boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

Her search goes on

US mathematician Boris Weisfeiler 'disappeared' while hiking in Chile in 1985. His sister, Olga, has never stopped trying to learn his fate.

NEWTON -- Every day at 6 a.m., Olga Weisfeiler awakens and goes immediately to her computer. Breakfast can wait. She anxiously scans the websites of the dozen Chilean newspapers she has bookmarked. She is searching for a clue to the fate of her brother, Boris. One way or another, she has been searching for 19 years.

"This is all I can do," she says. "Day and night."

Boris Weisfeiler is the sole American among the more than 1,100 "disappeared," people whose fates are still unknown after they vanished under suspicious circumstances in Chile during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Weisfeiler's case may not be as well-known as that of Charles Horman, whose murder by Chilean security forces was the subject of the 1982 film "Missing." But it is not for lack of effort by Olga Weisfeiler, who has made it her life's mission to get to the bottom of a mystery that took her only sibling from her life. "I don't have much choice," she says in the accent of her native Russia. "It's my brother. How can I not do this?"

It is a story that, in many ways, now has her at its center. Weisfeiler, 60, recently returned from her third trip to Chile, a whirlwind visit during which she bought radio ads asking witnesses to come forward and took out newspaper ads with a picture of Boris that read: "Did you see this man?" She met with US embassy officials and with the Chilean judge investigating her brother's case.

She held a press conference at the embassy attended by nearly two dozen reporters from around the world. In search of someone who may have seen her brother, she traveled to the area where he disappeared and talked to townspeople. Then she came home and continued her search from afar. A few feet from her computer sit five boxes of declassified government documents relating to the case. "I know almost all of them by memory," she says. "I constantly analyze the documents, trying to put it all together."

But there is no word yet, so Olga Weisfeiler continues to inhabit a limbo of uncertainty.

'Nothing short of appalling'

It was January 1985 when Boris Weisfeiler, a 43-year-old math professor at Pennsylvania State University, disappeared while on a hiking trip in southern Chile. A private investigator hired by the Chilean Mathematical Society concluded that Weisfeiler had accidentally drowned while crossing a river. Though no body was found, a Chilean court declared him dead. His sister was skeptical. "From the beginning, I felt this investigation wasn't a real investigation," she says.

Then, four years ago, the Clinton administration declassified State Department documents that seemed to buttress previous suspicions of what may have happened to Weisfeiler. The documents revealed that in 1987, a Chilean military informant told US embassy officials that he was a member of a patrol that arrested a foreign hiker two years earlier and concluded he was a Russian spy.

According to the informant, the military patrol turned the hiker over for interrogation to Colonia Dignidad, a secretive religious colony founded by a former member of Nazi Germany's air force.

Survivors and human-rights groups have said that Colonia Dignidad operated a clandestine detention and torture center for the Pinochet regime, which lasted from 1973 to 1990. Leaders of the colony have denied that, and attorneys for the colony have also denied that Weisfeiler was taken there.

But declassified documents indicate that even before the informant surfaced, officials in the US embassy apparently suspected Colonia Dignidad might have had something to do with Weisfeiler's disappearance. Yet the embassy dragged its feet, according to Peter Kornbluh, author of the book "The Pinochet File."

As the director of the Chile Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, a foreign-policy research center at George Washington University, Kornbluh played a key role in pushing the US government to declassify documents relating to its support of the Pinochet regime. He calls the Weisfeiler case "a negligence story on the part of the United States that is nothing short of appalling."

Olga Weisfeiler says that in the crucial months and early years after her brother's disappearance, "They didn't do anything, the embassy. They did nothing."

A State Department official at the US embassy in Chile, responding to Globe queries by e-mail on condition of anonymity, disputed that. The official said the embassy "has been active in its efforts to learn about Boris Weisfeiler's fate since his 1985 disappearance, and continues to work with the Weisfeiler family and Chilean authorities for a resolution to Mr. Weisfeiler's case."

The official noted that the embassy has offered its assistance to the judge in charge of investigating the case, and that in addition to hosting the joint news conference in March, William Brownfield, the US ambassador to Chile, "has solicited information about Mr. Weisfeiler in speaking events and press interviews throughout southern Chile."

Embassy officials have previously argued that in the late 1980s, the evidence regarding Weisfeiler's disappearance was inconclusive. But in his book, Kornbluh notes that even after the informant came forward in 1987, embassy officials waited another year before requesting to speak to Chilean soldiers who may have had knowledge about the disappearance.

Then in 1989, one frustrated embassy official asked higher-ups for an appropriation of a few thousand dollars to hire a Chilean lawyer to petition the courts to reopen the investigation. It was denied in a memo that said "there are no funds available" for "this project."

Olga Weisfeiler is, by her own admission, not a "hugger," not given to overt emotion. But her voice trembles and her eyes tear up as she remembers learning about that memo. " 'Project,' " she says, almost choking on the word. "How am I supposed to feel? Human life is a `project'?"

Only after she hired a Chilean lawyer and filed a legal petition four years ago did the Chilean court system finally launch a judicial investigation of the case.

"She has almost singlehandedly pushed this thing forward," says Kornbluh, who has taken a deep personal interest in helping Olga Weisfeiler get some answers. "It's a testament to her incredible tenacity and commitment and love for her brother."

Persecuted in the Soviet Union

She could always count on Boris to look out for her.

They grew up outside Moscow, where their mother, a neurologist, had to take a second job to make ends meet after her divorce from their father, a microbiologist. "It was a very difficult time," recalls Olga Weisfeiler.

