Boris Weisfeiler (born 1942 – disappeared 1985) was a Russian-born mathematician who lived in the United States before disappearing in Chile in 1985, at the age of 43. The Chilean military government alleged that he drowned, but his family believes he was forced to disappear, near Colonia Dignidad, an enclave led by ex-Nazi Paul Schäfer.
Weisfeiler, a Jew, was born in the Soviet Union. He received his Ph.D. in 1970 from the Steklov Institute of Mathematics Leningrad Department, as a student of E. B. Vinberg. In the early 1970s, Weisfeiler was asked to sign a letter against a colleague, and for his refusal was branded "anti-Soviet". Weisfeiler left the USSR in 1975, so that he might freely advance his career and practice his religion. After a brief period under Armand Borel at the Institute for Advanced Study near Princeton University, Weisfeiler became a professor at Penn State University. In 1981, he was naturalized as an American.
Weisfeiler's research spanned twenty years, and he published three dozen research papers during his lifetime. According to his colleague Alexander Lubotzky, Weisfeiler was studying "the more difficult questions" of algebraic groups in "the case when the field is not algebraically closed and the groups do not split or — even worse — are nonisotropic". He is known for the Weisfeiler-Lehman algorithm, the Kac-Weisfeiler conjectures, the Weisfeiler filtration, and work on strong approximation and on finite linear groups.
Weisfeiler, an experienced outdoorsman, flew to Chile at Christmastide of 1984 to hike alone in the Chilean Andes.
Chile was then controlled by a military government headed by General Augusto Pinochet; that government committed numerous abuses of human rights (before he died in 2006, Pinochet had been prosecuted for his role in Operation Colombo and indicted in absentia in other countries). After the effective end of military rule in 1989, the Chilean government took steps to investigate additional activities under the military regime.
According to Chilean governmental reports, Weisfeiler was hiking near the border of the Colonia at the time of his disappearance. Various actual or supposed eyewitnesses' conflicting reports make the details of the disappearance impossible to discern. The Chilean government has ruled that Weisfeiler had entered the confluence of two swift-moving rivers and drowned, his body never to be recovered. Local fishermen say they camped with Boris and gave him directions northward, toward a bridge near the Colonia. Some people claim to have seen his footprints near the river and to have found his backpack and other items (these items may to have been sold or destroyed by the Chilean government in the late 1990s, as evidenced by Chilean governmental documents and published news articles).
Although no conclusive proof connects the Weisfeiler's disappearance to any entity, some American and Chilean officials do suspect one particular group. Unknown to most of the world, Colonia Dignidad sat on a large tract of land not far from the Argentine border. Idyllic in appearance, the Colonia was run by German expatriates who included alleged Nazi war criminals and sympathizers. The leader of the Colonia for most of its existence was former Nazi Paul Schäfer. The Colonia had a cult-like atmosphere, in which many children were molested, a crime for which its leaders have faced prosecution; Schaefer himself was convicted in May, 2006, in connection with allegations of child abuse at the Colonia. The BBC has reported (and Chilean governmental documents suggest) that the Chilean Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (the secret police, disbanded in 1977) brought suspected anti-government prisoners there to be interrogated.
According to U.S. State Department reports, other witnesses claim they saw Boris Weisfeiler in the Colonia, several years after his disappearance. At least one claims he was alive some three years later; another claims he was assassinated as a Soviet or Jewish spy. Weisfeiler's whereabouts remain unknown, and his sister Olga (who as her brother emigrated to the United States) continues to petition numerous authorities to determine his fate. Early in 2006, a bipartisan Congressional letter signed by 27 senators and representatives was delivered to then Chilean president Michele Bachelet in the hope of speeding an official Chilean investigation into his fate. In 2010, a similar letter signed by 52 senators and representatives was delivered to then Chilean president Sebastián Piñera.
On August 21, 2012, a Chilean judge ordered the arrest of eight retired police and military officers in connection with the alleged kidnapping and disappearance of Boris Weisfeiler. According to the court filings, the suspects were to have been prosecuted for "aggravated kidnapping" and "complicity" in the disappearance of a U.S. citizen between January 3–5, 1985; the filings did not mention where Weisfeiler might have been taken after his detention or what may have happened to him afterwards. The case was closed in 2016, after the judge ruled the disappearance a common crime, for which the statute of limitations had passed, and not a violation of human rights.
Several embassy cables published by Wikileaks (e.g. 05SANTIAGO2539, 08SANTIAGO93) mention Weisfeiler. One is 09SANTIAGO680, which says
- "La Nacion" traveled to the exact location where he was last seen and talked to key witnesses. From these accounts the conclusion is that Weisfeiler approached the home of a farmer to ask for hot water; a police patrol and two civilians well known in the area arrived at the farmer's house asking about a foreigner; the group was later seen carrying on horseback the body of a man wrapped in a blanket. His hands and feet were visible. The general belief in the area is that Weisfeiler was detained, beaten, and his body buried and exhumed days later. His disappearance is the last human rights violation committed by the military regime, mobilizing U.S politicians, who have demanded the GOC resolve the case. In Santiago, FBI agents have increased their activities with local authorities in an effort to solve the case. "La Nacion" claims that the witness accounts in this article contain information that "has never been revealed before" (La Nacion, government-owned, editorially independent, 7/19).
In other media and popular culture
- A short film, The Colony, based on Weisfeiler's disappearance and directed by Steven List, was released in 2007.
- Tracing a Mystery of the Missing in Chile
- The Mathematics Genealogy Project - Èrnest Vinberg
- Alexander Lubotzky (January 2004). "A Tribute to Boris Weisfeiler: The Mathematics of Boris Weisfeiler" (PDF). Notices of the American Mathematical Society. 51 (1). Retrieved 2006-11-21.
- "The Weisfeiler Lecture in Mathematics". Retrieved 2006-11-21.
- Official website for Boris Weisfeiler
- "The Colony (II) (2007)". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2013-12-01.