The Hunt for the Nazi 'Angel of Death': How Israel Tried – and Failed – to Capture Dr. Josef Mengele

The Mossad spy agency released a report detailing how Josef Mengele, the ‘Angel of Death’ from Auschwitz, eluded Israeli spooks from Argentina to an Athens suburb and beyond

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Pictures from the Sao Paulo police showing possible disguises of Josef Mengele.
Pictures from the Sao Paulo police showing possible disguises of Josef Mengele.Credit: The Associated Press
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

From the 1950s through the ‘80s, the Mossad strove to find the most wanted Nazi war criminal, Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death” who conducted sadistic medical experiments on Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz. The hunt for Mengele, which included scenes that would impress a thriller screenwriter, involved the monitoring of his relatives, the breaking into their homes and even seduction attempts. In fact, the Mossad also considered abducting his son.

Over the years, various documents and testimonies have been published about the search for Mengele (including a 2011 piece in Haaretz). Now, 38 years after he drowned off the Brazilian coast – with no help from the Mossad – a Hebrew-language study for the Mossad’s history department has been made public.

The study, titled “The Search for the Needle in the Haystack – On the Trail of Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s ‘Angel of Death,’” was completed a decade ago and kept in the Mossad archives, which aren't open to the public. Now the 400-page report is available on Yad Vashem’s website.

The study was written by Holocaust survivor and Mossad operative Yossi Chen, a native of Poland who escaped a ghetto as a teenager, survived in the forests and came to Israel on board the Exodus, the famous ship that brought Holocaust survivors to British Mandatory Palestine in 1947.

The story’s ending is known: Mengele was never captured and died in that lake in 1979. In 1985, his body was exhumed to confirm that it was indeed Mengele, but this wasn’t fully proved until genetic testing was done in 1992.

The unsuccessful pursuit of Mengele is considered one of Israel’s and the Mossad’s greatest failures. “Israel put extraordinary effort into trying to locate this murderer-criminal, to bring him to trial, but Israel never got to see Mengele punished, and even after his death, this German, with the aid of his supporters during his lifetime and after his death, managed to elude his pursuers, who kept on searching for him for more than six years after he was already among the dead,” Chen writes.

The report shows that the Mossad first moved on Mengele in 1959, not long before Adolf Eichmann was kidnapped and brought to Israel after he was tracked down by Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who worked with the Mossad.

A 1944 photo of SS officers outside of Auschwitz, Poland. From left Richard Baer, Dr. Josef Mengele, Josef Kramer and Rudolf Hoess.Credit: AP

The agency searched for Mengele in Argentina, where he lived under the false name Helmut Gregor. In 1960, the Mossad kidnapped Eichmann in Argentina and brought him to Israel. Mossad Chief Isser Harel’s hoped to “bring both criminals in the same plane,” Chen writes. When Eichmann was questioned, it was revealed that he and Mengele had met several times in Argentina in the ‘50s, but Eichmann claimed not to have known who Mengele was; he said he thought Mengele was just another of the hundreds of Nazis who fled to South America after the war.

From this point, the report provides great detail. For this mission, no tactic was considered out of bounds, and anyone who could possibly provide information was questioned in one way or another. In one instance, the mailman in the place where Mengele was thought to be hiding in Argentina was asked if he’d ever heard of a man named Gregor. The mailman said no but that the house’s previous tenant, whose name was Menge or Melga, had left in early 1960, and the mailman didn’t know where he lived now.

The Mossad agents tried to find out more from the main regional post office; for example, they checked whether Mengele had left a forwarding address. But the trail was cold. “Josef Mengele was not located in Argentina or anywhere else. He had disappeared,” Chen writes.

From Greece to Bavaria

The search for Mengele was good business for the travel agencies that the Mossad worked with. In July 1960, the Mossad received a written report saying Mengele was living on an island in the Aegean Sea. The information came from Germans who told someone that after Eichmann had been kidnapped to Israel, Mengele came to Egypt with the aid of the Nazi underground. But he wasn’t allowed to stay there; instead, he was put on a boat for Piraeus, Greece, and then headed to an island, where he hid in a monastery.

On July 30, 1960, a Mossad agent was sent to the island, accompanied by a local El Al employee. The two rode around on a donkey and a mule, combing the villages, churches and monasteries, but found no sign of Mengele.

A month later, another Mossad agent was sent to Mengele’s birthplace, Günzburg in southern Germany, where the family business was located. Nothing came of this either, as the attempt to inquire about the factory’s products didn’t yield any information about Mengele’s whereabouts.

Isser Harel, who headed the Mossad from 1952 to 1963. Credit: Yaakov Saar / GPO

Another time, Harel wrote to his people about an important lead, adding: “All available manpower and resources should be mobilized to follow this lead.” But this, too, led nowhere.

At various times, the Mossad checked if Mengele was meeting with his wife at a hotel in Rome, if he came to an SS reunion in Kassel, Germany, and if he had moved to Madrid. The Mossad also broke into the mailbox of Mengele’s wife, Martha, who was also his brother’s widow, but found no relevant material.

In August 1961, having traced Mengele’s wife to a resort village in Austria where she spent the summer, a team was sent to closely monitor her movements. But, as the report states, “Beyond excursions in the area and sitting in cafés, Martha didn’t lead them to anything substantial.”