Even more difficult because they happened to be Jewish. Anti-Semitism was rampant in the Soviet Union, and the Weisfeilers became targets of neighborhood bullies. Boris tried to protect Olga from the worst of it. "That's my sister," Boris told them. "Don't touch her." Neither was entirely spared from assaults, but Boris bore the brunt. Once, his sister recalls, he was beaten unconscious by neighborhood thugs.

Around age 13, Boris began a lifelong habit of taking solitary hikes in remote places. Through his teenage and college years, he would venture on trips to Uzbekistan, Siberia, or the Kamchatka peninsula. Kornbluh believes Boris's desire for solitude stemmed partly from the persecution he was suffering. Meanwhile, in the classroom, his gift for mathematics was revealing itself. After college, he got a job at a prestigious physics institute. "He wasn't involved in politics at all," says Olga. "He just stayed away from everything. He wasn't a dissident. He was a mathematician, and nothing else."

But his stubborn integrity landed him in trouble all the same. While working at the institute, Boris Weisfeiler was asked to sign a letter that accused a colleague of "anti-Soviet" activities. He refused to do so, and was promptly labeled "anti-Soviet" himself and fired from his job. He found it harder to get published. He grew depressed.

Though he eventually found another job, he was set on a path toward leaving the Soviet Union. He got out in 1975, made his way to America, and became a US citizen. Every month he called his mother and sister, and he often sent them clothes and books. He was always eager to help other Soviet emigres find work if they made it to the United States.

The last time Olga Weisfeiler saw Boris was in April 1984, at their father's funeral in Budapest. By then, he had become a respected professor of mathematics at Penn State. He told her of his upcoming trip to Chile. She had once voiced concern about him hiking by himself in remote areas. "Animals aren't dangerous," Boris told her jauntily. "People are."

Upon his arrival in Chile, he called Olga and promised: "I'll be back on Jan. 13. I'll call you." But he did not call that day, or the next, or the next. Increasingly anxious, she began phoning him at his apartment five times a day. No answer. Finally, a friend of Boris called her to say that he had not returned from the hiking trip and that his green backpack had been found on the banks of the Nuble River.

"I got sick, actually," Olga admits quietly. "I could not eat."

A chilling report In 1988, Olga Weisfeiler, newly divorced, also left the Soviet Union. She did not want her teenage son, Lev, to fight in the war in Afghanistan. And she wanted Lev and his sister, Anna, to escape the anti-Semitism that was still rampant in their homeland. "I came here without language, without job, to save children," she says.

She got a job in a neuroscience research lab at Children's Hospital. From the moment she arrived in the United States, she began trying to find out what had happened to her brother. Her resolve intensified when she learned that the informant who had claimed to be part of the patrol that captured her brother had called a radio talk show in October 1997 to further describe the capture of Boris Weisfeiler.

This time, the informant's story had a chilling denouement. When he had first surfaced in 1987, the informant said Weisfeiler might still be alive. But when the talk-show host asked to meet with him privately in 1997, the informant gave the host a handwritten report that said that Weisfeiler's interrogators decided he was a "Jewish spy" and that "after being savagely interrogated, [he] was made to kneel on the ground and was murdered with a shot to the nape of his neck."

But he did not specify when this happened, and what haunts Olga is that she does not know for sure whether her brother is dead or alive. The State Department still considers the disappearance of Boris Weisfeiler to be "very much an open case concerning the disappearance of a US citizen and [is] anxious to determine Mr. Weisfeiler's fate," according to the embassy official.

Olga Weisfeiler says that the odds of her brother still being alive are as good as "50-50," noting that "he was seen alive 2 1/2 years after he disappeared. If he survived 2 1/2 years, maybe he survived longer." So she has pushed and prodded, and achieved some results. She has written to members of Congress; she speaks highly of congressman Barney Frank's efforts on her behalf.

The State Department added its clout, insisting that the Chilean government undertake "a vigorous and thorough investigation" of the case. A raid in 2000 by Chilean police on the Colonia Dignidad enclave turned up a folder with Boris Weisfeiler's name on it. In October 2000, the Weisfeiler case was assigned to an investigating judge. The disappearance of Boris Weisfeiler was officially entered as Complaint No. 169 against Pinochet.

On a trip to Chile two years ago, Olga Weisfeiler visited the spot on the river where Boris was last seen; she even tried to go to Colonia Dignidad, but was discouraged from doing so by her Chilean police escort.

Now she waits and wonders. Unable to work since she suffered a back injury in a car accident in 1996, she is on long-term disability. Her days are filled with thoughts of Boris.

When he left Moscow in 1975, she began a tradition of inviting Boris's friends to dinner at her house on his birthday each year. On April 19 of this year, what would be his 63d birthday, Olga opted to "do something more useful than cooking": She mailed a letter to the president of Chile, Ricardo Lagos, urging him to "play an active role in prosecuting the leaders of Colonia Dignidad" for "the sake of discovering the truth about my brother and the other disappeared."

If she frames her quest in broad terms that include all the families of Chile's disappeared, it is because she shares their torment. Notes Kornbluh: "When someone doesn't really know in the end what happened to their loved one, when they don't have a body, it leaves open a huge capacity for hope and wishful thinking and desperation."

All of those emotions do battle in Olga Weisfeiler's face as she makes it clear that she will not rest until she finds out what happened to Boris. Her guard temporarily down, her brave talk of "50-50" possibilities yields to this candid admission: "I understand it is a very small possibility to find him alive."

She pauses, takes a deep breath, then says: "But I need to find out what, when, why, and who."

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives