In 1941, during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, a woman of Jewish birth divorced her Christian husband in order to reassert her religious identity. She was soon deported to the ghetto of Terezin, and in 1943 volunteered to escort a shipment of Jewish children to Auschwitz. There the sister of Franz Kafka perished.

It is likely that while at Auschwitz Ottla Kafka met Josef Mengele. He could often be found at the railroad landing, separating those who would be gassed immediately from those who would die later. It is also likely that this exceptional woman would have seen him for what he was: a bureaucrat of death, the sort her brother described in his classic and prophetic novel, "The Trial."

Now it appears that Mengele is dead. There is convincing testimony that he drowned in 1979, which would mean that since then the world has been hunting a ghost. Reward money has been stacked upon reward money, over $3 million of it. But the quarry may be nothing but cracked bones and a skull tossed nonchalantly from a grave by a digger with a fine sense of the appropriate.

In the last several years, Mengele has become the personification of evil, the man who along with others supposedly rose above the system to control it. This is the view of Nazism that President Reagan expounded in defense of his Bitburg trip. He made it seem as if the Mengeles of Germany had somehow taken over their country by force, when, in fact, it was the souls of their people they occupied. Historically, the country happened to be Germany, but it could have been another -- France, the Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. The list of accessories to the Holocaust is long.

Now there are even more accessories. At least three families sheltered Mengele in Brazil. At least two of them knew his identity and did nothing -- alerting no officials, demanding no accounting. It's possible that Mengele's own son visited him at least once and that a representative of the family firm went to Brazil at least once either to provide Mengele with funds or settle a dispute.

Once again, evil flourished not because it was so clever, but because so many people were either apathetic or cooperative. An alliance of governments, united in apathy, for years did nothing. Mengele's years in Brazil were out of no movie. He did not live in some remote jungle village, succored by an underground network of former Nazis. He ended his days in a suburb of San Paulo, maybe getting a kind of pension from the family firm.

In Kafka's "The Trial," the almost nameless Joseph K. dies for committing an unspecified crime, maybe one of just being. In real life, that is why Kafka's youngest sister died -- nameless, certainly, to her killers. Her death, tragic but logically absurd, is now said to be the work of Mengele and a few others like him. It was, however, the work of countless people who together made up a system in which murder was bureaucratized. Mengele did personify evil, but the larger evil, as Kafka prophetically wrote, was a state apparatus in which everybody, including murderers, punched the clock.

The irony in the Mengele tale is not that he and a member of the Kafka family might have met, but that the brother, Franz, had already captured its essence -- murder as routine, an escape made possible by indifference and a pointless death. If you want to know how Mengele could have died in this particularly Kafkaesque way, it was because he was the waking reality of Kafka's nightmare. He could rely always upon the apathy of strangers.