facebook search twitter close-envelope printer web-link close
read on

‘With kind regard, from Mengele’… Letters from an ageing Nazi

Essay | 15 minute read
In hiding after his part in the holocaust, the SS doctor wrote letters and poetry from Brazil. Jo Glanville studies his archive and reflects on the man, his writing and her own Jewish family history

I would not have chosen to research the notorious SS doctor Josef Mengele. If anyone had asked me a year ago about my future plans, I would certainly not have replied: Nazis, that’s the subject missing from my life. But then, last autumn, the director of a Holocaust institute in Germany unexpectedly offered me the chance to research an archive of letters, which had recently been given to his centre at Giessen University: correspondence written by the Nazi war criminal in the last decade of his life when he was in hiding in Brazil. The police in São Paulo had seized the letters in 1985, when Mengele’s grave had first been discovered. Mengele had lived out his last years alone. He was drowned at sea in 1979 and was buried under the name of his main benefactor and protector in Brazil, an Austrian Nazi-sympathiser called Wolfgang Gerhard. His death remained a secret until the West German police raided the home of a Mengele family stalwart in Günzburg, following a tip off. The correspondence, which had been found at the home of a couple in São Paulo who had protected Mengele, remained in the Brazilian police archives for the next nineteen years, until it was reportedly discovered during an audit in 2004. The newspaper Folha de S. Paulo authenticated the documents and ran a series of exclusive reports and extracts.

It was not an offer that I felt it was possible to refuse, despite considerable obstacles: the letters were copies of the originals and their provenance would need to be verified, as well as their ownership. Copyright of the letters would be likely to lie not only with Mengele’s family, but with the family of his correspondent, Wolfgang Gerhard. Two years ago, Joseph Goebbels’ estate had successfully sued Random House in Germany for royalties, after the historian Peter Longerich had quoted from Goebbels’ diaries in his biography of Hitler’s propaganda minister. Random House’s lawyer had unsuccessfully argued for the suspension of copyright on legal and moral grounds. Despite the abiding public interest in the Second World War and the Holocaust, intellectual property laws still prevailed.

Mengele in Brazil, 1970s (second left)

This Mengele archive represented a very small part of his extensive letters and writings. Would there be enough historic interest in the content? John Ware and Gerald Posner had access to more than 5,000 pages of the Nazi’s writing when they wrote their compelling and exhaustively researched biography of Mengele more than thirty years ago. A note at the bottom of a facsimile of a diary extract in their book records that the writings ‘constitute the largest literary cache left by a Nazi war criminal’. Since then, much of the archive has been sold to private buyers. There have also been reports that the originals of the Brazilian archive have been sold at auction. It would certainly be worth assessing the documents at Giessen, not least since relatively little appeared to be available for research.

But there was also the question of whether I had the stomach for it. Mengele occupies a particular position of horror in the history of Nazi atrocity: a doctor who performed experiments on inmates, using Auschwitz as a research laboratory to advance racist Nazi ideology. Accounts from survivors and a West German indictment issued in 1981 detail horrifying evidence of his inhumane methods and the extreme suffering to which he subjected individuals, including children. He also presided over many of the selections that took place at the camp, deciding who would be sent to the gas chamber. He has been identified in a photograph of the selection ramp in front of two columns of men and women, a cigarette in his hand, appearing nonchalant alongside his fellow SS officers. All, in fact, look self-consciously relaxed, as if posing for the camera, while row upon row of inmates, still dressed in the hats and coats of their ordinary lives, extend out of view. I have never forgotten a television documentary which included an interview with a man who had survived Mengele as a child: his twin was selected for the experiment, while he was the ‘control’. Every night, he told the interviewer with devastating candour, he thanked God that it was his sibling and not he who had been chosen.

The archive includes poems, writings and diary extracts, as well as letters. When I told a young Austrian friend about the poems, she commented drily, ‘How very Germanic.’ Men of that generation and class, she told me, would all have read Schiller, Goethe and Rilke, known their work by heart and aspired to write their own poetry on their days off. Mengele’s writings showed him to be typical of that Nazi cliché: an educated man who was capable of acts of horrific inhumanity, who participated in one of the greatest crimes ever committed, and yet was still somehow able to consider himself a sensitive, artistic soul. His poems range from adolescent musings on nature, to self-pitying verses on the wretchedness of life and rank Nazi ideology. One poem, written in 1970, mourns the loss of the Reich. The poems are typed, with corrections in Mengele’s handwriting. It is fascinating to witness the thinking, chilling to see the fascism fossilised twenty-five years after the war, and deeply discomfiting to stand so close to the man.