Another time, the Mossad came across a letter that Martha had sent from a hotel in Italy, in which she wrote, “We are having a lovely time.” Hopes were raised by her use of the plural, and the Mossad sent someone over. Alas, Martha was there with her mother. Surveillance was conducted nonetheless and the hotel register was carefully checked, but once again, the Mossad came up empty-handed.

People from outside the Mossad were also enlisted in the search, including journalists, Israeli students and even underworld figures. One of them, described by a Mossad man as looking like a “professional killer,” demanded $20,000 for bringing Mengele “to the Jews.” In his negotiations with the Mossad, he claimed that Mengele had undergone plastic surgery, and also showed a group picture in which he said Mengele appeared. The Mossad examined the photo but it wasn’t clear it was Mengele.

Headquarters then sent an order to the Mossad agent negotiating with the “killer”: “It doesn’t seem appropriate for us to talk to a man like that about any kind of operation; instead, it should only be about locating the subject. First, he should prove that the man he’s talking about is the subject.” In any case, this came to nothing, as did the search at Mrs. Mengele’s home.

Three senior Mossad officials who were involved in Eichmann’s capture were also involved in the search for Mengele: Zvi Malkin, Rafi Eitan and Zvi Aharoni. Malkin broke into Martha’s home, planted bugs and went through her papers. Eitan was sent to look for Mengele in the jungles of Paraguay. Aharoni was the only one who thought he actually saw Mengele.

A group of children stand behind the barbed wire fence at Auschwitz just after the death camp was liberated by the Soviet army in January, 1945.Credit: AP

In the middle of 1962, two years after Eichmann’s capture, Aharoni said he had seen a man fitting Mengele’s build, height and dress. In the just-released report, Chen wonders: “Did Aharoni really see Mengele or was it someone else?”

Chen criticizes the Mossad for not pursuing this lead sufficiently. “It could have been expected that the momentum would be sustained with full force ... but it didn’t happen,” he writes.

Swindlers galore

In 1968, Zvi Zamir was appointed Mossad chief. Zamir briefed Prime Minister Levi Eshkol on efforts to find Nazi war criminals. Zamir warned that the effort was costing the Mossad a lot of money and that some people were trying to profit at the organization’s expense, Chen writes. Eshkol ordered a halt to the Mossad’s active pursuit of Nazi war criminals. “Anywhere where it’s possible, I’m in favor of bringing the details to the attention of the country where the person is, so that it does what it has to,” Eshkol said.

Still, Eshkol made an exception for Mengele and another Nazi, Martin Bormann, the chief of the Nazi Party chancellery and Hitler’s personal secretary. “It’s proper and fitting that your people in Europe should have instructions that they can do something on this matter,” the prime minister told the Mossad chief.

In the following years, “various people around the world continued to imagine that their neighbor or just someone on the street looked like Mengele,” Chen writes. Many such reports were received by Diaspora Jewish communities and Israeli embassies around the world.

“Among them were swindlers who, in their attempts to obtain the monetary reward they expected, continued to provide false and even imaginary information,” Chen says. “The media, looking for scoops and publicity, was also fed [information] by both innocent people and swindlers. It’s hard to figure out where imagination ended and reality began.”

His study details a number of reports received by the Mossad about Mengele’s fate, including some that were surprising or strange. One had it that Mengele had a Jewish lover at Auschwitz and that at the end of the war, the two left Europe for an unknown location.

A turning point in the Israeli government’s approach came after Menachem Begin became prime minister in 1977. According to Chen, Begin’s security cabinet passed a resolution, the first of its kind on the subject, directing the Mossad “to resume the search for Nazi war criminals, particularly Josef Mengele, in an effort to bring them to justice in Israel.” The resolution added that “if this is not possible, they should be killed.”

The Mossad then ramped up its efforts. Chen describes the many steps taken; one of the most significant, in the early ‘80s, was surveillance of Mengele’s only child, Rolf, who was living in Berlin. First the Mossad searched his home, but then the agency got a chance to meet him face to face: Rolf was placing ads in the real estate business.

In 1984, a senior Mossad official, Rafi Meidan, posed as a potential customer interested in resettling in Europe after World War II. Also at their meetings was a female Mossad agent who posed as Meidan’s secretary. Chen describes her as “attractive, intelligent, capable of playing the role of private secretary at a high level and also of conducting some of the negotiations herself.”

One of the meetings, which took place at a restaurant, revealed interesting details about Rolf. According to the study, he “was revealed to be an anti-Nazi pacifist .... He played down the importance of a rise of neo-Nazism, and noted that he was German only due to his roots; he wouldn't be willing to fight for Germany.” He called the Nazi regime “a small, crazy group,” and he never once mentioned his father.

The “secretary” and Rolf met separately, but that also proved a disappointment when it turned out that, contrary to expectations, the son of the Nazi had no romantic interest in her. At the end of one meeting, the female Mossad agent saw Rolf’s wife and children.

Afterward, the “secretary” reported that the only prospect of extracting significant information from Rolf would be through “violence, abduction and extortion,” as the study put it. The Mossad replied: “Carrying out such a non-routine act is the only way left to us to obtain information regarding his father.” But the study provides no further details on the matter.

A year later, in 1985, Israel announced a million-dollar reward for anyone who could help get Mengele brought to justice in Israel. Only later did it turn out that Mengele was already dead.

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