The Smart Set: Mengele in Paraguay - February 5, 2008

My colleague Graeme Wood has been hunting the memory of Mengele in Paraguay:

New Germany would have been Mengele's kind of town. It was founded in the 1880s by Elisabeth Nietzsche (sister of Friedrich) and her husband, the noted anti-Semite Bernhard Förster. This couple had tried to whip their countrymen into a Jew-hating frenzy, but apparently not even 19th-century Germans were anti-Semitic enough for them. Disgusted, the couple packed off to Paraguay with a few other families and tried to establish a pure Aryan colony, a place to preserve the master race.

The colony failed utterly, ravaged within two years by parasites and the unfortunate realization that the Aryan volunteers' European farming experience hadn't prepared them to grow the local manioc and yerba mate any more than it had taught them to ranch llamas or stalk yaks. The anti-Semitic colonists came to hate the Försters, and began to wonder whether they had picked the wrong Jew-hating loons to follow into the jungle. Those who didn’t die of lockjaw or hunger left; a few stayed, and decades later, their children and grandchildren fought for the Third Reich. By now, anyone who had papers to return to Germany has already gone — unless, of course, they had reason to stay away.

New Germany is tiny, and when I arrived it felt so quiet that the whole town could hear my footfall on the main street. The red mud sucked at my boots with each step, and children — some blond — peered from windows at the noisy stranger. The afternoon swelter, ungodly and oppressive compared to the breezy heat of Encarnacion, kept everyone indoors, under fans and fighting a losing battle against the mosquitoes and biting flies that feast constantly on every man, woman, and mange-ridden hound in the region.

In 1979, not long after Mengele supposedly drowned, a visitor arrived in New Germany. He called himself Friedrich Ilg, and he bragged of a Nazi past. Mentions of the Jews sent him into a rage. He lived for five years in a little house on Nueva Alemania Street, and he received few visitors. But everyone knew he kept an arsenal of guns, much like Mengele, who packed heat at all times.

Alberto Risso, a town historian and statistician at the Public Health Center, thinks Ilg may well have been Mengele in disguise. He introduces me to Mario Neumann, the owner of New Germany’s restaurant, who agrees. Mario speaks no German (his mother was the last in his family who did), but over a plate of schnitzel he recalls a deranged lunatic living among them whose last act before fleeing to Asuncion was to accuse Herr Stern, a mechanic, of ratting him out to the Jews. In Asuncion, they say, he lasted only months before diving under the wheels of a bus.

No one shares Ilg’s enthusiasm for the Nazis — no one here seems to know what a Jew is, let alone why they might hate one — but oddly many seem to like the idea that Mengele might have walked among them for a few years. They take a strange, solemn pride in their Nazi: The Mengele legend connects their country to the world. Paraguay's big neighbors, Argentina and Brazil, get so much attention. Here is a confirmed connection to the most important event in modern history, and it belongs not just to Paraguay, but to one of Paraguay’s most remote and obscure settlements, a sizzling steambath and open-air entomology lab abandoned by even its own Fatherland.

Marguerita Hofmann lives in the countryside, a half hour by motorcycle from New Germany, in a poor colony called Tacuruty. The dozen or so families who live here all still speak German by preference, and they all knew Ilg. She invites me to sit in the shade of her dusty farmhouse, next to an antique sewing machine.

“There was a rumor, but no one knows,” Marguerita says. She calls Ilg “Federico,” and sighs when talking about him. “I think he had an accident during the war, because I could hardly understand what he was saying. He was not right in the head.”

Her husband Fritz comes in from the fields, where he farms manioc. He fans himself with a sweaty straw hat. They have never been to Germany, and all this talk of Nazis makes them wonder why they would ever want to go. "There is more freedom here," he says. "It is not Germany. You wake up when you want."

As he speaks, the flies suck sweat from my neck, and a mosquito drills through the fabric of my shirt and into my shoulder. The pinch of the mosquito bite brings me a perverse instant of secret joy, though: If Mengele really did spend five years here, he didn’t entirely escape punishment.