Remembering Boris Weisfeiler

aviso copia

The New York Times reports that Chilean judge Jorge Zepeda “has put an end to the 16-year investigation” into the disappearance and death of the Russian-American mathematician Boris Weisfeiler, pictured above, while hiking in Chile in 1985, at the time of the Pinochet dictatorship.  For those unfamiliar with the case, here is what Allyn Jackson wrote in January 2004 in the Notices of the AMS:

In 1985 the mathematician Boris Weisfeiler disappeared while hiking alone in a remote area of Chile. At the time, he was a professor of mathematics at Pennsylvania State University and was widely recognized for his work in algebraic groups. What happened to him remains a mystery, and to this day it is not known whether he is still alive.  Born in the Soviet Union, Weisfeiler received his Ph.D. in 1970 from the Leningrad branch of the Steklov Institute, where his adviser was E. B. Vinberg. Weisfeiler emigrated to the United States in 1975 and worked with Armand Borel at the Institute for Advanced Study. The next year he joined the faculty at Pennsylvania State University. In 1981 he became an American citizen.  Weisfeiler’s disappearance has been the subject of several newspaper articles (see, for example, “Chilean Mystery: Clues to Vanished American”, by Larry Rohter, New York Times, May 19, 2002; and “Tracing a Mystery of the Missing in Chile”, by Pascale Bonnefoy, Washington Post, January 18, 2003). Further information about media coverage, as well as the present status of the investigation into his disappearance, may be found at http://weisfeiler. com/boris
On the occasion of the publication in Chile of a book about Weisfeiler’s disappearance, the Notices decided to present a brief tribute to his life and work. What follows is a short summary of his mathematical work and a review of the book. This is not an obituary, as hope remains that Weisfeiler is still alive. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate to commemorate this lost member of the mathematical community, whose absence is keenly felt.
—Allyn Jackson
The Notices tribute consisted in two articles by Alexander Lubotzky (on Weisfeiler’s work) and a review by Neal Koblitz of the book pictured below,
published in Chile in 2002.  The book’s thesis, which Koblitz found convincing, is that Weisfeiler was arrested by a military patrol — eight of whose members were put on trial in 2012 but released by judge Zepeda’s ruling — and handed over
to nearby Colonia Dignidad, an enclave of ultrarightist German immigrants founded and at the time still led by ex-Nazi Paul Schäfer. Thinking that Weisfeiler was a “Jewish spy” working for Nazi-hunters, they imprisoned and eventually killed him.
 The website mentioned in Jackson’s introduction is still active and has a reaction to the judge’s ruling, under the title “A Travesty of Justice.”
Judge Zepeda’s ruling in this case is a direct aide-mémoire of the judicial rulings during Gen Pinochet’s dictatorship. Regrettably, today’s Chilean Justice is strongly influenced by the government as well: the Chilean political establishment continues to see the Armed Forces as a threat to political stability and prefer not to interfere in their affairs.
The website has a long list of articles about the case, mostly in Spanish.  Those who understand Spanish can read an interview with Weisfeiler’s sister Olga, dated March 16, 2016, in the Chilean website
La noticia sobre el fallo que absolvió a los culpables de este crimen fue un golpe duro para ella…. No tanto por la decisión del juez Jorge Zepeda, que descartó que fuera un crimen de lesa humanidad, sino porque, según comenta, el magistrado la engañó a ella, su familia y al gobierno de los Estados Unidos acerca de cómo finalizaría esta historia.

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