‘Gerhard’ Was Anxious, Feared Jews : Man Thought to Be Mengele Called Shy
His neighbors knew him as “Mr. Peter,” a shy and anxious man who sometimes carried a gun and was always good for a loan. The children of his Austrian-born friends and protectors called him “uncle.” He was “afraid of being caught by the Jews.”
Amid continuing international skepticism but great local enthusiasm, authorities here Friday sought to determine if a drowning victim buried six years ago as Austrian mechanic Wolfgang Gerhard was in fact Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele, held responsible for the deaths of 300,000 to 400,000 Jews during World War II.
The detective work will be scientific, involving close examination of teeth and bones exhumed Thursday from a Brazilian grave, as well as handwriting analysis. Other aspects of the inquiry will be more psychological, centering around a phlegmatic immigrant couple from Austria named Wolfram and Liselotte Bossert.
The Bosserts sheltered the man, lied for him, tried to save his life, and then buried him in a grave no one ever visited.
Whatever its result, the Brazilian investigation is unlikely to resolve all of the controversy: The horror of Mengele’s crimes is so great and the 40-year search for him so persistent, that, for some, it would be cruel anti-climax to learn that he was claimed by the sea in 1979.
Police Chief’s View
“I know there are some who hope Mengele is dead and others who insist he is alive,” Sao Paulo Federal Police Chief Romeu Tuma said Friday. “We’re not going to allow ourselves to be influenced by political or ideological feelings. All I am interested in is proving who the bones belong to.”
In Israel, the head of the Israeli police war crimes unit said he does not believe that the remains are Mengele’s. “I don’t take these things seriously. I am convinced it’s not true,” Menachem Russek said.
A spokesman for the Israeli consul in Sao Paulo said his country is “anxiously awaiting” the results of the investigation but, “There have been rumors like this for the last 40 years. As far as we are concerned this is just another one.”
International groups hunting Mengele have said they have recent reports of him alive in neighboring Paraguay.
However, in New York, famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal said he was “less skeptical” than he had been Thursday about the reports from Brazil. He said he had changed his mind to some extent “after finding out a number of additional pieces of information.”
Neal Sher, head of a special U.S. Justice Department unit cooperating in the international search for Mengele, arrived in Sao Paulo on Friday. Three West German policemen are also here. It was information from West German colleagues that led the Brazilian police to exhume the remains of the man buried Feb. 8, 1979, as Wolfgang Gerhard.
On Friday, Police Chief Tuma said the West German officers had identified a picture found in the Bossert home as that of Mengele’s son, Rolf. Elsa de Oliveira, who worked as a maid for the man police believe was Mengele, independently identified Rolf Mengele’s picture as that of a visitor to the house where she worked, Tuma said.
Coroner Is Cautious
Sao Paulo Deputy Coroner Jose Antonio de Mello, who supervised the exhumation, spoke cautiously Friday of the likelihood of certain identification of the remains. He said that, given the condition of the remains, it might not be possible to make “a 100% positive identification.”
He said the forensic examination by Brazilian specialists will not begin until Monday and will take some time. Foreign experts will not participate, he said.
In such cases, forensic experts reassemble the bones with their natural spacing and are usually able to establish the height, sex, and approximate age of the person at the time of death. Mengele was 5-feet-10, according to international Nazi hunters who believe Mengele, Auschwitz’s “angel of death,” is still alive. In recent months they have offered a total reward of $2.375 million for information leading to his capture.
Meeting with reporters, the dapper Tuma, donned a pair of white gloves to display a book he said belonged to the man the police are almost convinced was Mengele. The book is called “Die Evolution der Organismen,” by Gerhard Heberer, (Gustav Fisher publishers, Stuttgart, 1959.)
With the book, police found about 15 sheets of note-sized paper filled with bold handwriting in black fountain pen ink. All the writing was in German except for one page, which was in Portuguese. Tuma said that the United States and West Germany are providing samples of Mengele’s handwriting for comparison.
Dental Records Arrive
According to the Sao Paulo police chief, Mengele’s dental records, thought to have been the work of a dentist employed by the German SS in 1938, have already arrived from West Germany. The jaws of the skull exhumed Thursday contained seven natural teeth, one of them gold-filled, as well as false teeth. Police believe the false teeth were fitted in the early 1970s by a Brazilian dentist whom they are attempting to locate, local newspapers reported.
Friday afternoon, police began detailed conversations with the Bosserts, who swear that Gerhard was Mengele. Tuma said that he is anxious to talk personally with the Bosserts, whose name was first erroneously reported to be spelled Bissert.
In early conversations, Tuma said, Wolfram Bossert, who was a 19-year-old German army corporal when World War II ended in 1945, appeared to be eager to talk but then would be silenced by his wife in a storm of German.
