The words Dan Waddell wrote in his most recent post brought to mind an incident in my own life. In his case, it was a house. In mine, it was a town.
The town is called 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
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.
Now, I have darker thoughts. I think of Josef Mengele,
Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death”.
Here’s a picture that of Mengele, taken at about the time I first visited Embu:
And, here, one that was 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
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.” Brazil
Hundreds are still alive to testify that he did.
Leighton - Monday