On the Nazi Trail

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ASUNCION -- Dr. Josef Mengele, Auschwitz's Angel of Death, first traveled to Paraguay in 1951, at the age of 40. He represented his father's Bavarian ironworks in its South American affairs, and he thought he could sell the company's new manure-spreader to the German and German-descended farmers in the Paraguayan hinterlands. Many of those Germans sympathized with the defeated Reich, so Mengele found refuge and immigrated to Paraguay permanently in 1959. Across the next week of posts I will visit where he and other Nazis are known to have lived, and where some say the most wanted of them, Martin Bormann, was buried secretly in 1959.

Mengele is now better known than many other Nazis who fled to South America. Klaus Barbie (found in Lima in the 1970s), Herbert Cukurs (bludgeoned by the Mossad in Montevideo in 1965), and Adolf Eichmann (kidnapped by Israel in Buenos Aires in 1960) all had fame immediately after the war. Mengele hid out on farms in Europe for a brief time, then forged papers and in the late 1940s booked tourist-class passage from Genoa to the sophisticated, quasi-European shores of Buenos Aires, where he lived with relatively little heat.

Real attention, including indictments, didn't hit till the late 1950s. And since then -- thanks to films like The Boys from Brazil and Frederick Forsyth novels, Mengele's name has acquired even more Grand Guignol points than those of his formerly more infamous colleagues. It helped that Mengele had distinguished himself through medical experimentation. The catalog of crimes remains incomplete, but as a sample one might recall his sewing together two children, Siamese-style, to see if they would survive attached at the back and at the wrists. (They cried in pain for days, then died.) A fuller record bears reading at some point, though not here; for a book-length biography, I recommend Gerald Posner's Mengele: The Complete Story. My concern is seeing where he lived in Paraguay, and figuring out what shapes his evasion of justice took.

Along the way, I'll consider this strange and wonderful country, Paraguay, which over centuries has exerted such attraction to utopianists, to escapees, and populations who thrive near porous frontiers with grey- and black-market economies. When the Nazis came here, I suspect they didn't notice the record of their historical predecessors. A series of foreigners have come to Paraguay to re-found civilization, and to re-grow from seeds and cuttings the gardens they had seen slashed and burnt in Europe. Few of those gardens flourished for very long. In the next post I will describe a few of them.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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