In the late 1950s and ’60s my parents had a holiday home with a couple of acres in the mountains of the province of Córdoba, Argentina in a little hamlet just a few kilometres from a small village called Nono. For nearby neighbours we had a former Captain of the Royal Navy, the mistress of the son of a former President of Argentina, a former inmate of a German concentration camp (never found out which); the local riding instructor was German and evidently a former cavalry officer. Right next door, on a larger estate than ours, lived a German family that kept to themselves.
They bred Angora rabbits, kept in rows and rows of cement hutches, painted white and scrupulously clean.
The eldest son and I would occasionally run into each other out riding. I remember him now as Karl.
We never became close, Karl and I, but I did visit his home sometimes. I used come across his mother at the hamlet’s single shop every so often, where my own mother would send me on horseback for some item or other. On one such day, the German lady was in the company of a man, not her husband, whom I met once or twice. She greeted me with a broad smile, as she always did, and did not introduce me to her companion.
This is at the height of a very hot summer, in January or February, 1960, as I recall. It was certainly not the time of year to be wearing a jacket. The stranger was wearing a light beige windjammer, zipped up to about mid-chest. That was why I would remember him, and a few more details. He was bald, with a few wisps of hair. He wore dark roundish sunglasses. Mid-gray trousers, I think. He stood at the single doorway of the shop, intense sunlight behind him. He never smiled or spoke for the few minutes I saw him. Hardly remarkable, really.
The school summer holidays came to their usual sad end in mid-March and I returned home to Buenos Aires, and back to boarding school. Normal life was soon resumed, studies taking over mine. Until the next month, April.
At school, we were allowed to read the newspapers. No TV back then, just our trusty transistors listened to under cover of sheets and blankets. A petty crime.
Argentina, it will be remembered, welcomed numerous Nazi war criminals after WW2, in the 1950s, during the Perón regime, which was modeled on Fascism (See New York Times article). There was another hunt for the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, of the Auschwitz concentration camp ‘medical’ experiments, but it is thought he escaped to Paraguay, which was also under a quasi-Fascist military dictatorship.
All of a sudden, it was everywhere: The Israelis had kidnapped a Nazi war criminal in a suburb of Buenos Aires and taken him to Israel to stand trial. There was uproar from the Right, who called it an invasion of their country. It was worldwide news.
The photo on the front page of every newspaper was of the man I had met in the little shop in the valley in the mountains. I recognised him immediately as the man wearing a windjammer in the heat of summer.
The smell of death
The next time we went up to our lovely little house in the mountains was that Easter, when Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem was in the news.
Having almost forgotten the whole thing — at thirteen there are far more important things to be thinking about — I went out one morning to catch my favourite mare as I did every day. There was a strange odour in the air brought in on the breeze coming straight through the valley. There was a smell of death, of a dead animal, not at all unusual in those parts.
Aboard the mare, I followed my nose. The smell was stronger than usual. It led me across the stream that separated Karl’s home from mine.
Then, around a bend, was the main gate to the German household. It was open; highly unusual. I followed the overgrown car track to the house as the smell became sickening. My bandanna went over my mouth and nose.
Dismounting a few metres away from the house, I clapped as loudly as possible, as was the local custom to make oneself known. Nothing, no answer.
I approached the building with apprehension, my heart beating in my ears. The side door everyone used was open, not unusual. It lead straight to the kitchen.
Ants and a flapping pink dress
On the round kitchen table were five place settings. Two of them contained a white plate with long-coagulated egg on them. And ants, millions of ants, streaming up and down the table, the walls, the cupboards. A sight to remember. A space left in a hurry.
I carried on through the house, clapping in case there was anyone there. Curiosity was stronger than fear back then. I was sweating.
The bedrooms were a mess, clothes and shoes strewn about, beds unmade. Cupboards hanging open. A door creaked in the breeze. A pink dress flapped desultorily on its hanger in a bare open wardrobe.
Then I came to the back door, leading to the rabbit hutches on a flat piece of ground, in the shade.
I looked for the two fierce Alsatian guardians, eternally chained to a very long slip rope. They were thin, emaciated and dead.
I looked up when I heard a high-pitched cackle, a sound I knew.
The branches of a big, gray, dry algarrobo tree were black with vultures, whose mates I had seen floating on the wind up above as I rode in.
The rabbits were dead in their hutches, their water bowls dry as the bones they would soon become, their pristine white fur shimmered in. As soon as the vultures found a way to get at them, after they had devoured the dead dogs. Maybe the ants and beetles would get them first.
I found my mare, threw up, and rode away. I never told anybody, but somebody else must have seen what I saw. A few days later a police car drove past our gate to the house.
(C) Alberto Bullrich 2015