L A F A L D A , Argentina, Nov. 18, 2003 -- It was supposed to be a paradise on Earth, a luxury spa deep in the New World. But this fallen Eden is now in ruins — haunted by its past as an Argentine haven for Nazis and their supporters.
The Eden Hotel, famous before the end of World War II as aposh resort for Germans in central Argentina, is now an emptyshell managed by the local municipality, which offers tours andis trying to restore it as a museum.
Wending his way through the ruins on one such tour,33-year-old businessman Jose Ranz has come to learn of its tiesto Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany and to unravel the mystery of hisown family's past.
The resort was a magnet for the rich and famous early lastcentury, luring Albert Einstein in 1925. But the heyday wasshort-lived and the hotel was plunged into disrepute andeventual ruin by the Nazi sympathies of its former owners.
The hotel is a haunting testament to the murky relationshipArgentina shared with the Nazis, hundreds of whom flocked hereafter the war, drawn by the open-door policy of General JuanDomingo Peron, who had fascist sympathies.
"My grandfather told me this was once the only place youcould contact Europe from," Ranz said, looking at the rooftopwhere a radio antenna connecting the hotel with Berlin oncestood alongside an iconic eagle torn down after World War II.
That wasn't all he told him. His grandfather sat him downwhen he was 12 and confessed: He was not Spanish as he hadmaintained since he fled to Argentina in the 1930s; he wasGerman.
"He told me what was good about Nazism and why it laterbecame deformed," Ranz said, explaining his visit as part of aneffort to decipher his grandfather's true sympathies.
"He explained why the Nazis hated Jews … I don't know if heescaped from Nazism, or if he escaped because he was a Nazi."
His grandfather lived nearby, often spoke of the hotel andsocialized with the Germans who congregated around it.
The hotel dates from 1897, the brainchild of a Germanhotelier, and passed into the hands of another German family,the Eichorns. The town of La Falda, a resort 450 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, evolved to service the hotel.
The Eden Hotel had its own 18-hole golf course, a fleet ofModel T Fords, orchards, a ballroom decked out with oak importedfrom Slovenia and stairs hewn from Italian marble.
The old visitors' book is filled with Argentina's elite ofthe day.
Owners Walter and Ida Eichorn were fervent supporters ofHitler, and when Argentina declared war on Germany shortlybefore the fall of the Third Reich, the hotel was confiscated bythe government as enemy property.
"The Eichorns were members of the National Socialist Party,and sent money for the Fuehrer's political campaign [in the1930s]," said 22-year-old guide Ariel Manzani, who conductstours of the hotel for the local tourism board.
"They celebrated his victories with parties at the hotel,"added Manzani. "Their idea was to create a German colony here inArgentina."
Dozens of Alpine-style chalets are now clustered on landsurrounding the hotel that the Eichorns sold off largely toGerman immigrants in the 1930s to help finance the operation.
After a string of ill-fated attempts to resurrect the hotelby successive owners, its doors finally shut in the 1960s. Yearsof neglect and looting followed, and the hotel's ramshackleshell now sits on just a fraction of the original 2,965 acres of grounds.
The municipality is trying to convince residents who came bythe hotel's contents — from chandeliers to coffee cups thatwere auctioned off or looted over the years — to loan themback.
"The idea is to try and reclaim rooms of the hotel, like amuseum and show what they would have looked like originally,"said La Falda tourism chief Daniel Buonamico. "But I fear mostof [the contents] have been lost."
Tales of the Führer
Ambrosio Vicente Farias, 85, recalls driving visitors to thehotel during the Eichorn era. "They all spoke German up there. Icouldn't understand anything," he said. "They say Hitler himselfvisited once incognito."
At the hotel there are two faded sepia group photographstaken on the front steps. In both pictures, taken from differentangles, one of the 60 or so faces is blurred beyond recognition.The shadow of small moustache is just discernible.
"Did Hitler ever come here?," Ranz asked his guide as he andhis young family ended their tour.
"That's what some say," came the answer.
Fact about the Eden Hotel has blended with fiction in locallore and some townspeople have been reluctant to confront itspast. Ranz and Manzani say it is time to put the recordstraight, for better or worse.
Part of it, at least, already has been.
"The local legend about a Hitler visit is just that:legend," said Hitler expert Professor Sir Ian Kershaw ofBritain's Sheffield University.