much easier to intervene on behalf of foreigners inasmuch as the international community pays attention, and international law also offers certain protections to political refugees. To the contrary, intervening on behalf of Chilean citizens is readily perceived as meddling in the internal affairs of the government. Nevertheless, conditions in the country have compelled us to found a second committee which engages in advocacy for the defense of human rights. Inasmuch as I know of no government on earth which openly admits that it violates human rights, organizing such a committee from the outset has thrust us into controversy. Accordingly, we have given the committee an inoffensive title, The National Committee of Cooperation for Peace in Chile. It is made up almost entirely of members of Catholic and Evangelical churches. We are directing our efforts in three arenas: (1) Social services and economic assistance for prisoners and their families; (2) Legal assistance for the accused or for those who have lost their jobs [for political reasons]; and (3) Researching and documenting significant cases of human rights abuses in Chile.
I mention all of this by way of introduction and explanation for what follows. At the outset, I fear that my account will sound unbelievable by virtue of its gravity and I want to underscore that I have no political purposes whatsoever, but simply want to share accurately what I have come to know. Amidst such grave circumstances as those posed by a military coup d'etat, one must set aside politics. What compels me to write to you, most respected Chancellor, is only and exclusively my own conscience.
My work as chairman of the above-mentioned committees has afforded me the perspective of seeing behind closed doors. The following horrific image haunts me: widespread political persecution of leftist-leaning individuals in Chile. Not only do they confiscate and burn any ‘Marxist’ literature, but anyone under suspicion of sympathy with leftist ideology is detained and taken to one of several large football stadiums where the conditions are awful. In these cold, concrete ‘prisons,’ there are no mattresses or blankets, and meager hunger-rations are offered.
Prisoners are questioned by various military units, utilizing a wide range of interrogatory methods. An initial superficial ‘interview’ seeks to determine a prisoner's identity and the reasons for being detained. Those considered ‘lightweight’ suspects are released after a period of about 10 days. But those suspected of being extremists are subjected to a special measure of interrogation, during which they are blindfolded. Based upon the solemn good-faith testimonies of reliable witnesses, the following types of torture have been perpetrated:
- a) Kicks and punches to all parts of the body
- b) Mock shootings
- c) Snuffing out lit cigarettes in sensitive zones of the body
- d) Being suspended (hung) with both hands and feet tied
- e) Fatal wounds inflicted by bayonets
- f) Electric shocks applied to sensitive body parts like the tongue, nipples, genitalia, anus, hands and feet.
We are given the impression that women are subjected to especially brutal torture. Nearly all speak of being stripped naked. I personally have witnessed bodies that were brutally beaten and “skinned.” I have spoken with many persons who are deeply psychologically damaged and who could speak at all of what befell them only with the greatest difficulty. There can be no doubt they speak the truth about things that really occurred. The Roman Catholic bishop, Fernando Ariztía, and I have spoken with the Minister of the Interior who doubts our assertions but promised to conduct an investigation. Thus far, there has been no response other than his “lectures” to us about the grave danger in which Chile finds itself. He alleges that the military's ‘secret services’ can point to precise information about arms being distributed to the general population, and that fewer than half have been confiscated thus far. Many known leftists have gone underground, and thus a guerrilla resurgence is feared. All of this fear of ‘arms and extremists’ is believed to justify torture.
But I ask you: Even if true, does this justify torture? I say an emphatic no! I am a staunch opponent of extremism [terrorism]. I believe that arming the civil population is a crime which will inevitably lead to civil war. As a pastor, I have often had disputes with extremist-leaning student groups. But now I find that I must come to the aid of the extremists because they are persecuted, and because torture and death await them. My growing awareness of what happens to extremists, or even those suspected of so being, has compelled me to offer protection to them, since they can find no justice under their own government.
What possibilities exist to offer assistance? Those being persecuted—the vast majority young persons—are being temporarily hidden in our own homes. In so doing, we place our own families at risk. We must scrounge to find funds to aid those who are seeking to flee. We have to make the rounds of various embassies in search of diplomatic asylum. The Latin American embassies have graciously kept their doors open, often receiving hundreds of persons at a time. The Swedish embassy has offered asylum since the outset, as have those of France, Austria and Finland. Switzerland has rented a large facility to house 200 persons and has accepted many foreigners seeking to rendezvous with family members. Under a great deal of pressure, the Norwegians have accepted a few as well.
