As the spring semester of 1985 began, one professor failed to show up for his classes.
Boris Weisfeiler, former Penn State professor of mathematics, had gone to Chile on a hiking trip when he disappeared on Jan. 5, 1985, never to be heard from again.
It is widely believed that Weisfeiler was one of the more than 40,000 victims harmed or killed by the Chilean military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
And now, decades later, an official Chilean commission has released a final list of those imprisoned, tortured or killed by the Pinochet regime, but one name is still missing from the list: Boris Weisfeiler.
Weisfeiler’s sister Olga Weisfeiler is devastated. She has devoted much of her life since Boris’ disappearance struggling to find the truth. The addition of his name to the list of victims would have come as a long-awaited form of closure, Olga Weisfeiler said.
“My reaction was very bad,” Olga Weisfeiler said. “It’s not because he is not a victim. It’s just because they don’t have the proof to support it.”
The Pinochet regime was known for these sort of disappearances, according to author Peter Kornbluh, who also tells the story of Boris Weisfeiler’s disappearance in his book “The Pinochet File: a Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability.”
“The Pinochet regime became synonymous with human rights atrocities in Latin America,” Kornbluh said. “It was an especially vicious and immoral type of human rights violation — making people just disappear. They became renowned for this tactic.”
Upon initially learning of the disappearance, Olga Weisfeiler was told that he had drowned.
“The embassies, everyone, they had all the same replies — that he went traveling and drowned in the river,” Olga Weisfeiler said.
Over time however it became clear that this was definitely not the case.
“He was essentially a professional hiker,” Kornbluh said. “He knew how to cross the river safely. His backpack was found dry some days later with things believed to be missing from it.”
And then years later, the family got a hold of papers that made it clear that the embassy and CIA station in Santiago, Chile suspected that something had happened to him, Kornbluh said. All signs pointed to a disappearance at the hands of Pinochet’s military dictatorship.
While Chilean citizens were usually targeted for political reasons, Boris Weisfeiler was a particularly unusual case.
“He was clearly not involved in any political activity, he was a hiker. But he was a hiker in a security zone near the Argentian-Chilean border. The type of equipment that a hiker has [gives] the look of an unwanted person. He also had Russian writing on his backpack and elsewhere because he was of Russian descent,” Kornbluh said.
Boris Weisfeiler’s family members are not the only ones who were deeply saddened by his disappearance and the lack of resolution the commission’s omission provides. His Penn State colleagues were upset by the situation, too.
“It’s unfortunate that this most recent turn of events still hasn’t resolved the mysterious disappearance of Dr. Weisfeiler,” Penn State Spokeswoman Jill Shockey said. “Resolving this decades-long unanswered question of the professor’s whereabouts would bring some comfort and resolution to his loved ones and university colleagues who have been deeply affected by his absence.”
Boris Weisfeiler was deeply missed by the mathematics department, Dale Brownawell, distinguished professor of mathematics and friend of Boris Weisfeiler’s, said.
“I can’t express how horrible it is, to think a friend like that had been taken and tortured,” Brownawell said. “He was a dear friend—it was really horrifying to find out more and more about what was going on.”
What really did go on may be forever left a mystery.
“I’m so upset about the situation. I just don’t know where to go from here,” Olga Weisfeiler said.