John Lawton’s SECOND VIOLIN and A LILY OF THE FIELD are set, wholly or in part, in Germany during the Third Reich. It is a period in history that I find endlessly fascinating because ordinary people willingly followed Adolph Hitler down a path strewn with the bodies of other ordinary people whom Hitler declared unworthy of life.
One of the worst of Hitler’s acolytes was Josef Mengele whose experiments on living people, including children, rank with the worst of anything done in any period of history. On November 30, 2009, Leighton Gage posted on his blog, Murder Is Everywhere, a story about a town called Embu. At the beginning of his post, he quotes some lines from a piece Dan Waddell posted on Murder Is Everywhere on November 27, 2009. That piece was titled “Mind The Gap” and I wrote about it on this blog on November 12,2010.
I was not able to copy the pictures Leighton used in his post so I added some others.
“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
A place so filled with life and color should not have been polluted by the presence of such evil as Mengele.