We have entered negotiations with many embassies, who offer their considered legal opinions that granting diplomatic asylum is forbidden. Inasmuch as I am not trained as a lawyer, I am unable to counter these arguments. Perhaps the very word ‘asylum’ is not an accurate description of what is required. What is urgently needed is the granting of diplomatic protection to persons who are besieged with political persecution—as is being offered in such a splendid manner by Sweden, Holland, Finland and Switzerland. How is it that those countries are able to lend this aid? Their embassy personnel have shared with me that they have received explicit instructions from their governments to offer protection to persons being persecuted.
I must once again underscore that here we are not talking of justifying extremism. But our very silence and passivity are indeed offering support to the fascist military regime in Chile. We simply cannot allow that here in Chile an entire segment of the population is suffering persecution and savage executions. Our silence and passivity declare us guilty.
My dear respected Chancellor, I personally know of your own stance with regard to the Third Reich, and it is precisely this knowledge that enables me to approach you by means of this correspondence. We are in urgent need of your assistance. Hundreds of persons in Chile must be saved from the torture chambers. Our [West German] government can take decisive action and offer diplomatic protection to those being persecuted through the embassy in Santiago. I have spoken personally with the ambassador, and Dr. Lüdde-Neurath is well aware of the current situation in Chile, and is himself gravely concerned.
I can well imagine how difficult it is to host a horde of people within the confines of an embassy. But for a few days it can be done. But very soon, the situation here will become untenable. The Swedes and Swiss have found creative ways, including renting additional facilities to offer asylum, and by declaring such ‘safe-houses’ part of their international territories. At least for the moment, such declarations are being respected [by the Chilean government]. After granting asylum, the embassy can work with the Chilean authorities in requesting deportation permits. Thus far, the government has been quite amenable in granting such authorization to depart.
As best as we can determine, we are talking about 500 to 800 persons in urgent need of asylum. I am, of course, well aware that our German embassy cannot receive them all. But a great step will have been taken if our government breaks silence now that you are made aware of the inhumane conditions here in Chile. It is also quite possible that other European governments would follow such bold leadership from Bonn.
Most esteemed Chancellor, I can only hope you do not receive this as an overly brazen piece of correspondence. I pray that through these written lines you will hear the voice of my conscience. I see no other course than writing directly to you. Please, help us with every means at your disposal!
Your loyal and faithful servant,
Bishop Helmut Frenz
Waiting on Bonn
I can hardly wait to receive a reply from Germany. Mr. Simon and his two adult children are in desperate need of diplomatic asylum in the German embassy. Meanwhile, I have discovered a means whereby persons in need can gain entrance to the German ambassador's home.
The residence in Santiago is a building on the corner of a well-known street, Errázuriz Avenue. Surrounded by a high wall, there is a servant's entrance on the cross street. On the corner, there are two armed guards who have a clear view of both the main gate and the side street servant's entrance. Ours is a very simple tactic: we have only to distract the guards for a few moments so that the Simons can gain entrance through the side gate, which of course must be unlocked. Our communiqués with the Chilean servants who work at the ambassador's residence have had good results—better than those with the ambassador himself! The Simons will not be the first to enter the German ambassador's residence by the ‘Chilean door.’ It is crucial that we all have our watches synchronized.
The Simons appear quietly in the precise moment at the side door some 100 yards distant. At exactly 10:03 they saunter slowly, as if out for an evening walk, in the direction of the residence and quietly approach the side entrance. Precisely 30 seconds later, driving my orange Volkswagen minibus, I approach the soldiers guarding the main entrance of the ambassador's mansion. Distracted, the guards quickly surround my van, giving me their full attention. In that instant, the refugees sneak through the side gate into the ‘safe space’ of the ambassador's residence. The Simons are not the first to gain entrance by means of this rather simple method, nor will they be the last. Each time, the ambassador is amazed and cannot grasp how such refugees have gained entrance to his home, despite the security provided by guard dogs and Chilean soldiers. We used this means of access repeatedly until the day a shot was fired from the home across the street from my ‘asylum gate’ (as we all called it). While no one was wounded, thereafter we considered it too great a risk. Evidently, we had been discovered. So now we must wait impatiently for a positive response from Bonn.
Excerpted from Chapter 1, “The Motive,”Mi Vida Chilena: Solidaridad con los Oprimodos by Helmut Frenz, (Santiago, Chile LOM Ediciones, 2006) Translated by Michael Cooper-White, reprinted in translation by permission.
Chapter 26, “We Must Also Conduct Clandestine Operations,”Mi Vida Chilena.