When the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem last month, Paraguay was quick to follow suit — much to the delight of the Israeli government.
At an effusive ceremony in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the Paraguayan president for taking in Holocaust survivors, while President Rivlin said that Paraguay had been a true friend of Israel ever since 1948. Both leaders were sustaining a morally dubious policy that began after the Six Day War.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Paraguay was under the brutal Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship and had a reputation for harbouring Nazi war criminals.
Josef Mengele, known as the “angel of death” for his role at Auschwitz, applied for Paraguayan citizenship under his real name in 1959 and was granted it without any checks, despite falsely claiming he had already lived in the country for five years. Two prominent Nazi émigrés — Werner Jung and another, known only by his surname von Eckstein — testified to his good character.
In 1964, West Germany’s ambassador asked to extradite Mengele but Stroessner angrily refused and would not strip him of his citizenship either.
“Once a Paraguayan, always a Paraguayan,” was his retort.
This also applied to Eduard Roschmann, “the butcher of Riga”, who found refuge and died in the Paraguayan capital Asunción in 1977.
In its early years, Israeli intelligence had teams dedicated to recovering Nazi war criminals — such as in the case of Adolf Eichmann — but in the early 1960s, Mossad chief Isser Harel instructed a team closing in on Mengele to cease their operation.
Resources and personnel were switched to the more pressing problem of German scientists working in Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s armaments programme. Harel’s successor, Meir Amit, was even less sympathetic to “chasing the ghosts from the past”.
After securing a lightning victory in the Six Day War in 1967, Israel was left dangerously isolated in the international arena.
The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries had broken off diplomatic relations, while oil wealth was fuelling Arab states’ economic clout and helping them cultivate ties with newly-emerging countries in the developing world.
It led Israel to turn to Paraguay and appoint its first ambassador to Asunción, Israeli-American Benno Weiser Varon, in 1968.
According to Varon’s memoirs, an embassy was opened because Israel needed Paraguay’s vote at the United Nations and his mission helped garner Stroessner’s support.
But with Mengele still at large, it created a period where Varon’s standard answer to embarrassing questions became “the Israel government is not searching for Dr Mengele, the Federal Republic of Germany is”.
Any information on former Nazis that Varon did supply to Jerusalem was never acknowledged in responses.
On one occasion, Stroessner deliberately seated Varon at a reception next to Hans-Ulrich Rudel, a former crack German pilot and unrepentant Nazi who acted as an arms dealer and military advisor to several Latin American dictators.
The situation changed when Menahem Begin came to power in 1977 and the security cabinet resumed the search for Nazi war criminals.
Begin, who had fled from Warsaw in September 1939 in the wake of the Nazi invasion, had good reason to feel strongly about this issue. He also believed the capture of Nazis would send a message to Palestinians who had murdered Israeli citizens in the name of national liberation during the 1970s.
Mengele himself was never caught: he died in 1979 in Brazil, where he likely fled after Eichmann’s capture in Argentina.
Many other Nazi war criminals died in the comfort of their own beds in Latin American hideouts and opinion remains divided today on whether the decision to demote their capture was correct.