March 2023- Chile
Driving north towards Santiago, we stopped for a night at a recommended campsite that had our curiosity on high. We had read a little about this place, but it seemed unbelievable, truly. But before we could enter, we had to pass through a serious, security checkpoint after driving along a razor wire fence line for a few miles.
If you have seen the movie “Colonia Dignidad” or “A Sinister Sect” or done any reading about it, you are familiar with the history. If not, you can search those words and learn more than the glimpse I will share here.
As we approached the main hotel and dining hall, we noticed the first thing that seemed strange. The beautifully manicured gardens and bright white buildings had a flagpole in front. We are in the heart of Chile, but that is not a Chilean flag!
The area surrounding the facility is ringed with hills. There are signs that indicate trails going up the various hills and ending at the “watchtowers”. These towers were used in the recent past, to watch the activities of the residents below. The towers had giant floodlights and the guards had vicious dogs and weapons to keep the people contained and under their control.
This idyllic setting was the location of a controversial camp. Some claimed that it was a Nazi community. Some called it a German commune. Others claimed that it was a concentration camp. The truth lies somewhere in all of those. These are protest signs from the years that local citizens became concerned and asked the Chilean government to become involved and disband the German community. This was in the early 1990’s
What was really going on behind the razor wire fence, watchtowers and high security was probably more strange and slightly horrific than most people want to understand. These threatening signs are in German, Spanish and English and appeared at intervals along the fence.
Inside the fence a community was being developed. They began construction in 1961 under the leadership of a Nazi soldier named Paul Schafer. He fled Germany to hide in Chile after being accused in many cases of child sexual abuse. In Chile at Colonia Dignidad he guided the construction of the facilities. These photos were in the museum.
Currently, the museum is inside the original, old, barn structure. This was erected first and used for housing, cooking, classrooms and an infirmary. When we asked for a tour of the museum, we were given two old keys and pointed the right direction. We entered alone, yet felt eerily observed during our entire visit.
The displays were honest and clear about some of the atrocities of this community. They shared facts about how people were grouped by age and sex and children were removed from their parents when young. The family photos that were shared with news sources of the time were posed images using random groups of possibly unrelated people. Families simply did not exist in Colonia Dignidad. Please realize this continued from 1961 until 1990’s.
Instead the various age groups lived together in communal style. They shared everything among their group. Shoes, clothing, personal items, only the toothbrush was their own. They had very few books and all materials were heavily censored, as were words and songs inside the community.
The community was self-sustaining. They farmed the fields using the river that bordered their land. They produced and ground grains to make breads. The raised cattle and other animals. Cheese, wine, jellies were common products. They made their own clothes, shoes, furniture and even produced electricity. Everything was produced for the entire community, never for private use. The residents had no contact with the outside world. Entertainment was within the fencelines, where they formed musical groups, held social events and ate in a collective dining hall.
The dining hall is still in use today. Many artifacts of the past are on display in the giant dining area which holds a huge woodburning cookstove, a massive stage and both indoor and outdoor dining zones. The walls are adorned with children’s clothing, musical instruments, handcrafts, industrial food prep tools and other relics. At one time there were over 300 residents living and working inside this community and gathering in the hall for meals and social events.
There are many possible horrors and accusations of atrocities that occurred at this facility. Those who “escaped” spoke of child abuse, torture of adults, imprisonment and medical experimentation. At one point the Chilean dictator, Pinochet cooperated with the leaders of this group and utilized the site for torture and death of captors during his regime. It is estimated that over 100 people have disappeared from this place, thought to be dead and hidden. Much of this dark history can be viewed through the movies that were produced on sight, or by a review of relevant literature. The museum was surprisingly frank and honest about these facts, and displayed many articles in various languages that would be considered expose’s of this horrible time. (1961-1998)
Presently the place is called Villa Bavaria. It is promoted as a taste of Germany in the Chilean valleys. They sell cheese, cookies, deserts and cured meats that are made on the property. Over 100 residents live here full time. Some have been here their entire lives and know no other lifestyle. Others moved from Germany when the government became involved and the freedom to come and go was restored.
The big, white buildings are now offering hotel rooms, meals and hosting large events. There are playgrounds, a large, white canopy tent, a swimming pool and outdoor game spaces. They host parties, weddings and a huge German beer festival in October. They are working hard to rebuild the modern image of a place that has a powerful historical shadow.
These massive grape arbors still produce the grapes that are used to make their own brand of wine. The residents still ride old style bicycles around the community. We spent our time exploring the public zones of the community. We walked our dogs along the dirt streets and between the buildings. We took the dogs through the vast fields and played on the playground. We dined at the dining hall and purchased products from the little store.
But…… we only stayed one night. We never felt as if we were alone. We both felt a creepy, sinister tingling of being watched at all times. And perhaps the energy and vibration of untold atrocities from a recent past. Everything that happened in this place, happened within our lifetime. That added a certain uneasiness to our exploration. We appreciated having the opportunity to learn about this place, but we were relieved to pass through the security gates and leave this behind us.
If you want to learn more, I urge you to do the research. We did. It was not pleasant. But as with all history, we need to be aware, we need to learn from it and we need to be cautious to not repeat the horrors of our past.