Josef Mengele, the infamous Auschwitz death camp doctor who became a symbol of the Holocaust, slipped through American hands even though he was held in two U.S. POW camps for at least six weeks in 1945, Justice Department Nazi hunters acknowledged Thursday.
But their 197-page report on the investigation that confirmed Mengele's death in Brazil in 1979 said they found no evidence that U.S. intelligence agencies or other U.S. authorities knowingly gave assistance to the notorious "Angel of Death."
"It's very disappointing that he was not found alive and brought to the bar of justice, because he became in many ways a symbol and was associated with torture, degradation and mass murder," said Neal M. Sher, director of the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, the U.S. organization charged with locating and expelling former Nazis.
But in an interview, Sher noted that the report stated, "The many years (Mengele) consequently spent hiding in near-squalor in Brazil, tortured by his fear that Israeli agents were on the verge of capturing him, arguably provided a kind of rough, albeit inadequate, 'justice.' "
Mengele, a doctor at the Nazi concentration camp in Poland, was accused of performing "grotesque and pseudo-medical experiments on prisoners--children and adults alike. . . ." He was said to have participated in a process that resulted in the murder of as many as 1.5 million people, mainly Jews, in the camp's gas chambers.
Key elements of the report, including Mengele's flight to South America and his death by drowning in Brazil, had been disclosed by media and official investigations. But the report itself, buttressed by 442 pages of supporting documents, adds the government's imprimatur to the details surrounding the failure of authorities to capture one of the world's most wanted Nazi criminals.
The report was largely completed in the mid-1980s, but it was released only now after Germany and Israel officially accepted the conclusion that Mengele was dead.
Some U.S. officials involved in the investigation criticized the Justice Department's agreement to a request by the German and Israeli governments that the report be withheld as long as it was possible that genetic tests could still be made. Those tests, conducted early this year--almost seven years after the probe was completed--concluded "beyond reasonable doubt" that the remains uncovered from a Brazilian grave were Mengele's.
The investigation's results "were absolutely clear to us over six years ago," said Stanley E. Morris, who headed the U.S. Marshals Service when it played a key role in the search for Mengele. "It's frustrating that it took so long to get the report out when we all felt the conclusions were beyond a reasonable doubt."
In stating that Mengele was in U.S. custody in the summer of 1945, the report said, "It is possible that he was discharged under his own name even though he was, at the time of his release, listed as a war criminal on at least two wanted lists and was subjected to procedures designed to avoid the discharge of such individuals."
The report listed several factors it said contributed to the failure of authorities to hold and prosecute him.
Mengele, a captain in the dreaded SS, which was an automatic flag to war-criminal hunters, had joined a Wehrmacht, or regular army, military hospital unit six weeks before his capture and did not have the blood-type tattoo worn by most SS men.
Further, he was released at the high point of the POW discharge program, when his American captors were running out of food to feed their charges; the wanted lists including his name probably did not reach the unit that freed him in time.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said that Wiesenthal, a leading Nazi-hunter, "accepts the report's conclusions. Hopefully, it will give some measure of definitiveness of the Mengele case to his victims."
Ostrow reported from Washington, and Soble reported from Ventura.