EDITOR’S NOTE - In this 40th anniversary year of World War II’s
EDITOR’S NOTE - In this 40th anniversary year of World War II’s end, the search for old Nazi war criminals has taken on new urgency. Justice is losing its race with time. And time has made one man the most hunted fugitive of all. Here is a report.
Undated (AP) _ From the deathly winter of Auschwitz, the trail leads to the steamy, everlasting summer of Paraguay. And there it fades in the green emptiness.
″Born March 16, 1911, Guenzburg, Germany,″ reads the Interpol bulletin. ″Height 174 cm. Green-brown eyes. Oval face. High forehead. Straight nose. Broad chin. Speaks German, Spanish, English.″
After 40 years, after 6,400 German war criminals have been brought to justice, after uncounted others have died peacefully in their beds, one man remains as the living, unpunished symbol of the Nazi Holocaust.
Dr. Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s ″Angel of Death,″ has been durable, elusive - and lucky.
Israeli agents just missed trapping him 25 years ago in Argentina. They later tracked him down again in Paraguay, but they hesitated and he was gone.
Paraguay’s strongman president, Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, contends Mengele has not been there for years. But Hans Eberhard Klein, the West German prosecutor with the Mengele dossier, does not buy it.
″Most evidence we have indicates Mengele is living in Paraguay,″ he says.
In an unprecedented move, West German, Israeli and U.S. government investigators have announced a joint effort to try to capture the 74-year-old German physician.
If brought to trial - in West Germany, Israel or Poland - he faces an indictment of staggering dimensions: the murder of 400,000 Jews and others he allegedly selected for the Auschwitz gas chambers, and the murder and maiming of thousands in cruel medical experiments.
The Mengele trail is almost cold.
Most reports of the well-traveled doctor’s stopovers are second-or third- hand, passed on by dedicated ″Nazi hunters″ or investigative writers. Reconstructing the trail, relying on usually unverifiable accounts, produces a story riven with unexplained gaps and mysteries:
In 1943-44, the young, dark-haired doctor stood regularly at the Auschwitz railway platform, coolly consigning 90 percent of new arrivals to the gas chambers, survivors report. They say the rest were put to hard labor or were subjected to Mengele’s primitive experiments.
But on Jan. 27, 1945, when advancing Soviet troops liberated the camp complex in southern Poland, SS Capt. Mengele was no longer there.
It is generally believed he had made his way back to his Bavarian hometown, Guenzburg, where the Mengele family still owns a farm-machinery factory. But a recently declassified U.S. Army document and the recollection of an ex-GI suggest that the death-camp doctor actually might have been in U.S. custody for a time. The Army is now digging deeper into its old files for firmer evidence.
An American prosecutor at the Nuremburg war crimes trial reported erroneously in 1946 that Mengele was dead, the Jack Anderson newspaper column said last week.
If Mengele was imprisoned, he was released or escaped at some point, since authorities are sure that in 1949 he sailed from Genoa, Italy, for Argentina, bearing a Red Cross passport in the name ″Helmut Gregor.″
He arrived in Buenos Aires at the height of dictator Juan Peron’s power, a time when ex-Nazis were openly accepted there. One was Adolf Eichmann, a top official responsible for the Jewish genocide.
Little is known of Mengele’s decade in Argentina. Unconfirmed reports say he sold Mengele-made farm equipment and practiced medicine. One account says he performed abortions.
In September 1955, President Peron was driven from Argentina and fled to neighboring, landlocked Paraguay. Mengele may have gone there at about the same time, or he may have traveled back and forth between the two countries. He was certainly in Paraguay’s sleepy riverside capital of Asuncion on Nov. 27, 1959, when he was naturalized as a Paraguayan citizen.
″No one was looking for him when he applied to become a Paraguayan,″ Judge Eugenio Jimenez y Nunez, who approved the naturalization, recalled in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
Within weeks, however, someone was indeed looking for Mengele.
Israeli agents who slipped into Buenos Aires in early 1960 to kidnap Eichmann learned that another prize, the Auschwitz ″death doctor,″ was living in a wealthy northern suburb.
Isser Harel, director of Israel’s Mossad secret service at the time, recalls that his agents abducted Eichmann and held him in a ″safehouse″ for 10 days while they reconnoitered for Mengele. In the end, they discovered he had left his house weeks before. They took Eichmann alone back to Israel, where he was tried and hanged. But Mengele was never far from Harel’s mind.