My mother’s cousin, Theo, was deported to Auschwitz at the age of twenty-two in 1943. She was a year younger and remembered him as a brilliant, tormented boy from her childhood in Weimar Germany – he was junior chess champion of Berlin and the only child of very wealthy Jewish parents. My mother vividly recalled the luxury of his family life – the Bauhaus home in Charlottenburg, his mother Mea’s wardrobes full of new clothes barely worn, including a frock with pony-skin lapels, the glorious scent of her expensive perfume, the chauffeur called Decembre, the huge American saloon cars, the weekend home in Kladow on the Wannsee. Theo’s family fled to Paris when Hitler came to power, where he studied at the Sorbonne. When the Nazis invaded, the Gestapo murdered Theo’s father in prison and he disappeared. His mother saw him by chance in Marseille when she was escaping from France, but Theo cut her dead in the street. It was the last time she saw him. The scene of their last encounter has always been frozen in my mind, like a still from a film. For my mother, the rise of Hitler coincided with the break-up of her parents’ marriage – she moved to London with her English mother, leaving her German–Jewish father behind (he was later interned on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien). A deep attachment to Berlin and a sense of exile never left her.

Mengele’s diaries, written between 1960 to 1975

As I grew up, the story of this tragic past and the romantic loss of an idyll became part of family mythology. I read Primo Levi, but was much more interested in European–Jewish history that pre-dated the Second World War, and also in the history of Israel and Palestine. I did not wish to read widely or deeply about the Holocaust. I am not sure if that is because of the horror of the subject or if it was a small and ungenerous rebellion against my mother’s repeated rehearsal of her story. Then, nearly twenty years ago, much like the invitation to research Mengele, a publisher told me about an archive of letters written by British soldiers who had liberated Belsen concentration camp, which resulted in a documentary for BBC Radio 4 and a series of articles. A commission followed to write about Alois Brunner’s trial in absentia, he was one of the last significant Nazi war criminals then thought to be alive, and had been dispatched by Eichmann to speed up the deportation of the Jews from France. And then another documentary, this time about Drancy, a housing estate in Paris that was fenced off with barbed wire and became a transit camp in 1942: my mother’s cousin Theo was among the thousands of Jews deported by Brunner from Drancy to Auschwitz. In the course of my research, I found the documents of Theo’s transport – convoy 59, the fifth transport to Auschwitz authorised by Brunner. At the Jewish archive in the Marais, a librarian searched the records for me and discovered a copy of Theo’s last known address on a Red Cross list – Place de l’Église, Marseille. So it had, without doubt, been Theo whom his mother had seen on the street that day – I had often wondered whether his mother, who must have been in a state of extreme distress, had been mistaken.

When one of my colleagues at the BBC jokingly nicknamed me the genocide correspondent, I began to reconsider my new interest in the Holocaust and wonder whether I was perhaps drawn to the darkness of the subject. At the same time, I also made a documentary about the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila in Beirut in 1982, pursuing a parallel interest in the history of Palestine. Had I developed an unhealthy attraction to stories of the most extreme inhumanity? I asked myself similar questions when I left journalism to work in human rights. I often used to discuss with my colleagues the adrenaline rush that would come when we heard about a new case of imprisonment, prosecution or worse, giving us the energy to take action, but it was disturbingly close to a sensation of excitement.  Perhaps my motives were irrelevant, since the work was clearly necessary: whether researching historic human rights abuse or campaigning for current cases. But the intellectual thrill that can accompany investigating or campaigning against the darkest events, alongside a repulsion at the atrocities, continued to disturb me.

So when Sascha Feuchert, founding director of the Arbeitsstelle Holocaustliteratur at Giessen University, invited me to research the Mengele archive, my initial response was mixed: excited as a journalist to be offered such a fascinating story; highly flattered to be considered suitable for the role; anxious about whether I could endure entering that world again. I asked Sascha whether he was ever troubled by his own choice to specialise in Holocaust literature. He told me about a profile in which a journalist had mentioned his interest in crime fiction – ‘obviously Feuchert cannot live without dead people’ – and added that he had always focused on modern German literature as well, so his area of expertise is not confined to the Holocaust. The Arbeitsstelle Holocaustliteratur is the only institute of its kind in Germany. Most of the researchers and academics are young, the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of Germans who lived under the Nazi regime. When I met them on my first visit to the university last April, I was tempted to pose the same question about their decision to research the Holocaust, but worried that it might be patronising or undermining of their professionalism. I found their commitment profoundly moving. ‘It’s not only intellectual or moral,’ said Sascha, speaking about his team’s motivation, ‘it’s emotional. These are young people who want to know what they inherited, they want to know where they came from.’ With the election of the far-right party Alternative for Germany to the Bundestag in September, the institute’s work has a new relevance. A xenophobic, nationalist party, one of the AfD’s politicians created an outcry earlier this year when he declared that Germany should stop atoning for the past and described a major memorial in Berlin dedicated to the Jews of Europe as ‘a monument of shame’.

