Monday, November 30, 2009


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

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 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.
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 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 are still alive to testify that he did.
Leighton - Monday


  1. Hi Leighton!
    It is indeed a small world; and a dark, mysterious, interconnected one if your piece on Embu/Mengele and that terrific except from "Dying Gasp" are any measure. You sure do know how to set the hook:) Congratulations. A colleague told me to take a look at this site-- what with my living in Greece and placing my Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis series there--and can you imagine my surprise when what to my wondering eyes should appear but the photo and blog of my favorite author this year! It was great seeing you at MBFI and, with luck, perhaps we'll bump into each other on tour this winter. Best, Jeff

  2. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for dropping in and for taking the time to write.

    Jeff, for those of you who haven't read it, wrote a terrific first novel in "Murder in Mykonos". If you're here, reading this, you like books set in locations outside the US.

    And Jeff's is a cracker-jack work that belongs on your reading list. Now, he's written another, "Assasssins of Athens", which I have yet to read, but if it's anything like the first one I'm going to love it.

    BTW, for those of you who don't know me well, I'm a harsh critic who doesn't praise lightly. "Murder in Mykonos", believe me, is a book you're going to enjoy.

  3. Leighton,

    I'm not one to blush, but if I were you're the one to make me do it. Like I said before, you're the best. And a very gracious gentleman and colleague.

  4. Fascinating post, Leighton. Monsters in the neighborhood, probably a lot more commonplace than most of us would like to think, although even as monsters go, Mengele was over the top.

    I had no idea he did all of that in only 21 months at Auschwitz. Robert Jay Lifton's hair-raising "The Nazi Doctors" is so packed with incident that it felt as though Mengele had been there for years.

  5. Hi Tim,
    I, too, had the impression he'd been there much longer. I also had the impression that he was the camp's chief doctor - which he wasn't.
    I think it was all those experiences with the twins that resulted in more notoriety for him than for the others. That, and the fact that he used to make his selections in a white doctor's coat. The prisoner's name for him wasn't "The Angel of Death" it was, "The White Angel."

  6. Great post, Leighton. Glad my effort got you to change tack and give up that offering!

  7. Hi Leighton,

    I'm loving your blog, your articles are fascinating.

    I'm also glad to find a new author, to me, Jeff Siger, to check out.

    How wild to stand at Mengele's gravesite.

  8. Hi Leighton,

    The comment that starts 'I'm loving your blog..'
    is mine.

    I'm so used to posting without signing my name.


  9. Hi Susie,
    I'm glad you're having fun with the blog.
    Exchanges on the back channel indicate that my blog mates are too.
    We're all going to do our best to continue to make it interesting and readable.
    Talk it up for us, will you?
    The more followers, the merrier.
    Then we'll all be trapped and have to do it forever.

  10. In a group that used power as a murder weapon, Mengele stands out. Himmler, Goering, Goebbels, and Hitler were men of small intellect who rallied the masses who could not, would not, believe that they had lost the war. The more fear they created, pitting people against each other, the more powerful they became. But Mengele was different. As you wrote, Leighton, Mengele had the intelligence and the medical skills to be so much more. Himmler was a chicken farmer and killing humans was no different than killiing people, although he killed people at a distance. Mengele was hands on; Mengele was evil.

    I remember all the sightings of Mengele throughout the years. It was like all the sightings of Whitey Bulger (the Jack Nicholson character in "The Departed"). Even after the exhumation proved he was dead a lot of people didn't want to believe that he could have died so easily, so painlessly, as in simply drowning. Mengele is proof that horror can present itself as banal.

    I have read "Murder in Mykonos" and I am looking forward to the next book in the series. Are the abandoned chapels in the mountains real? I have a tall, blonde daughter; it was too easy to imagine her as one of the victims.

    I have enjoyed both of Dan Waddell's Nigel Barnes books. I hope there will be another soon. I identify with Nigel's interest in chasing down minute bits of information although my searches are confined to the purely mundane.

    Simeon Grist and Eleanor Chan are two of my favorite characters. I left a post last night on the "Mystery Cafe" discussion in which I went on at length about Eleanor's reason for her research if she is challenged at a university library.

    Leighton, I am eagerly awaiting your book. Mario Silva isn't like Wallender. Mario is a man people would like to meet off the page.

    Beth Crowley

  11. Thanks, Beth --

    This is Tim, horning in on Leighton's comments thread to say thanks for remembering Eleanor and Simeon. There's a chance the series may be reprinted. I'll talk about that here and on my own blog if things get settled.

    Thanks again.

  12. I simply cannot fathom with all of my own reading and learning, how these Nazi war criminals lived in South America, in Europe, the U.S. or Canada for decades and were not caught and punished. I keep reading obituaries in the New York Times of these torturers who lived out their lives., and well, too. One, the other day, talked of one who brutally murdered several young women, one pregnant, in a camp. He died at an old age, living in Canada.
    Another article recently told of many who lived in Europe for all of these years and had good lives. Another told of war criminals living in the U.S., also living good lives.
    It is just beyond me. Why Interpol, and all of the intelligence agencies weren’t looking for them is outrageous. Many were right here in my own backyard.
    I can’t read novels about WWII; it’s too awful. It’s not academic. It was real life; unfathomable crimes were committed against millions. And there was not justice for so many responsible.

  13. Hi Kathy D.,
    I see you're going back and reading some of the older posts.
    That's gratifying - and I thank you for it.
    The people who NEVER gave up on looking for Mengele were the Israelis.
    They were hot on his trail until almost the end, had sent a team to Brazil to track him down and would have got him if he'd lived just a little bit longer.
    By all accounts, his life wasn't half as miserable as (if this were a just world) it should have been.
    But it was pretty bad all the same.
    Apparently, he lived in constant fear of discovery. That gave him a stomach ulcer.
    And he was always chewing on his mustache so that an operation was necessary to remove a hair ball from his stomach.
    He'd also been a very social individual in his youth, but ended his life as a recluse and a paranoid, distrustful of virtually everyone.
    Not sufficient punishment, of course.
    But then nothing would have been, would it?