Poor Josef Mengele!
Physician portrayed by Hollywood as “Nazi kingpin” lived in poverty and illness.
by Hadding Scott
IF ANYTHING is certain about Josef Mengele, it is that he was not the monster that mass-media represented. In fact he was a man hounded and oppressed by reckless propaganda, culminating in Hollywood’s depiction of him as the wealthy mastermind of a global Nazi conspiracy in The Boys from Brazil (1978) the year before his death.
The worst of the accusations against Mengele, that he selected 2 ½ million victims for gassing at Auschwitz (repeated in The Boys from Brazil), had the legs knocked out from under it by the Leuchter Report in 1988. Even those who still insist that mass-murder by gas happened at Auschwitz admit that the 2 ½ million figure is impossible.
The accusations of medical experiments against Mengele are also quite ridiculous, among them the claim that this trained physician had tried, as an (entirely pointless) experiment, to turn brown eyes blue by injecting dye into them. Even before 1988, the improbability of such an accusation was noted by historian cum newspaper-columnist Jeffrey Hart.
The cinematic representation of Mengele’s life in South America, as the opulent leader of a global Nazi conspiracy, was just as unrelated to reality as the portrayal of his activities at Auschwitz. Because the university that issued his M.D. and Ph.D. had for political reasons revoked them, Mengele was no longer able to practice medicine and sank into poverty.
According to his son, Mengele was able to elude capture mainly because the actual circumstances of his life were so different from what the mass-propaganda had portrayed. For the real Mengele, there was no seaside villa protected by bodyguards and dogs, and no chauffeured Mercedes-Benz limousine. On the one occasion when Rolf Mengele visited his father in South America, he had to travel from Wolfram and Liselotte Bossert’s home in São Paolo to Caieiras, traversing miles of slums to reach Josef Mengele’s tiny house containing a bed, a table, some chairs, and a closet. (A. Siegert, Chicago Tribune, 19 June 1985)
Rolf says that his father was frightened and depressed and was contemplating suicide. In 2004 the Guardian reported that “86 letters, notes, and diaries” belonging to Mengele, discovered in a São Paolo police archive and published in a Brazilian newspaper, showed that Mengele was “lonely, depressed and short of money” and suffered intense abdominal pains in his last years. Mengele’s friend Wolfgang Gerhard suggested to him in 1974 that he travel to Europe for medical treatment, but by that time he could not afford it. (Guardian, 23 November 2004)
Mengele’s friends, the Bosserts, told police that he often suffered from dental abscesses, which he himself would treat with a razor blade. He also suffered from longterm sinusitis, for so many years that the infection caused a small hole in his left cheekbone. (Guardian, 11 January 2017) With antibiotics, it could have been treated.
Mengele died in 1979 (suffering a stroke while swimming in the ocean, and drowning as a result) but his family kept his death a secret because they did not wish to call attention to themselves, and also wished to protect Mengele’s friends the Bosserts, who had him buried under the name of his friend Wolfgang Gerhard. (Thus the hysteria about Mengele, complete with alleged Mengele-sightings, continued for six years after his death.)
Perhaps from the same fear of publicity, Mengele’s relatives never claimed his remains. The bones sat in a blue plastic bag at São Paulo’s Legal Medical Institute for more than 30 years (instead of being simply returned to the grave that Mengele’s friends had arranged for him) until Dr. Daniel Romero Muñoz, who had participated in identifying them in 1985, obtained permission to use the former SS physician’s bones as props for a course in forensic medicine.
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