A Crowded, Lonely Grave

ITA -- Paraguayan soil is a dark, rich red, the same ferrous color that stained my white socks when I visited Mississippi as a boy. Since I have never dug up a human body here before -- much less one belonging to a fugitive Nazi -- I can only guess how red a corpse's bones should be. According to Hugh Thomas, one of the most serious proponents of the theory that Reichsleiter Martin Bormann died in Paraguay in 1959 and was secretly disinterred and brought to Berlin, the Bormann bones found in Berlin in 1972 had a distinct red sheen, the telltale tattoo of their brief stay here in the municipal cemetery of Ita.

A characteristic of paupers' graves is (to adopt the language of my browser) a high refresh rate. The bodies are buried with minimal obsequies and markings that fade fast: instead of a headstone, a light wooden cross with a name in paint or magic marker; or instead of a big carved rock, a wafer-thin one that the gravediggers can eventually yank from the ground and lean against a fence somewhere. The cemetery in Ita has many permanent graves -- some could last centuries -- but among them, crammed in, are others that will almost certainly be forgotten and reused within a decade or two. Petite brick shrines barely a decade old are partly reduced to rubble because someone bumped into them when trying to pass by a narrow lane of graves. Still less permanent are body-shaped sunken pits, adorned with withered wreaths or nothing at all. The soil is moist, so the corpses suck at my boots as I walk over them.

If you are a Simon Wiesenthal-style Nazi hunter, your reaction to all this is How conveeeenient. Bormann, the most hunted ex-Nazi, disappeared, and his remains ended up in a place so packed with corpses that no one can ever prove he died. A similar squeal of skepticism greeted news that Aribert Heim, a Mengele-style ghoul who escaped justice for nearly forty years, died of rectal cancer and was buried in a pauper's grave in Cairo. For the terminally unconvinceable, cemeteries like these provide a maddening, permanent flicker of doubt about the fates of their alleged occupants, and whether clever fugitives exploit that doubt to get away.

The documents in Asuncion say that Josef Mengele, a driver, a couple non-fugitive Nazis, and a sepulturero or gravedigger were the only attendees at Bormann's funeral. All are now dead, and the people around the cemetery remember the Bormann story only through a hopeless chain of hearsay. They at first claim that yes, a Nazi might have been buried here -- but it was Mengele, not Bormann. (Impossible: Mengele drowned in Brazil in 1979.) Later Ramon, the chief gravedigger, whispers that a crazy fair-haired foreigner lived for several years in a hut on the cemetery's outskirts. He claimed to be Uruguayan, but his accent suggested otherwise, and he complained loudly whenever anyone questioned him. That man, who disappeared decades ago and left his hut filled with empty milk-cans, may well have been a fugitive, but he couldn't have been Bormann.

The evidence that Bormann was here is slim, but just enough to keep me wondering. Ramon shows me a patch of dirt, packed in among the graves and marked only with a layer of broken glass, rotting leaves, and potsherds. This, he says, is where he thinks his predecessor may have buried Bormann -- or Mengele, or someone. Even if Bormann was here, he has since moved to Berlin and, finally, to a midnight watery grave. In the 1990s, the Germans dumped his remains out of an airplane over the Baltic, far from where any Neo-Nazis can erect a memorial. That, at least, seems to be one thing on which Bormann (if he survived the war) and his hunters could agree: that his final resting place should be hidden and forgotten, forever.