U.S. Secrecy Keeps Cloud of Doubt Over Mengele Death

Times Staff Writer

Nearly four years after remains unearthed from a Brazilian cemetery were identified as those of Dr. Josef Mengele, the notorious Auschwitz death camp doctor, the U.S. government refuses to close its books and make public its final report on the case.

The Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations has rejected requests by a Holocaust survivors group and by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles to release the lengthy report under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

“I’m disappointed,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center, who believes the remains are those of Mengele. “Keeping the report a secret perpetuates a conspiracy theory.”

Indeed, fueled in part by government secrecy, theories persist that Mengele may still be alive.


Those who subscribe to this view say the bones dug up from a cemetery near Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1985 and examined by six renowned forensic experts were not those of Mengele after all, but were part of an elaborate hoax.

The experts, however, insist that the evidence is clear: Mengele died in 1979 and those are his bones.

Among those who dispute the experts are:

-- Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who once agreed with the experts but who now says, “I see the whole matter of Mengele in absolutely another light. . . . It was too perfect.”


-- Menachem Russek, chief Nazi war crimes investigator for the Israeli government, who reportedly has written a 60-page memorandum contending that the experts who examined the remains were misled by a sophisticated sleight-of-hand. Like the United States, the Israeli government has kept its casebook on Mengele open and has refused to make its report public.

Wiesenthal, in public, and Russek, in private, point to a meeting that is said to have taken place in Bavaria in 1982 at the home of Dr. Hans Munch, a Mengele associate at Auschwitz. Present were Mengele’s longtime friend and courier, Hans Sedlmeier, and a Mengele nephew, Dieter Mengele.

At the gathering--which occurred three years after Mengele’s family said he had died--Sedlmeier asked Munch what would happen if Mengele turned himself in to authorities, according to an intelligence source account of the meeting provided to the United States, Israel and West Germany.

“That does not fit into the logical conclusions” about Mengele’s reported death, said Hans-Eberhard Klein, who heads the Bonn government’s investigation of the case. Klein said Munch and Sedlmeier were questioned about the meeting, but he declined further comment.

West Germany, however, is eager to resolve the matter. In a telephone interview from his Frankfurt office, Klein told The Times that he has invited Russek and Neal Sher, head of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, to meet with him in Frankfurt the week of March 20 in an effort to sort out the Mengele controversy.

Klein also disclosed that he is considering trying to use a new DNA genetic “fingerprinting” test to determine if the skeleton is Mengele’s.

Sample of Cells

The new technique relies on the fact that everyone’s DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the biologic makeup of genes, is unique. To make a “fingerprint,” scientists take a sample of cells from an organism--a single hair or a bone--and then extract the DNA for analysis.


Klein talked of taking “bones, parts of teeth or hair roots,” taken from the remains disinterred in Brazil and now in the hands of German forensic experts, and analyzing them with a view toward determining if genetic tests can be performed.

Although he said he has “no great doubt” that Mengele is dead, Klein said that if Simon Wiesenthal and the Israelis “have serious doubts, then I will investigate them.”

The OSI’s Sher, who also believes that Mengele died in Brazil, declined to discuss in any detail why he will not close the case and make public his report, except to suggest that diplomatic considerations are among his reasons. He would not elaborate. In the meantime, the ghost of Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death,” lives on.

Born in Bavaria

Born in 1911 in the small Bavarian community of Gunzburg, Mengele was the eldest of three sons of Karl and Walburga Mengele. His father prospered in the farm machinery business and, today, Karl Mengele & Sons is the town’s primary employer and one of West Germany’s largest firms.

After studying philosophy at Munich University, Mengele went to Frankfurt where he studied medicine. Attracted to Adolf Hitler’s racial purity theories, he joined the Nazi party and, at 22, was on the staff of the Institute of Hereditary Biology and Race Research.

According to the records of the Wiesenthal Center, in 1939 Mengele joined the Waffen SS, the military arm of the Schutzstaffel, which had been formed as Hitler’s personal bodyguard. In 1943, he was promoted to captain and appointed chief medical officer at the Auschwitz prisoner camp in southern Poland.

By any historical measure, Auschwitz was a ghastly killing ground. Although exact numbers will never be available, about 4 million men, women and children--the vast majority Jews--were systematically exterminated at the camp through gassing, shooting, lethal injections and disease. Piles of corpses were burned daily in the camp’s crematoria.


It was Mengele, according to survivor accounts, who often met the cattle car-like trains filled with prisoners. Standing at attention and immaculately dressed in his SS uniform, he would wait on Auschwitz’s train ramp as the cars unloaded and, with a flick of his index finger to the right or left, determined who would live and who would die.

Twins a Passion

Twins, however, were another matter--and Mengele’s passion. Survivors recall him yelling, “Zwillinge, zwillinge” (“twins, twins”), as he sought to cull young twins from their mothers. It was on these twins that Mengele performed some of his most horrific experiments in the name of genetic engineering in his quest to produce a super Aryan race.

