Saturday, May 21, 2011

In Search Of... The Angel of Death

A few days ago I watched an excellent episode of a National Geographic channel TV series called Nazi Hunters.  It profiled the decades-long search for the infamous Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele, the so-called "Angel of Death." The show detailed how the Israeli Mossad almost captured Mengele at the same time they kidnapped Adolph Eichmann in Argentina in 1960, which was news to me.  Eichmann and Mengele had apparently met several times for coffee in Buenos Aires in the late 1950s, since they both lived relatively openly in the area at the time. Another revelation was that Mengele actually died in 1979 while body surfing at a beach not far from São Paulo, Bazil, where he had lived out the last years of his life.

This latter detail reminded me of an episode of the 1970s TV show In Search Of... that I had seen as a kid, which detailed Simon Wiesenthal's then-ongoing search for Josef Mengele. This episode, which you can watch HERE, was also titled, "Angel of Death."  Little did I or anyone else know at the time it first aired on February 1, 1979, that Josef Mengele had less than a week to live.

Until 1985, it was widely believed that Mengele was still living in Paraguay, where he was last sighted. This conventional wisdom is reflected in this 1979 episode of In Search Of...  "The closer one gets to Mengele, " concludes narrator Leonard Nimoy, "the more elusive he seems to become... Wherever Mengele is in Paraguay, he has the protection of the Stroessner regime....This road, which leads to a well-guarded gate that we were unable to photograph, is the access to a hacienda where Mengele lives today..."

Not quite, as it turns out.  But it wasn't until 1985, when, acting on a tip, German police raided the home of a long-time Mengele family administrator named Hans Sedlmeier (who'd been secretly sending Josef Mengele  money from Germany for decades) that the truth was finally learned and the location of Mengele's grave in Brazil was discovered. And it wasn't until those remains were DNA tested in the early 1990s, that Mengele's identity (and, therefore, his fate) was conclusively established.

The episode of Nazi Hunters ends with an intriguing footnote to this story.  At the time of Menegle's death in 1979, his friends in Brazil apparently sought permission from his family in Germany to cremate Mengele's remains.  Because of the secrecy, however, they were unable to obtain that permission in a timely manner, and so his body was buried instead.  Had Mengele's remains been cremated (and therefore rendered unable to be DNA tested later) it's likely, the show concludes, that many people today would still not believe he was actually dead.

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