Erich Strohschein was still living in West Germany when Paul Schaeffer, a charismatic Lutheran Church youth leader in the tiny hamlet of Holporf near the East German border, began organizing the "charitable society" that would later be known as the Colonia Dignidad in Chile.
The year was 1952. Work and even food were scarce at the time, especially for those without education or skills. Strohschein remembers that he and many of his compatriots were desperately looking for economic and spiritual salvation in the aftermath of the crushing and confusing defeat their country had suffered at the end of World War II.
Strohschein chose to emigrate with his family that year to Canada and later he moved to Warsaw, Ind. But his wife's sister, Matilde Schurgelis, and her husband, Walter, decided to join Schaeffer instead.
Sometime during the 1950s they followed Schaeffer to Siegburg, another small West German town, near Bonn.
Since, 1961, Matilde Shurgelis, Walter and their five children have been in the Colonia Dignidad, a remote tract about 210 miles south of Santiago that Schaeffer settled with his followers.
Last Dec. 14, Erich Strohschein flew from Indiana to Santiago in search of the relatives he had not seen for almost 28 years. He left three weeks later, convinced that the Colonia Dignidad is nothing less than a concentration camp where simple people like the Schrugelis family are being held prisoner behind a barbed-wire curtain reinforced by fear, intimidation and lies.
Strohschein managed to talk to someone at the headquarters house in Santiago and was told that it would not be possible for him to visit his relatives in the Colonia Dignidad. Nor would it be possible for them to come to Santiago, Strohschein said he was told.
On Dec. 18, Strohschein drove with a friend from Santiago to Colonia Dignidad and was told at at the locked gates that his brother-in-law was then at work at a nearby stone quarry outside the barbed-wire colony perimeter. He went there and, finally, Walter Schurgelis appeared -- dressed in a heavy overcoat on what was an extremely hot, midsummer day. Strohschein ran to embrace him.
"Oh, are you Erich?" Walter asked without emotion, "How did you find me?"
Strohschein started to explain when he was cut short. "Go back to where you came from and make an appointment," Walter said. Strohschein asked if it would not be possible for him to se Matilde and the children -- after work or on a Sunday, whenever it would be convenient.
The answer was "no," not without permission from the colony's headquarters in Santiago. And then Walter turned and went back to the stone quarry.