In the prison camp’s archives, there are accounts of children being strapped to operating tables while Mengele probed their inner organs, injected their bodies with chemicals and pierced their eyes with dyes in an attempt to change their color. Survivors recall times when he treated them kindly, as if they were his own children, but they say there was no telling when he would execute a twin on the spot with the same emotion as swatting a fly.

After the war, he was briefly in American hands but was released, a subject that reportedly takes up part of the still-secret U.S. report. Mengele’s postwar odyssey ultimately took him to several South American countries, including Argentina, Paraguay and, finally, Brazil. It was in the Sao Paulo area, where, for about 25 years, he lived under an assumed name in the secret care of two European-born couples--Wolfram and Liselotte Bossert and Gitta and Geza Stammer.

By 1985, Mengele’s memory burned only in the minds of death camp survivors and a handful of Nazi-hunters. But on Jan. 27 of that year, he was suddenly thrust into prominence as Auschwitz’s survivors roamed the camp’s frozen, wind-swept ground, marking the 40th anniversary of its liberation by the Soviet army.

As the still-standing wooden watch towers, the red-brick barracks, the underground torture cells, the gas chambers and the crematoria came into view on television screens around the world, a crescendo of public opinion demanded: “Where is Mengele? Why hasn’t he been arrested?”

The following month, U.S. Atty. Gen. William French Smith ordered the Justice Department to make a determined effort to find Mengele. Leading the search was Sher’s Office of Special Investigations. The bounty for capturing Mengele jumped to several million dollars with new reward money offered by West Germany, Israel and private donors, such as the Wiesenthal Center.

Then, on May 31, 1985, a surprise raid by West German police on the Gunzburg home of Hans Sedlmeier uncovered letters and documents leading authorities to the Bosserts and the Stammers in Brazil.

The Bosserts led Brazilian police to Grave 321 at the Embu Cemetery near Sao Paulo, declaring that Mengele had drowned at a nearby beach on Feb. 7, 1979. To cover his identity, investigators were told, Mengele had been buried under the name of Wolfgang Gerhard, a Nazi who had befriended him and who died in Austria in 1978.

U.S., Brazilian and West German experts proceeded to authenticate the skeleton along with photographs and handwriting samples found at Mengele’s Brazilian hideaways. The chain of evidence, in their opinion, was complete. In a June, 6, 1985, report, they declared:

” . . . The exhumed remains are definitely not those of Wolfgang Gerhard. It is further our opinion that this skeleton is that of Josef Mengele within a reasonable scientific certainty.”

The document was signed by three consultants hired by the Justice Department: Ali Z. Hameli, chief medical examiner for the state of Delaware; Ellis R. Kerley, now-retired anthropology professor at the University of Maryland, and Dr. Lowell J. Levine, forensic odontology consultant for the New York State Police.

Also signing were three experts hired by the Wiesenthal Center: Dr. John J. Fitzpatrick, chairman of the radiology division at Cook County Hospital in Chicago; Dr. Leslie Lukash, chief medical examiner of Nassau County, N.Y.; and Clyde Collins Snow, forensic anthropology consultant to the Oklahoma state medical examiner’s office.

In recent interviews with The Times, all six said they were as sure today as they were in June, 1985, when they told journalists that the skeleton was Mengele’s.

“Scientifically,” Hameli said, “it couldn’t have been” a hoax. “As far as I am concerned, Mengele is dead.”

Indeed, all six expressed surprise when informed that the Justice Department had not closed the case.

“It seems to me,” Snow said, “unless there’s something new, it’s time for someone to come to a conclusion.”

Among their decisive points in identifying Mengele was a photographic comparison in which pictures of the exhumed skull were matched on a video terminal to known photos of Mengele from his Nazi SS file, compiled in 1938.

Also matched was a comparison by West German experts of features of Mengele’s SS photos and what was believed to be Mengele’s picture on a 1956 passport application in Argentina and a picture Wolfram Bossert had taken of the man who lived in his house between 1975 and 1979.

Additionally, a 30-page report on the skeletal remains underscored that although 29 bones were missing (the normal human skeleton has 206 bones), there were still too many similarities to Mengele’s physical characteristics for the remains to be someone else’s.

For example, according to the report, Mengele’s records showed that he stood 5-feet 8 1/2-inches tall, or 174 centimeters, when measured in October, 1938. Height calculations from the skeleton performed by Snow and Kerley ranged between 167.5 centimeters to 179.4 centimeters, with an estimate of 173.5 centimeters.

Determination of Age

A bone analysis to determine age, conducted by Kerley, resulted in “a 86.7% probability that the age of this individual at death was between 64.25 and 74.25 years and that the most probable age at death was 69.25 years,” according to a copy of the report in the Wiesenthal Center archives. When he reportedly drowned, Mengele would have been nearly 68.

