Saturday, January 29, 2011

Embu

A while back, Dan Waddell wrote on Murder is Everywhere:


Places bear the effect of what has gone on before, even if that imprint exists only in people’s minds. 

He was referring to a house, in London, where a number of murders had occurred.

But they called to my mind a town, in Brazil, where one of the most infamous murderers of the twentieth century was buried.



The town is Embu.
It’s in the State of São Paulo about thirty kilometers from the capital.


During my first visit, back in 1972, or thereabouts, I was immediately struck by Embu's colonial charm. 


And by the fact that it had attracted so many painters and sculptors.
I came to live in the neighboring town of Carapicuiba, and soon became a habitué of Embu’s Sunday art fair.


For a dozen years or so, if someone asked me about Embu, I’d think of the things that these images suggest: art, charm, beauty.
 
These days. I think of Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death”.
Here’s a picture of Mengele, taken at about the time I first visited Embu:


And, here, one shot in 1944. when he was 33 years old.


Josef Mengele  lived his last years not far from Embu; he was buried there under a false name; and had the Brazilian Federal Police not discovered his last hiding place, his bones would be lying there still. I was ignorant of all of this until the news of his exhumation appeared in the newspapers. But I knew Mengele’s name and was familiar with his history. 


I’d also read Ira Levin’s novel, The Boys from Brazil, and seen the film with Gregory Peck, both released before his death. (How weird is that? There you are, a fugitive war criminal, and Gregory Peck is playing you in a movie. Don’t tell me Mengele didn’t go to see it.) 

Anyway, there I was, close to it all. I went over to that grave to have a look. And, like Dan, being in a place where history happened, set me to musing. 
The first thing that struck me was how different Mengele’s youth had been from that of so many other Nazis. He was born to wealth and privilege. As a youth, he was popular and well-liked. He made people laugh. They nicknamed him Beppo, drawing it from the name of a popular circus clown. He was intelligent and an intellectual. He achieved doctorates in two disciplines from two different universities. He was a decorated war hero and served with distinction on the Eastern front. 
And then he went to Auschwitz and spent twenty one months there. Only twenty-one months, but it was enough time for him to betray all of his early promise, sink to the depths of degradation, and perform unspeakable horrors. 
After the war he fled, first to Southern Germany, then to South America. When the war ended he was 34. When he died, he was 68.
He was on the run for half his lifetime. 
His son, Rolf, visited him in Brazil not long before the end. Mengele was in no way repentant for what he’d done and told him, “Personally, I never harmed anyone in my entire life.” 
Hundreds survived to testify that he did.
            
Leighton - Saturday

10 comments:

Jean Henry Mead said...

A fascinating, bizare story. I wonder how many Nazi war criminals fled to South America and how many of the sociopaths were apprehended.

Jean Henry Mead said...

A fascinating, bizare story. I wonder how many Nazi war criminals fled to South America and how many of the sociopaths were apprehended.

Jaden Terrell said...

His comment to his son is chilling. I wonder if he somehow convinced himself that it was true, or if he just didn't want his son to understand what a monster he became.

Book Bird Dog said...

Living "la vida loca" in Brazil. How fortunate for him.

Leighton Gage said...

Book Bird Dog,
Not much of La Vida Loca (that's Spanish, by the way, not Portuguese - and we don't use the expression).
It's not much of a comfort, but interesting to know, that Mengele lived in fear of capture. He had a nervous habit of gnawing at his moustache, and had to go to the hospital several times to have hairballs removed from his stomach.

Leighton Gage said...

Jean,
Many, many, war criminals fled to South America, but most of them wound up in places like Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru. Not surprising because the governments in all of those countries had some degree of sympathy for them.
Not so, Brazil.
Brazil was the only country in South America to fight alongside the allies in World War II - and had troops under the command of the American general Mark Clark whom he praised for their participation in many battles in Italy, one of which was Monte Cassino.
My wife's uncle was one of them.
He hated the Nazis- as do most Brazilians.

Leighton Gage said...

Jaden,
He and his son Rolf never got along.
And his son didn't understand that comment either.
He found his father's attitudes and actions detestable.
Not enough, apparently, to turn him in = which most folks find unforgiveable.
He did, however, contribute a sample of his DNA to prove, once and for all, that the body in the grave was that of his father.
Who, by the way, had been dead for several years before the Brazilian Federal Police finally discovered the fact - and dug him up.
His bones are still in a drawer, at the Instituto Medico-legal in São Paulo.
For a bit more information, folks can check out the author's notes in my book, "Buried Strangers".

Earl Staggs said...

I get a chill every time I see Mengele's name, equalled only by the one I get when I see the name Hitler. I'm not Jewish, but that doesn't matter. I'm human.

Carola said...

My grandparents died at Auschwitz. Mengele is not a name I'll ever forget. But I'm glad he lived in fear (I hope that's true) rather than being hanged.

Incidentally, many known Nazis were invited to come to the US to help build the nuclear program.

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