Nazis in Our Midst? It Didn't Matter

“Patagonia as the safest place on earth,” explains the appeal of a land where there is “no sound but the wind. . . and no other sign of life but a hawk, and a black beetle easing over white stones” (3;15). Bruce Chatwin, in his narrative In Patagonia , travels the vague area bordering Argentina and Chile and describes the history, in correspondingly vague terms, of the wanderers who are as distinct in ethnicity and circumstance as they are connected in their lineage to Cain, the original exile. Throughout In Patagonia, Chatwin alludes to the large presence of exiles that fled from Nazi Germany following the resolution of World War II. Sometimes, Chatwin’s language is so vague that we ask, as Sarah Petrides, ’02 asks, “Have we been walking among Nazis and not realizing it?” Petrides notes the following passage as an example:

There is a man in Punto Arenas, dreams pine forests, hums Lieder, wakes each morning and sees the black strait. He drives to a factory that smells of the sea. All about him are scarlet crabs, crawling, then steaming. He hears the shells crack and the claws breaking, sees the sweet white flesh packed firm in metal cans. He is an efficient man, with some previous experience of the production line. Does he remember that other smell, of burning? And that other sound, of low voices singing? And the pile of hair cast away as the claws of crabs?

Walter Rauff is credited with the invention and administration of the Mobile Gas Truck. [198]

In this passage, Chatwin describes “efficient” Walter Rauff, a self-exiled Nazi who invented gas vans used to asphyxiate and murder 25 to 60 people at a time. Yet, Chatwin describes a Russian doctor also exiled in Patagonia and categorized as a criminal of Nazi Germany.

I asked how she came to Argentina.

“I was a nurse in the war. I was captured by the Nazis. When it was over I found myself in West Germany. I married a Pole. He had family here.”

She shrugged and left me guessing.

And then I remembered a story once told me by an Italian friend: she was a girl at the end of the war, living in a villa near Padua. One night she heard women screaming in the village. The screams scarred her imagination and, for years, she woke at night and heard the same hideous screaming. Long after she asked her mother about the screams and the mother said: “Those were the Russian nurses, the ones Churchill and Roosevelt sent back to Stalin. They were packing them into trucks and they knew they were going home to dies.’

The pink plastic of artificial limbs shone through the doctor’s stocking. Both her legs were off at the knees. Perhaps the amputation saved her life. “You, who have been to Russia,” she asked, ”would they let me back? The communists I do not mind. I would do anything to go back.”

“Things have changed,” I said, “and there is now the détente.”

She wanted to believe it was true. Then, with the particular sadness that suppresses tears, she said: “The détente is for Americans, not for us. No. It would not be safe for me to go.” [61]

Have we been walking among Nazis? No one would ask that question in Patagonia. All categories are broken. “It didn’t matter,” says Chatwin. “Nothing mattered.” Welsh guesthouses are owned by Italians, a Scotsman think he is an Englishman, and German supremacists protect North American outlaws against “the Police [who] were criminals themselves,” guarding the bodies of the outlaws from police wanting to sell their heads as souvenirs. Patagonia is the safest place on earth, for ethnicity or history no longer defines the individual. It is a place where old men stare into their fields and say, “No one would want to drop an atom bomb on Patagonia” (65).


1. Why does Chatwin not reveal the Russian doctor’s name when he reveals Rauff’s name? Why does Chatwin not relate how he gets to Patagonia when he relates how he gets out? In describing a character, Chatwin says, “You could tell from what he did not say,” says Chatwin (13). Or, “You could tell he enjoyed it by the way he lowered his eyelids and stuck out his lower lips and sucked the air in through his teeth” (57). What matters to the Russian doctor or to Chatwin and how can we tell from what they choose to reveal?

2. Chatwin finds connections between the seemingly disconnected pieces of Patagonia’s history — a piece of brontosaurus, Charley Milward, Darwin, Shakespeare, Butch Cassidy, Nazis — and so reveals new truths about the world. How are the characters in the above passages, as well as in the book as a whole, related? What do their connections reveal of Patagonia and the world?

3. “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image,” says Joan Didion (The White Album, 146). “Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway. Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner. . . and not only Schofield Barracks but a great deal of Honolulu itself has always belonged for me to James Jones” (146-47). How is Didion’s California related to Chatwin’s Patagonia and how does each author make each place hers or his?

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14 March 2011