By Tuma’s account, as the coffin was being opened Thursday, Liselotte Bossert, 57, asked the medical examiner to look at the position of the arms before he touched the bones.
At his request, she said, Mengele was not buried with his arms crossed atop his chest, as is customary in Brazil, but at attention, with his arms at his side, in SS tradition. De Mello, the deputy coroner, said that the skeleton’s arms were at its sides.
In extraordinary depositions to police June 5, obtained Friday by The Times, the Bosserts’ matter-of-factly recounted their relationship with the man they say they came to accept and to cherish as Josef Mengele.
“Our children (boys now aged 20 and 18) called him ‘Uncle,’ ” said Wolfram Bossert. “He never talked of the war but he was apprehensive and frightened; afraid of being caught by the Jews.”
At one point in her signed page-and-a-half deposition, Liselotte Bossert tells of how, at the burial in 1979, she feigned a nervous attack to protect Mengele’s identity.
“The cemetery administrator wanted to open the coffin to see Wolfgang Gerhard, whom he knew. I stopped him so he would not learn of the switch,” she said.
In his deposition, Wolfram Bossert says that he was born in Bruck, Austria, Oct. 17, 1925, and came to Brazil in 1952, working in the maintenance departments of metallurgical and paper factories and eventually becoming a naturalized Brazilian citizen.
Bossert says the real Wolfgang Gerhard introduced Mengele to him as Peter Gerhard in 1970. Only later did Bossert learn the man’s true identity, he affirmed. In 1975, he said, Gerhard, a mechanic, retired and returned to Austria.
A Regular Visitor
“He left his documents to allow Mengele to change his identity,” Bossert told police.
The Bosserts testified that when they first were introduced to Mengele, he was living with a “Nordic” family (police say the family is of Hungarian origin) in the city of Caierias in Sao Paulo state. As Peter Gerhard, he became a regular visitor to the Bossert home.
“We would listen to German and classical music and he would stay the night,” Liselotte Bossert said in her deposition.
According to her husband’s sworn statement, “Mengele got money regularly from relatives in Guenzburg in Germany.”
Bossert said that Mengele “was lonely, with few people to talk to.” He was known as “Pedro,” Bossert told police, “but I thought he had documents of various identities.”
In 1977, according to the Bosserts, Mengele moved--it is not clear whether as a guest or a tenant--to a house they owned at Estrada Alvarenga 5555 in the town of Eldorado Paulista, southwest of this industrial center.
Neighbors in the town knew him politely as “Seu Pedro,” or Mr. Peter. The neighbors told Brazilian reporters that “Seu Pedro” was a man of uncertain health who lived quietly but also had money that he was willing to lend to those in need among his neighbors.
“He spoke with a heavy accent and talked often of Europe, although he never said where exactly he was from. Sometimes he wore a pistol in a holster on his belt,” neighbor Jaime Martins dos Santos told the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.
Death in Austria
According to Brazilian police, the real Wolfgang Gerhard died in Austria in a 1978 auto accident and was buried there.
In 1979, the Bossert couple told police, Mengele joined the family for a two-day outing at the beach of Bertioga in Sao Paulo state. He had a stroke there while swimming and drowned, Bossert told police, adding that he himself nearly drowned trying to save Mengele.
On Feb. 8, 1979, according to the Bosserts, the world’s most wanted war criminal was buried as Wolfgang Gerhard in grave 321TPV in Our Lady of the Rosary cemetery in the town of Embu.
Police say they expect that more detailed interrogation will expand the Bosserts’ testimony and resolve minor inconsistencies. Police believe that Rolf Mengele visited his father in 1978 after the elder Mengele had suffered an earlier stroke. It may have been on that occasion that the maid now says she saw Rolf Mengele.
Tuma said Rolf Mengele is also thought to have returned to Brazil in 1979 after his father’s death and to have taken diaries, papers and other personal effects back to Germany with him.
Investigation in Bavaria
Meanwhile, West German prosecutors said Friday that boasts by a former employee of the Mengele family firm that he had helped arrange financial support for the notorious Nazi war criminal led to the new evidence that culminated in Thursday’s exhumation.
A statement issued by the Frankfurt public prosecutor’s office said that investigators were sent to the former employee’s home in the Bavarian town of Guenzburg, 70 miles west of Munich, on May 31 after reviewing a witness’s statement that referred to the boasts.
The statement identified the employee only as a former executive of the Mengele family agricultural equipment firm based in Guenzburg. The company, called Karl Mengele and Sons, is named after Mengele’s brother and is now owned by Josef Mengele’s two nephews.
A prosecutor said that Mengele’s family has refused to cooperate with the present investigation. In addition to the two nephews in Guenzburg, Mengele’s wife lives in Italy and a brother, Wolf, lives in Freiburg, West Germany.
Times staff writer Tyler Marshall in Bonn contributed to this story.