By Jonathon Van Maren
On February 7, 1979, a 67-year-old man out for a swim at the coastal resort of Bertioga, Brazil suffered a stroke, went under, and, after a brief struggle, drowned. He was buried just under two hours away in Embu das Artes under the name Wolfgang Gerhard, and quietly forgotten. He did not appear to have much family.
Six years later, Brazilian police arrived to dig up the corpse. As it turned out, an investigation by German authorities had revealed that Wolfgang Gerhard was actually Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death” of the Auschwitz concentration camp. A decades-long international manhunt finally came to an end, and Mengele’s skeleton ended up at the São Paulo Institute for Forensic Medicine to be used as an educational aid for the medical students.
One of the Holocaust’s most demonic criminals would never face his accusers.
Some years ago, I had the opportunity to hear a Holocaust survivor who had seen Mengele first-hand describe the experience. Frank Junger was just a “very scared little boy, thirteen and a half years old” when he was pushed out of a cattle car at 4 AM one Thursday morning after arriving at Auschwitz. There was howls of fear, total chaos—and all were forced to line up before a pale, black-haired man “who I later found out was Josef Mengele, who they call the Angel of Death. Inexplicable, a man like that. He was a PhD as well as a doctor who performed medical experiments.”
Junger, in fact, may be one of the few left alive who was selected to die by the Angel of Death but lived to tell the tale. “He was a very good-looking man,” Junger recalled. “He was dressed in splendor. He had white gloves and his military uniform was absolutely spotless and he wore black riding boots. They were shining and polished to the point where you could almost see yourself in them. He had a stick. He always wore gloves.” Mengele selected him for the gas chambers, but when the doctor’s back was turned, he scurried back to the right side. If he’d been caught, he noted, he probably would have been beaten to death.
Mengele’s medical experiments at Auschwitz were the stuff of nightmares. He made a point of showing up when trainloads of fresh victims arrived, even when he was not required to. He would then carefully select prisoners to subject to medical experiments for his research. Despite his reputation as a calm and cool professional, Mengele’s rage and sadism often flared. One survivor recalled Mengele having a child torn in half by guards and giving one half to each parent as he separated them. In other instances, he personally killed women and children on the platform.
He is most infamous for his experiments on twins. He would inject them with diseases like typhus, perform surgeries and amputate limbs without anesthetic, transfuse the blood of one twin into the other, and murder those who were too ill or broken to be of clinical use. In one instance, he personally murdered fourteen twins in a single night by injecting chloroform directly into their hearts. He also experimented on pregnant women, sending them off to the gas chambers once he was finished them. According to one source, Mengele experimented on at least 732 sets of twins.
Mengele ended up in the custody of the Americans when the war ended, but in the post-war chaos, he was set free. His captors were unaware that they had liberated one of Nazi Germany’s most notorious war criminals, launching a manhunt that would carry on for years after Mengele had died. Like many other Nazis fleeing prosecution, the Angel of Death headed for Argentina, where the government was actively assisting war criminals. After Adolf Eichmann was captured by the Mossad and taken to Israel for trial, Mengele moved on to Paraguay, and then Brazil, staying in contact with German friends and family but exercising extreme caution. Many of his victims had survived, and Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal was making him famous.
In 1992, the Argentine government finally released files that revealed the extent to which they had helped Nazi war criminals evade capture and shed light on Mengele’s post-Auschwitz career. According to the New York Times on February 11, 1992:
Last week, President Carlos Saul Menem ordered the files opened and gave Government agencies 30 days to produce any they had on suspected war criminals who came to Argentina.
According to the documents released today, Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz death camp doctor known as the “Angel of Death” for his experiments on inmates, practiced medicine in Buenos Aires for several years in the 1950’s. He “had a reputation as a specialist in abortions,” which were illegal. When one young woman died from his treatment, he was taken before a Buenos Aires judge, who detained him only briefly.
The documents say a friend of Mengele’s appeared in the courtroom with a “package presumably filled with a large amount of money.” After two hours, he was let go.
In other words, shortly after Mengele fled Germany and the carnage of Auschwitz for Buenos Aires, he quietly resumed doing what he did best: Killing. This time, instead of murdering pregnant women, twins, and the others he subjected to his experiments and sent to the gas chambers, he was extracting tiny children from their mothers’ wombs, piece by bloody piece. It didn’t matter that it was illegal to kill pre-born children in Argentina. The Angel of Death found new victims—and was only caught when a young woman died as he was dismembering her child.
In 1977, Mengele’s son Rolf traveled a circuitous route to his father’s hideout in Brazil to visit him. Over two weeks, he grilled his father over and over again about his beliefs; about what he’d done at Auschwitz; about his indefensible racial ideology. According to Rolf, the Angel of Death never expressed any guilt or remorse about what he’d done.