The mystery of Josef Mengele's Brazilian skull

Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamously monikered 'Angel of Death' of the Second World War, was notorious for his sinister experiments on twins at the largest Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz, ostensibly in an effort to produce a master Aryan race for Adolf Hitler. But lesser known is that his life continued in South America with mystery shrouding his apparent death and, more recently, reports emerging of eerie eugenics experiments involving entire Brazilian villages.

Josef Mengele Nazi

Mengele - the Brazil years

After the war, Mengele managed to evade capture by Allied forces and eventually fled Europe to Argentina via Genoa in 1949. For almost a decade he lived in Buenos Aires and Paraguay working an assortment of jobs and illegally practicing medicine. However, ongoing newspaper coverage of his wartime activities, accompanied by photographs of the fugitive, led Mengele to relocate again in 1960.

Josef Mengele

A former Luftwaffe pilot put him in touch with a local Nazi sympathizer named Wolfgang Gerhard, who helped smuggle Mengele across the border into Brazil. He went on to stay with Gerhard on his farm near São Paulo until more permanent accommodation was found with Hungarian expatriates Geza and Gitta Stammer. Helped by an investment from Mengele, the couple bought a farm in Nova Europa and Mengele was given the job of manager.

In 1962 the three bought a coffee and cattle farm in Serra Negra, and, despite Gerhard telling the couple that Mengele's name was "Peter Hochbichler", they eventually discovered his true identity in 1963.

Gerhard convinced them not to report Mengele's location to the authorities, threatening that they could themselves get in trouble for harbouring the fugitive.

Meanwhile, Zavi Aharoni, one of the Mossad agents who had been involved in the Eichmann capture, was placed in charge of a team of agents tasked with locating Mengele and bringing him to trial in Israel.

Josef Mengele South America

Inquiries in Paraguay produced no clues as to his whereabouts, and they were unable to intercept any correspondence between Mengele and his wife Martha, then living in Italy.

Agents following Rudel's movements did not produce any leads either. By chance, the Mossad team followed Gerhard, a known Nazi supporter, to a rural area near São Paulo, where they located a European man believed to be Mengele.

Aharoni reported his findings to his seniors, but the logistics of staging a capture, budgetary constraints, and the need to focus on Israel's deteriorating relationship with Egypt led the Mossad chief to call a halt to the operation in 1962.

Josef Mengele Brazil

The death of Wolfgang Gerhard

Mengele and the Stammers eventually bought a house on a farm in rural Caieiras in 1969. Conveniently for the ageing Nazi, his old friend Wolfgang Gerhard was forced to return to Germany in 1971 to seek medical treatment for his gravely ill wife and son and, as he was departing, entrusted him with his Brazilian identity card. 

Josef Mengel Brazil

Mengele's health had been steadily deteriorating since 1972 and he had a major stroke in 1976. Although he fully recovered, not long after, hospital records show that a man by the name of Wolfgang Gerhard, while visiting his friends Wolfram and Liselotte Bossert in the coastal resort of Bertioga on 7 February 1979, suffered a violent stroke while swimming in the ocean and drowned.

Josef Mengele beach

One Wolfgang Gerhard was buried in a cemetery in Embu das Artes, a small town on the southern outskirts of São Paulo - a region known for its high concentration of German immigrants.

The manhunt for Mengele

Meanwhile, Mengele sightings were reported all over the world. Simon Wiesenthal claimed to have information that placed Mengele on the Greek island of Kythnos in 1960, Cairo in 1961, in Spain in 1971, and in Paraguay in 1978, eighteen years after he had left. He insisted as late as 1985 that he was still alive, while in 1982 offered a reward of $100,000 for his capture. 

Worldwide interest in the case was raised by a mock trial held in Jerusalem in February 1985 featuring the testimony of over a hundred victims of Mengele's experiments.

Shortly afterwards, the governments of West Germany, Israel and the United States launched a coordinated effort to determine Mengele's whereabouts. Rewards for his capture were offered by the Israeli and West German governments, The Washington Times and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

On 31 May 1985, acting on a tip received by the West German prosecutor's office, police raided the house of Hans Sedlmeier, a lifelong friend of Mengele and sales manager of the family firm in Günzburg. They found a coded address book and copies of letters to and from Mengele. Among the papers was a letter from Bossert notifying Sedlmeier of Mengele's apparent death.

Josef Mengele's Skull

German authorities notified the police in São Paulo, who contacted the Bosserts. Under interrogation, they revealed the location of the grave of Wolfgang Gerhard.

The remains were exhumed on 6 June 1985 and extensive forensic examination using groundbreaking skull overlay technology - DNA matching had not been invented at that time - was used by the world's most famous forensic anthropologist to attempt to solve the mystery of the world's most elusive Nazi fugitive.

Josef Mengele's Skull

The elite forensic team were able to match the skull and confirmed that Josef Mengele had indeed been buried under the name "Wolfgang Gerhard", whose identification card he had been using since 1971. Remarkably, the world had been hunting for him for almost six years after his death.

Rolf Mengele, his estranged and only son, issued a statement soon after admitting the body was his father's. He said the news had been kept quiet to protect the people who had sheltered his father for so many years. 

"Mengele's Skull" documentary by Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman

Ultimately, in 1992, DNA testing definitively verified Mengele's identity. Still suffering from the stigma of their relative, the family refused to have the remains repatriated to Germany, and they remain stored at the São Paulo Institute for Forensic Medicine.

Rolf would eventually reveal that, after a visit to his father's home in Brazil shortly before he died, the old Nazi remained fervently unrepentant and claimed he had never personally harmed anyone and had only done his duty.

A Brazilian Nazi experiment

Long after Mengele's death, theories about Brazilian eugenics experiments in the deep south of the country began to surface.

For several years, such a staggeringly high number of twins had been born in the small southern Brazilian town of Cândido Godói that, in a harrowing twist, residents launched there own inquest to discover if the Nazi doctor obsessed with eugenics and twins had conducted experiments on the women there.

Candido Godoi

Local gaúchos say Mengele moved around southern Brazil in the 1960s, posing as a veterinarian, at about the time the twin births were thought to have really taken off. Furthermore, there were rumours that a nomadic doctor with a heavy German accent had been administering unknown medicines and tonics to a number of pregnant women in the largely rural area. 

An Argentine journalist would also go on to suggest in a 2008 book that Mengele conducted experiments on women in Cândido Godói that resulted in a baby boom of twins, many of whom had suspicioulsy blond hair and light-coloured eyes.

Candido Godoi

In 2011, Brazilian geneticists finally ended the speculation by putting forward research to disprove the conspiracy theories after finding material evidence of a rogue gene in the local population. But with no conclusive answers, locals still remain convinced they were victims of the wandering Nazi doctor and his continued obsession with eugenics.