Through the 1960s, he says, Israeli agents again and again traced Mengele to Paraguayan hideouts, including a mansion in Encarnacion, a port on the broad Parana River. But he was always heavily guarded, and ″we would have had to use military force to get him out,″ Harel told the AP.
The Israelis balked, and lost the trail.
In West Germany, meanwhile, a trial opened in December 1963 for two dozen Auschwitz officers. The Bonn government asked Paraguay for Mengele’s extradition, but the Paraguayans said he could not be found.
Possibly conflicting reports muddle the Mengele trail in the 1960s.
New York writer Gerald L. Posner says Alejandro von Eckstein, a Paraguayan army officer who was a witness to Mengele’s naturalization application, told him that during the early 1960s the doctor resided openly in a house on Asuncion’s flower-lined Avenida MacArthur.
Some reports say he continued selling Mengele tractors, especially to Mennonites, members of a German-speaking sect who have settled in rural Paraguay. Jimenez y Nunez said Mengele also worked as a physician at an Asuncion prison clinic.
Paraguayan officials now say he left their country for good by 1965. Von Eckstein says he traveled to Spain, Posner reports.
But in the 20 years since then, Mengele has been reported sighted again and again in Paraguay and nearby countries, especially in small German communities along the muddy Parana or on the nearby plains of east Paraguay.
In 1966, in tiny Eldorado, Argentina, across the Parana from Paraguay, a Brazilian journalist clandestinely filmed a man later identified by Auschwitz survivors as Mengele. The next year, Brazilian police reported Mengele had slipped through Brazil.
Unconfirmed accounts in the early 1970s said he was in the remote Paraguayan town of Pedro Juan Caballero, on the Brazilian border, and back in Encarnacion, supposedly involved in the narcotics trade, according to an unsubstantiated U.S. Central Intelligence Agency report.
John Loftus, a former U.S. Justice Department ″Nazi hunter,″ says he learned from a reliable source that Mengele moved permanently from Paraguay in 1979. On Aug. 8, 1979, the Supreme Court in Asuncion stripped Mengele of his Paraguayan citizenship, asserting he had been absent from the country since 1960.
Over the next four years, various reports put the elusive doctor in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia and Portugal. But reported Paraguay sightings continued as well.
Loftus says Mengele visited Paraguay in 1982. Posner cites a family in the German-speaking community of Hohenau, near the Parana 20 miles northeast of Encarnacion, as saying he stayed with them that year.
A German-born Paraguayan cocaine trafficker, later jailed in West Germany, told acquaintances Mengele resided with him in 1982 in a place 40 miles from Asuncion, says the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Holocaust study center in Los Angeles.
The most recent reported sightings date from mid-1984.
Longtime Nazi pursuer Simon Wiesenthal says witnesses placed Mengele in Capitan Miranda, a town near Hohenau and near a Paraguayan military zone where Stroessner maintains residences. A London Sunday Times report citing various sources said he was seen at a hotel in Volendam, a Mennonite community on the central Paraguayan plain.
Beate Klarsfeld, an unofficial West German investigator, says Mengele could find no better security than among the isolated German communities of remote Paraguay. And she contends he may still receive financial support from the $82-million-a-year Mengele Farm Machine and Iron Works company in Guenzburg.
Karl-Heinz Mengele, the doctor’s son by his second wife, Martha, is a manager of the company, West German officials report. They say Mrs. Mengele resides in Merano, Italy.
A mock Mengele trial last February in Jerusalem heightened world interest in the missing Nazi doctor. One index of increased interest: Rewards for his capture, just $5,000 two decades ago, now total $3.4 million.
Former Mossad chief Harel and others reason that Mengele must be alive, because otherwise the family, the Paraguayans or someone else would have brought forth proof - the body - to end the international pressure on them.
He is still out there somewhere in the Paraguayan ″campo,″ Mengele’s trackers believe, among the tile-roofed farmhouses and orange groves, still able to enjoy the red glow of tropical sunsets, 40 years and 11,000 miles from the glow of the human pyres of Auschwitz.
Mrs. Klarsfeld flew back to Paraguay last week to press her hunt.
″It is a matter of justice,″ she says, ″that he simply not die in his bed in Paraguay.″