Examination of the skull, which had only 10 remaining teeth, showed that the dead man had a wide gap between his upper front teeth before their removal--similar to a gap that was shown clearly in a 1938 SS photo of a smiling Mengele.

For OSI’s Sher, though, there was still ground to be covered.

Two months after the Embu Cemetery findings, he told a congressional panel that based on the experts’ conclusions, “I am convinced” the remains are Mengele’s. But, privately, he knew there were doubts--especially in Israel, a nation with a substantial population of death camp survivors who had an emotional stake in the Mengele case.

For that reason, Sher said, he believed that if Mengele’s dental X-rays could somehow be recovered, they would be as good as fingerprints and would be final proof that the Embu remains were indeed those of the death camp doctor.

As forensic odontology consultant Levine recalled, the problem was that “the SS dental record was not sufficiently specific to allow positive identification” of the remains. “It just showed what teeth were filled” and contained no X-rays.

Diplomat’s Investigation

That is when Stephen Dachi, the U.S. consul general in Sao Paulo in 1985 and a dental expert in his own right, came into the picture. After the experts had packed their bags and left Sao Paulo, Sher turned to Dachi and asked him to further investigate the case.

Eventually, in what was purported to be one of Mengele’s diaries, Dachi discovered that the writer had told of receiving root canal and upper molar work by a Brazilian dentist in a town next to Sao Paulo in 1978.

The discovery excited Dachi because handwriting experts had already authenticated the Mengele diary notes. Ultimately, Dachi said, “that was the key to the whole question"--the vital link to the X-rays. “We were 100% sure the writing in the diary was Mengele’s,” he said.

Armed with this information, Dachi located the Brazilian dentist, who had a dental chart belonging to a Pedro Hochbichler, a Mengele alias. Hochbichler had been referred to a nearby dentist and his X-rays turned up in that dentist’s files.

Odontology consultant Levine, in a telephone interview from his office in New York State Police headquarters in Albany, said the X-rays “matched up perfectly” with dental X-rays he had taken of the skull found at Embu. “They matched up with the person named Wolfgang Gerhard,” the name under which Mengele had been buried, he said.

If the remains exhumed at Embu were part of a hoax, Levine concluded, a Mengele “clone” was in the grave.

But troubling the critics--and evidently irksome to Sher--are other events linked to Mengele’s medical history.

In 1986, Sher sent a Smithsonian Institution anthropologist, Donald J. Ortner, to Brazil to examine the exhumed remains for evidence of osteomyelitis, a bone disease from which Mengele suffered as a teen-ager, according to Waffen SS records.

Because there was no antibiotic to combat the disease at that time, Ortner knew that osteomyelitis could leave bone scars. But Ortner could not find an obvious trace of the infection. “The clear evidence wasn’t there,” he recently recalled.

Until this day, the Mengele family of Gunzburg has never asked Brazil for the remains, only serving to further fuel suspicions of the skeptics.

Group of Survivors

One of these doubters, Eva Mozes Kor, of Terre Haute, Ind., an Auschwitz survivor who, as a twin, was one of Mengele’s guinea pigs, has devoted much of her life to searching for the Auschwitz doctor.

In 1984, Kor formed a group called CANDLES--Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors--consisting of twins who had been Mengele’s subjects.

In 1987, she filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking OSI’s final Mengele report. Last fall, the Justice Department responded:

No Report Issued

“To date, the United States has not issued a forensic report which either accepts or rejects the premise that the body located in Brazil was that of Mengele. . . . The Department has reached no final determination with respect to Mengele. . . . “

For his part, Simon Wiesenthal says he has information about “a new possible man in a South American country. They say this is Mengele.” He would not elaborate.

The OSI’s Sher said he is proud of the way his office conducted itself during the Mengele hunt. “This office has earned a reputation all over the world as being professional and aggressive in pursuing Nazis,” he said. “There’s no person more eager to get his hands on a live Josef Mengele than me.”

But given the preponderance of evidence declaring that Mengele is dead, he said, “I don’t think it’s fair to survivors . . . to inflict on them false hope. . . . That would be cruel.”

Asked about Wiesenthal’s new hoax theory, Rabbi Hier said he respects the Nazi-hunter’s position--but firmly believes that he is wrong. “Simon is very much his own man,” Hier said. “He’s been that way for 45 years.”

Nothing has changed, Hier underscored in an interview. “There has not been developed a single solid lead since the reported death (of Mengele) by any authority in the world,” he said. “I think that would be the most decisive reason to conclude (the case).”

As for the position of some death camp survivors who contend that the wool was artfully pulled over the world’s eyes, Hier said:

“I find it difficult to accept what CANDLES is saying. . . . (But) maybe they are entitled to that hope. They live with these dreams. Mengele is alive in them. The Mengele who appears every night in their dreams, he has become a living person even if the scientists tell us he’s dead.”

Times staff writer Robert E. Dallos, in New York, and researcher Reane Oppl, in Bonn, contributed to this story.