LOS ANGELES (Feb. 10)
The trail of German war criminal Josef Mengele, the sadistic Auschwitz death camp doctor, was familiar to government officials and police in South America and former West Germany during the decades after World War II, when his whereabouts seemed a dark mystery and many doubted he was alive.
That is clear from documents Argentina has handed over to the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center for study and analysis.
They are part of Argentina’s war-criminal files personally unsealed by President Carlos Menem at a ceremony in Buenos Aires on Feb. 3.
Mengele entered Argentina as an “Italian” on a Red Cross passport in 1949 and apparently felt secure enough in 1956 to go to the German Embassy in Buenos Aires and identify himself by his correct name.
At this point, both the German and Argentine authorities knew beyond doubt where Mengele lived and could be found.
His sense of security lasted until 1959 when Mengele left his second wife, Martha, in Buenos Aires and made tracks for Paraguay.
On Nov. 18, 1959, the Argentine police asked their Paraguayan counterparts for the identification number issued to Mengele. The Paraguayan police furnished the information.
It appears that by Nov. 18, if not before, Mengele changed his residence from Argentina to Paraguay, said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center, who is studying the files of suspected Nazi war criminals released by Menem.
The date, which precedes the first publication of Mengele’s whereabouts by only a few days, is of some importance in the acrimonious debate between former Mossad chief Isser Harel and Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal.
Harel, who led the 10-member Israeli team that captured Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires in May 1960, angrily contested Wiesenthal’s long-standing claim that he had furnished the leads that led to the success of Harel’s mission.
WAS MENGELE TIPPED OFF?
Not only was Wiesenthal’s information worthless, Harel insisted, but the Vienna-based Nazi hunter had in effect signaled Mengele that his whereabouts were known.
As a result, Mengele left Argentina for Paraguay two weeks before the capture of Eichmann and thereby eluded the Israeli team, Harel wrote last-year in a 278-page private manuscript obtained by the Jerusalem Post.
But if the information in the Argentine documents is correct, Mengele apparently fled to Paraguay at least six months before the Israelis went into action in Buenos Aires.
Who tipped him off? There is no certain answer, but Hier speculates that clues can be found in two books on Mengele: “The Last Nazi” by Gerald Astor and “Mengele: the Complete Story” by Gerald Posner and John Ware.
In the 1950s, Mengele divorced his first wife, Irene. She returned to Germany where she stated, in a deposition, that her ex-husband’s domicile was in Argentina.
The information was obtained by Hermann Langbein either independently or with Wiesenthal’s help. Langbein was an Auschwitz inmate, originally from Vienna, who worked as a clerk in Mengele’s office and compiled a dossier on his boss’ activities.
Langbein spent months pressing German authorities to indict Mengele. On June 7, 1959, the Lower Court of Freiburg issued an order for his arrest and the information was sent on to the Germany Embassy in Argentina.
Hier guess is that someone at the German Embassy tipped Mengele off.
An international team of forensic experts found in 1985 that the body of a man drowned in a swimming accident in 1979 was Mengele’s.