SANTIAGO (AFP).- During the darkest days of Chile's dictatorship, a man named Jorge Schindler saved dozens of leftist militants by employing them undercover at his pharmacies, risking his own life like a different Schindler during another of history's nightmares.
The South American Schindler's story was published for the first time Friday in "The Chilean Schindler's List," a biography.
It retraces his silent struggle against Augusto Pinochet's brutal regime and the uncanny parallels with Oskar Schindler's secret defiance of Nazi Germany. The two men are not, however, related.
Jorge Schindler was an active member of the Chilean Communist Party when Pinochet's troops overthrew socialist president Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973.
He was soon fired from his government office job, an early, ominous sign of the crackdown that would leave a toll of more than 3,000 people killed and 38,000 tortured by the time Pinochet relinquished power in 1990.
Instead of fleeing, Schindler decided to open a pharmacy -- and hatched a plan reminiscent of Oskar Schindler's maneuvers to save more than 1,000 Jews from the Holocaust by employing them at his factories, the subject of Steven Spielberg's 1993 film "Schindler's List."
The Chilean Schindler's pharmacy soon became a chain of pharmacies that employed leftist activists under false identities to help them escape Pinochet's intelligence services.
"The plan was born out of the need to survive," Schindler, 75, told AFP.
He and his business partner, pharmacist Ramiro Rios, opened four pharmacies in Santiago and another just west of the capital in the town of Curacavi.
In all, they employed nearly 100 communist leaders and other leftist militants from 1973 to 1978, when the scheme grew too dangerous.
The pharmacies continued operating, and two still remain open in Santiago.
Alsino Garcia, a Communist Party member protected by Schindler in the 1970s, is today the manager of one of them.
He recalled how Schindler's communist "employees" were instructed to assist clients and keep a low profile to evade detection by the feared National Intelligence Directorate, or DINA.
"Some of them didn't do anything. They were just there. It was a screen to give them a legal existence in the face of an oppressive machine," Garcia said.
We did whatever we could
Those who received Schindler's protection included former police officers Jose Munoz and Quintin Romero, who had served as bodyguards to Allende and fought in vain to save him the day the military attacked the presidential palace, La Moneda.
Schindler also helped the Communist Party regroup underground and set up a clandestine network.
"Week after week, comrades from the party would show up, unemployed, with hardly any clothes or just hungry. We did whatever we could to help them," Schindler recalled in an interview for the book, written by journalist Manuel Salazar.
Quintin Barrios, now the manager of the Mexico Pharmacy -- the first Schindler opened -- remembered how his "boss" would help persecuted activists by renting them houses, giving them money and sending them medicine.
"What he did was outstanding," Barrios said.
Schindler himself erased all traces of his communist past and maintained no relationship with his employees outside work, discussing political matters with them only through trusted intermediaries.
The pharmacies nevertheless drew suspicion and came under DINA surveillance.
"Two refugees (pharmacy employees) were detained and disappeared, but DINA was never able to connect them to the pharmacies," said Garcia, who was himself kidnapped and tortured in 1988 before being released two days later.
He said the pharmacies had also hidden weapons, which he suspects belonged to the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front, an armed group that fought the regime and staged a failed attempt on Pinochet's life in 1986.
"For 15 days, we hid guns under a counter, including some AK-47s. That only happened once," Garcia said.
In another ironic parallel with his namesake, the Chilean Schindler -- whose ancestors were Swiss -- today lives with his family in Germany, where he works as a tour operator.
He returned to Chile for the book launch at a cultural center in Santiago.
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