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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Legacy Has Brazilians Examining WWII Past

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Albert Blume died 14 years ago, an outcast and a mystery to his relatives, buried in a pauper's grave. As odd as his life was, his legacy was more unexpected -- a $4 million fortune in luxury watches, rings, gold bars and gold teeth for which an aging aunt has been battling in court since his death.

The case might have ended unnoticed this year, with a court-appointed executor finally handing over the treasure to Blume's aunt, Margarida Blume. Instead, it has caught the attention of Brazil's first commission to investigate Nazi war criminals who fled to the South American country with looted Jewish property, as well as those who helped them flee.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said the Blume case "appears to be the first concrete discovery of a perpetrator's account, which is where we believe the lion's share of the Jewish wealth was hidden."

Suddenly the bizarre details and contradictions in Blume's life are kindling interest among Brazilians in a chapter of their past that once seemed remote, irrelevant or taboo -- a South American counterpart to the scandal over Swiss banks that swallowed Jewish assets.

Theories about Blume's treasure abound, but for now they are only theories.

Some say that Blume, who lived out his life as a pawnbroker, fled to Brazil to escape Nazi persecution of homosexuals and that the gold was merely collateral for loans.

But Rabbi Henry Sobel, the chief rabbi of Brazil, who heads the Brazilian commission, and others contend that Blume never owned the fortune. More likely, they say, this German-born member of the Nazi Party was sent to Brazil in 1938 as a spy and was later used as a conduit for stolen gold that now lies in a bank vault in his name. They believe that Blume was holding it for a similarly named war criminal in Argentina, whose Nuremberg death sentence was commuted in 1951.

By raising these questions, the investigating commission is challenging Brazilians to color in the pages of an era that has only been outlined until now -- the history of Operation Odessa, a German plan devised in the final days of World War II to smuggle senior Nazis to South America.

The commission is reporting on stolen masterpieces, such as a $1 million Raphael that came here, and on dormant accounts opened by Nazis who fled here that are worth $15 million. One result, after decades of public indifference, is a belated national assessment of how Odessa worked and why South Americans allowed it to work so well.

If the "final solution" was the industrialized murder of European Jewry, the looting of the dead was no less systematic.

From August 1942 to late 1944, the Nazi SS organized scores of shipments -- of currency, jewelry and gold teeth -- from death camps to the Reichsbank in Berlin, journalist Ladislas Farago wrote in his 1974 book, "Aftermath: Martin Bormann and the Fourth Reich." At a point, he wrote, 30 clerks were needed to sort and repackage the valuables.

With defeat imminent, senior German officials began hiding looted property in foreign accounts as part of a vast operation that the Allies code-named Safe Haven.