HOHENAU -- Paraguay's national addiction is yerba mate, a holly bush that when ground to a coarse powder and steeped in scalding water creates a bitter, astringent tea. It would be mildest exaggeration to say that by noon every day, most Paraguayans have drunk more yerba mate by volume than most Americans drink of coffee in a week. The slavish devotion to the drink extends to all classes and ethnicities, including Europeans. Indeed, I have heard of only two Paraguayans who scorned the stuff. One was Bernhard Foerster, the Jew-mauling founder of New Germany, and the other was Josef Mengele.
Getting her jones.
The finest mate in Paraguay is grown here in Hohenau on plantations owned by descendants of Germans. Mengele lived in Hohenau for at least two years. For him not to have picked up a taste for the drink suggests a profound remove from the society where he was forced to live. Not to drink mate in Paraguay is like swearing off beer and pork-knuckle in Bavaria, or fish in Japan.
I think of this alienated abstinence -- its tiresome pickiness, its inflexibility -- because it contrasts so harshly with how people thought Mengele and Bormann lived on the lam. In Ladislas Farago's entertaining but semi-ridiculous Aftermath, he mentions a "heavily fortified island called El Dorado, in the Parana in southern Paraguay, guarded day and night by thirty men of [Mengele's] own SS guards." In another version, Bormann inhabits a fortress "in an uncharted region" of southern Paraguay called Waldner SS, protected by five blockhouses of praetorian guards assigned by Stroessner himself. These two mythical Nazis live like South American Prester Johns, regents of rich, hidden Aryan kingdoms. In still another version, this one The Boys from Brazil, Mengele is Gregory Peck, strong and confident in white suits and wood-paneled rooms, dispatching assassins to disembowel the young Steve Guttenberg when he gets too close:
Young Jewish assassins tried to go find and kill Mengele, the stories went, but they ended up floating facedown along the banks of the Parana, their throats slit.
The actual Mengele was in a place he almost certainly hated, and where that white suit would quickly have stained.. Hohenau is a pleasant little Paraguayan backwater. It offers much to escaped Nazis and to normal people: an agreeable, temperate climate; a prospering economy, due to the mate boom; and a sizable German population that to this day cooks a mean schnitzel in local restaurants. But Hohenau is still a mud-road farming community. It is no Buenos Aires, and has none of the high culture an educated Nazi like Mengele (survivors say Mengele whistled Puccini arias while selecting victims) would want.
All we know about Mengele's later life suggests that he was a broken man from the 1950s, when he left Buenos Aires, onward. He wrote whiny letters to his family in Germany, and they (unconscionably) wrote back and sent him money, till he died, still at large but hardly free, of a stroke suffered while swimming off the Brazilian coast. Hohenau is now known as a yerba mate capital of Paraguay, but in time it might justly rebrand itself as the little town where Mengele first went into deep hiding, and where he first recognized that the few pleasures left in his hunted life would be solitary and fleeting. Many towns make lesser claims.
Photo by Flickr user zanini
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