Giessen was badly bombed during the war – 75 per cent of the town was destroyed. It was a thirty-minute journey from Hitler’s headquarters, Adlerhorst, during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944–45 and an important transport hub during the war. Giessen was also, Sascha told me as we drove through the town, the site of a psychiatric unit for SS officers who had become mentally ill. Five thousand SS officers were treated at the unit, a little-known fact that inevitably invites a Nazi definition of Catch 22: you must be insane to join the SS, but if you sought to leave on the grounds of mental illness, then that would surely be evidence of sanity. Sascha had made his reputation as lead academic editor of ‘The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto’, a remarkable contemporary record of daily life. The creators of the chronicle, forced to live in the Polish ghetto under Nazi occupation, treated it like a newspaper: if they discovered that they had made a mistake, they would note the correction the following day, rather than correcting the original account. A room at Giessen’s university library is dedicated to the main editor of the chronicle, the journalist and author Oskar Singer. Debonair, urbane, attractive, he gazes from a large black and white photograph, a cigarette in his mouth. He did not survive the war. This is the room in which I was to work on the Mengele archive with Jeanne Flaum, a PhD student at the Arbeitsstelle. Behind us, on the bookshelf, were volumes that had belonged to the rabbi of Giessen, which had been confiscated by the Nazis. When I stood close to look at them, there was a powerful smell of musty paper and leather, a poignant evocation of other rooms and other lives. I could sense the books at my back, an almost tangible presence, as we began working our way through the Mengele letters.

Mengele, left (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The correspondence between Mengele and his protector Wolfgang Gerhard reveals a mutually dependent relationship. It was Gerhard who found Mengele sanctuary in Brazil following the kidnap of Adolf Eichmann in 1960: Mengele had been living in Paraguay, but no longer felt safe there. Both Mossad and West Germany were actively looking for Mengele in the early sixties. Mossad in fact came incredibly close to finding him; they were tipped off about Gerhard and followed him. Israeli intelligence, however, chose not to pursue the lead: other priorities, including a new threat from Egypt where President Nasser was test launching rockets built by former Nazis, resulted in the decision not to continue the hunt.

Almost all of Mengele’s letters to Gerhard are typewritten and usually signed ‘Dein’ (‘yours’), next to a handwritten date. Gerhard’s letters are mostly handwritten and signed ‘Wolf’. Gerhard, who had returned to Austria, wrote to Mengele frequently about the poor physical health of his wife and son, turning to him as an important source of medical advice and support. The choice of Mengele for a second opinion reads like the darkest parody: surely, of all the doctors in history, he is the one you would be least likely to choose to treat your nearest and dearest. Since Gerhard reportedly used to decorate his Christmas tree with a swastika, named his son Adolf and held extreme racist views, he was unlikely to appreciate the grim irony in his choice. Mengele and his family gave Gerhard significant financial assistance in the medical treatment of his wife and son – a price they were prepared to pay for Gerhard’s protection, which included the use of his identity card. Gerhard continued to be a benefactor to Mengele as well. In passages of particular interest, he wrote with a plan to bring Mengele to Austria or a neighbouring country to start a new life, a proposal of which he clearly needed convincing. Like a Nazi agony aunt, Gerhard told Mengele that he needed to make changes in his life, and that only he was capable of making it happen. Mengele’s loneliness, wrote Gerhard, would be the spur to change his situation. (Mengele’s isolation and self-pity are a leitmotif in the correspondence – for most of his time in Brazil he was sheltered by a Hungarian couple, but lived the last years of his life alone.)

It is astonishing to read such an open exchange between a major Nazi war criminal and his protector, conducted through the postal service. While some of the references, and all the names, are coded or kept obscure, the two men apparently had minimal fears that their correspondence might be intercepted. It is also extraordinary that Gerhard believed it would be possible for Mengele to return to Europe. During the period of their correspondence, thirty years after the war, there was a sense of remarkable complacency. While the Nazi hunters had not given up, any effective search for Mengele based on new intelligence had failed since Mossad had ceased its pursuit. It was not until the eighties that the US, Israel and West Germany renewed significant efforts to find Mengele – and by that time he was dead.

Mengele would not have survived without a network of Nazi sympathisers like Gerhard in South America and Europe. The letters are a fascinating epilogue to his life as a fugitive and an insight into the co-dependent friendship that enabled him to evade justice. Mengele remained free, into old age, to write his correspondence, keep a diary and compose bad poetry. He even had the liberty to die an unremarkable death: drowning in the sea after a stroke. A bathetic end for a man guilty of such enormity.

Jo Glanville’s choice of Unbound book is Eileen: The Making of Orwell