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A French bestseller considers Josef Mengele’s years on the run

All who entered the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz between the spring of 1943 and January 1945 observed, and all too often suffered, the evil that lurked inside SS Captain Dr. Josef Mengele (1911-1979). Today he is remembered as “the archetypal cold, sadistic Nazi: a monster,” writes Olivier Guez in “The Disappearance of Josef Mengele, his deeply researched novel about the post-World War II decades of one of the most hunted, and hated, fugitives of the 20th century. It is as gruesome as it is indelible. Perhaps that is why, in addition to winning the prestigious Prix Renaudot literary award in 2017, the French novel has been translated into 25 languages and become a worldwide bestseller.

Guez opens his documentary-style chronicle, translated by Georgia de Chamberet, with the 1949 arrival in Buenos Aries of Helmut Gregor, a secretive 38-year-old German who hides his face behind an overgrown mustache and a hat whose brim shadows his eyes. He has been on the run for four years, living under different guises in Bavaria and Italy, and hopes now, at last, to find sanctuary in a city that has become a well-known safe haven for Nazis who have — at least, so far — evaded arrest for their war crimes, among them Gregor’s fellow emigre Ricardo Klement, a.k.a. Adolf Eichmann.

The story of twins who endured Josef Mengele, the Nazi ‘Angel of Death’

Despite his new freedom, though, Gregor — a.k.a. Josef Mengele — feels shackled by the need to hide a Nazi past he remains gloriously proud of. He is aggrieved by the absence of his wife, Irene, and their son, Rolf, who refused to accompany him into exile, and embittered by what he views as Hitler’s inexplicable defeat in the war. Most painful of all has been the forced abandonment of his life’s work as a self-styled “soldier of biology” in the field of “racial hygiene,” a Nazi euphemism for ridding the German gene pool of any “impure” traces. It was his moral duty, he believed, “to uncover the secrets of twinship, to produce supermen and increase German fertility.” At the risk of giving away his true identity, he has even brought with him from Germany a suitcase filled with blood specimens, cell samples and research records in hopes of salvaging, perhaps even continuing, his interrupted studies.

In private, Mengele revels in this grisly past. He had earned his infamous nickname, the Angel of Death, for his brutally efficient “selections” among incoming prisoners at Auschwitz, routinely sending the vast majority to immediate death in the gas chambers and singling out a small minority to live for at least a bit longer as slave laborers who could be discarded at whim. His chief whim was his passion for human torture — conducted, or rationalized, as genetic and medical experimentation designed to further the Nazi cause of racial purity.

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He did so with what some would call the zeal of a mad scientist or others would describe more clinically as pathological amorality, by systematically seeking out twins, pregnant women, blue-eyed individuals and those with any sort of physical abnormality to be used as human laboratory specimens, and subjecting them to all manner of “injecting, measuring, bleeding; cutting, killing, performing autopsies,” Guez writes. Indeed, so fixated on the Nazi ideal of racial purity symbolized by blue eyes was Mengele that he decorated an office wall with “eyes pinned to it like butterflies.”

Obsessed with his lost life and lost status, Mengele simmers in rage and stews in self-pity. Yet as the 1950s wear on, he begins to warm to his new life. He basks in the company of fellow Nazi expatriates as they celebrate Hitler’s birthday and toast their vision of a reconquered Fatherland under new Nazi leadership. He lives in comfort, thanks to regular payments from his well-to-do family back home in Germany; in return, he serves as the South American sales representative for the Mengele family’s expanding international farm machinery business. In this Nazi cocoon, he comes to believe that he is safe at last, that Argentine President Juan Perón and his Nazi-friendly regime will never allow his arrest. With his self-confidence — and his hubris — returned, he boldly abandons his assumed identity, takes out a passport under his real name, revisits his family in Europe and, upon his return to South America, remarries.

But timing is everything. By 1960, Perón has been ousted from power and Argentina’s new government, eager to erase its reputation as a Nazi sanctuary, begins to break up popular Nazi clubs and hangouts. Leaks are everywhere. West German prosecutor Fritz Bauer tips off Israel’s intelligence service, the Mossad, about the Argentinian whereabouts of Holocaust planner Adolf Eichmann. After he is captured, brought to Israel to stand trial, found guilty and executed, new public scrutiny falls on Mengele and his horror show of human experiments. But even with government agencies and Nazi hunters from around the world on his trail, he manages to disappear once more, this time to Paraguay, and later to Brazil, moving from one isolated hiding place to another, each more dilapidated, derelict and utterly depressing than the one before, with Mengele himself devolving ever deeper into uncontrollable rage, paranoid terror and narcissistic delusions of grandeur.

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Such is the trajectory of the last 19 years of Mengele’s life — and the final half of Guez’s gruelingly horrifying book. Although Mengele drowned after suffering a stroke while swimming in 1979, his family in Germany did not confirm his death until 1985. Mengele held no pity for anyone except himself, and Guez’s noxious portrait contains no redeeming detail to dissuade us of his toxic malice. As I finished reading, I thought, we did not need this book to remind us that the evil Mengele did lives on, in the bitter ashes of the millions murdered in the Holocaust. Then again, in our world today, maybe we do.

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.”

The Disappearance of Josef Mengele

By Olivier Guez; translated by Georgia de Chamberet

Verso. 224 pp. $19.95

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