Unraveling the Mengele Mystery

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"Mengele was executed by Israeli commandos," reported Haaretz in December 1973, citing news agency reports. "Unknown men, apparently Israelis, killed Mengele," it was reported several days later. Spokesmen for the Brazilian police were quoted by the country's news agencies as saying that three unknown men - who had infiltrated the home of the infamous Nazi doctor on the border between Brazil and Paraguay - beat him to death in front of his wife and children. The report ended as follows: "The search for the three men, who fled afterward, continues."

Shortly afterward, it turned out that this so-called "Mengele" was actually an old farmer of German descent who had nothing whatsoever to do with the "Angel of Death" from Auschwitz.

Joseph Mengale. Credit: Getty Images

Rumors about the killing or capture of Josef Mengele have filled newspapers for almost four decades. An internal Israel Police report, part of which was recently obtained by Haaretz, reveals the major intelligence effort invested by local law enforcement officials in finding and capturing him.

The report was written in December 1986. Entitled "Nazi criminal Josef Mengele - a summary," it is a meticulous account, dozens of pages long, of all the information collected by police about Mengele over the course of several decades. The body responsible for preparing this "Mengele file" was the Israel Police Unit for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes, which handled about 2,000 files involving suspected war criminals.

The information was collected by police through interrogations, conversations with Holocaust survivors and people who knew or had met Mengele over the years, and via various organizations around the world.

"Rivers of blood, flames of fire, columns of smoke and terrible cries accompanied Dr. Mengele, 'The Angel of Death' of Auschwitz, throughout his service in the extermination camp," began the report. Many biographical, medical and personal details follow, providing a comprehensive picture of the man and his life - from his birth, to his crimes during the Holocaust and his flight to South America, and up until the mysterious story surrounding his death.

On May 24, 1943, Mengele was sent as a doctor to Auschwitz, where he served until he was evacuated on January 18, 1945. He had completed his medical studies five years earlier at Goethe University Frankfurt. According to the report, "On June 21, 1943, while riding a motorcycle inside the concentration camp in Auschwitz, he was injured in an accident. There were no details about the type of injury, but according to the records, he reported for his regular job four weeks after the accident." Three months later, in September 1943, "Mengele was cleared of the accusation of causing an accident."

In January 1945, the Nazis hastily evacuated Auschwitz with a death march. About a week later, Mengele was spotted in the Mauthausen concentration camp by one of the twins evacuated from Auschwitz, who had previously suffered during experimentation at his hands. Four months later, at the end of April, Dr. Otto Hans Kahler, a friend from the doctor's war days, met him by chance. He said Mengele "didn't want to believe the report that had been broadcast over the radio that day about Hitler's suicide." According to Kahler's testimony, Mengele showed up suddenly in the unit where he had served as a medical officer during the withdrawal from the Sudetenland, in the uniform of an officer of the Wehrmacht, the German army, rather than in his SS uniform.

A few weeks later, the unit surrendered to the U.S. Army and was taken to a prisoner of war camp, where Mengele and Kahler shared a room. The U.S. soldiers checked the POWs for tattoos, which were a trademark of the SS. Mengele was not found among the captives because he had no tattoo. "Mengele was in a deep depression and was even considering suicide," according to the segment of the police report pertaining to that period. Several weeks later, the captives were liberated, including Mengele, who succeeded in eluding the Americans.

His wife Irene and his son Rolf lived after the war with Irene's parents in a town near Gunzburg, Bavaria. "During their stay in the town no strange man was seen to visit them," said the Israel Police report, adding that the two left in 1948. "There are reports to the effect that the Mengeles met in secret during this period, but there is no confirmation of that."

On January 5, 1947, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published a report from Warsaw to the effect that American forces in Germany had caught a group of Nazi criminals and extradited them to Poland. The report also said that the Polish military delegation to Nuremberg had asked the Americans to extradite Dr. Mengele, who had supposedly been arrested near Berlin.

A letter sent by the Polish Central Jewish Historical Committee in June 1947 to an international organization of survivors in Vienna reported that Mengele had been extradited to Poland with the first group of Nazi war criminals who had been active in Auschwitz. In the letter, it was also claimed that "for technical reasons" no date had been set for the beginning of Mengele's trial.

Later, Israeli police succeeded in locating in Israel the man who was then head of the Polish military delegation - the source of the reports about Mengele's arrest. He told them that he had received the information about the arrest from the U.S. representative attached to the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. Another official, who provided erroneous details about Mengele's fate, was also found in Israel by the police. At the end of April 1947, the official had requested that authorities in Vienna interrogate Mengele, who had supposedly been arrested there. But in a conversation with the police, "he was unable to add details" about the affair.

On June 20, 1949, Mengele boarded the North King, which was sailing from Italy to Argentina. In his personal bag he carried forged International Red Cross papers bearing the name of Helmut Gregor, an Italian-born mechanic. (Indeed, Mengele adopted four false identities during these years. Another one was that of Josef Memling, a famous Bavarian painter. ) Israeli police were unable to figure out how he had received the forged immigration papers, but had a theory that the wife of one of his cousins had helped him. In any event, upon arrival, Mengele received an Argentine identity card from the local police. Within a short time, he began to work as the South American representative of the family business - the German Karl Mengele and Sons firm, which manufactured agricultural machinery. The company, which was founded in 1871 in Gunzburg, still operates under the same name. In a chapter summing up the history of the company on its website (http://www.mengele-agrartechnik.de ), there is no mention of Dr. Mengele and his crimes.

Seven years later, in November 1956, Mengele showed up at the German embassy in Buenos Aires and presented his original birth certificate. The embassy confirmed the authenticity of the document, and based on it, Mengele received a new Argentine identity card, this time bearing his real name: Josef Mengele; date of birth: March 16, 1911; place of birth: Gunzburg.

Years later, when the German ambassador in Argentina was asked for an explanation, he said: "I received instructions from the Foreign Ministry in Bonn not to pay any attention to the issue, since there was no legal arrest order against Dr. Josef Mengele at the time, and the German delegation didn't request his extradition from Argentina."

The Israeli police report also provides a glimpse into the life of Mengele's family. His wife, Irene, refused to join her husband in South America. In 1954, she divorced him; about half a year later, she remarried. Four years after his divorce, Mengele married Martha Maria Mengele, his younger brother Karl's widow.

According to the police report, Mengele, who became infamous for his experiments on twins during the war, had two twin nephews. Their father was Mengele's other brother, Alois. The twins were born on May 12, 1945 - just four days after Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally.

The report also said that in 1972 Mengele was hospitalized over an apparent growth in his large intestine. "After a series of X-rays and tests, it turned out that it was a blockage caused by the accumulation of a large quantity of hairs he had swallowed, apparently from his mustache," said the report. The radiologist who examined the X-rays claimed that the case was an unusual one in medical terms, and decided to report it at a department meeting. Mengele refused at first to give him the X-rays and only after prolonged discussion did he agree to loan them for a few days. In spite of the doctor's pleas, Mengele refused to hand over the X-rays for teaching purposes.

The report includes considerable detail about the people who helped Mengele hide and escape. One of them was Gitta Stammer, known as "Gi" for short. A native of Hungary, she immigrated to Brazil in 1948 with her husband who was seeking work there as an engineer. A decade later, the two purchased a farm with tropical fruit trees, coffee and rice plantations and a small herd of cows.

During their leisure hours, the two would spend time at a club for Hungarians and people from German-speaking countries. There they also met the Gerhards from Austria. The Austrian couple suggested that they employ on their farm a Swiss man named Peter Hochbichler. The Stammers agreed happily, and Hochbichler went to live on their farm, which he began to manage. The police report said: "Peter refused to receive any payment for his work and even insisted that he would pay them for his board and the services he received. He was a very introverted person, received no visitors and adamantly refused to be photographed. The only people who visited him were the Gerhards, who on those occasions would bring him German newspapers and books."

Two years later, in 1963, Gitta Stammer happened to come across a photograph of Josef Mengele in a local newspaper. She became suspicious because of his surprising resemblance to her "Swiss" farm manager. "That evening, Peter confirmed in a conversation with them that he really was Josef Mengele and showed them papers with his real name. At the time, he told them a little about his past and his connections with leading Nazis in South America," according to the report.

In wake of this discovery, Stammer wanted to dismiss Mengele. But a short time later, a man who introduced himself as the "manager of the Mengele company" - the German-based family business - showed up at the farm. He gave the Stammers $3,000 - "to cover his living expenses," he said, adding that it would be very hard to find another safe haven for him.

In 1974, the "manager" of the Mengele company from Germany turned up once again. This time, he paid the couple $5,000 and asked them to purchase a house for Mengele. The Stammers, for their part, without saying anything about it to Mengele, sold their house and moved away, leaving him there by himself. During his stay on the farm, Mengele received many letters, which arrived at the farm with a special mark on them; the couple would see this and hand over the letters to Mengele without opening them.

Another woman who helped Mengele to hide was Liselotte Bossert, a native of Austria. In a conversation with Israeli police, Bossert said that in 1977 she met Rolf Mengele, Dr. Mengele's son, in Brazil. Rolf arrived in Brazil with a passport he had stolen from his friend. Bossert's husband drove him to his father's house on the farm. Rolf then gave his father $5,000 and spent a week with him.

Bossert also told police about the circumstances surrounding Mengele's death in 1979. As they did every year, she and her family spent their vacation at the Bertioga beach in Brazil. A day earlier, Josef Mengele had arrived at their home, planning to stay with them for a few days. Late in the evening, after she and the children had gone to bed, her husband and Mengele stayed up and talked. At about 2 A.M., she was awakened by shouts coming from the living room. Her husband and Mengele were having a loud argument, and it was not clear why.

In spite of that, the family continued with its original plan, and the next day went on a morning hike to the forests and along the beach, in the company of Mengele. In the afternoon, they returned home and later went for a swim in the sea.

At about 5:30 P.M., the sea suddenly became stormy. Bossert got out of the water with her children. From a distance, she saw Mengele calling for help. Her husband quickly swam in his direction, in an attempt to rescue him. After considerable effort, he managed to pull Mengele out of the water, but almost drowned himself. Bossert's husband was evacuated by ambulance, and Bossert remained on the beach next to Mengele's body. She covered the body with her robe and called for help. At 11 P.M., an ambulance arrived and took Mengele to the morgue.

Because of a problem with her car, Bossert was forced to hitch a ride with the ambulance that was carrying Mengele. On the way to the morgue, she asked the driver to stop near her house so that she could change clothes. A heavy thunderstorm began shortly thereafter, causing a tree to fall on the road. The ambulance was delayed once again. His body arrived at the morgue only at 2 A.M.

The papers she presented to the authorities were forged and bore the name of Wolfgang Gerhard, the man who had first introduced her to Mengele. The doctor on duty did not examine the body, did not photograph it and did not take fingerprints. Bossert asked to have the body cremated, but was told that would be possible only with the permission of close relatives.

The morgue official asked Bossert to identify the body in the coffin, but she refused, saying that she could identify the coffin and she was in a rush to get to the funeral, which was being held in the cemetery in Embu, about 30 kilometers from Sao Paolo.

At the cemetery, Bossert was once again asked to identify the body. Fearing that the cemetery director would notice that the dead man was not the same man as the man whose name appeared in his papers, she pretended to have an anxiety and fainting attack in order to distract them. Ultimately, the coffin was interred in a double plot, where the mother of the real Wolfgang Gerhard was also buried. Aside from the director of the cemetery and the gravedigger, nobody was present. Bossert later decided not to publicize the fact that Mengele had died, letting his family know in a letter under the heading "The last day."

Immediately after, Mengele's son Rolf arrived in Brazil once again. Mengele's friends gave Rolf the journals his father had left behind in his house. Last year, these journals was sold at public auction to the grandson of an Auschwitz survivor.

Many years after the report about Mengele's drowning, the media were still carrying reports about sightings of the notorious doctor in various places around the world. The Israeli government even offered a monetary prize of $1 million for his capture.

In 1985, Mengele's body was exhumed. With the help of the U.S. consul in Sao Paolo, his dentist was found, and he was able to provide authorities with X-rays of Mengele's teeth. These were compared to the remains of his body, which was then identified "with complete certainty" as belonging to Mengele. In 1992, a genetic test was conducted, confirming his death conclusively.