The day I saw Mengele

December 28, 2009

Mengele (left) and colleagues relax between torture sessions

It was the mid-seventies and the military rule was beginning to decline in Brazil. I was nine, traveling with my parents from Rio to São Paulo. We stopped for lunch at Itatiaia, a beautiful national park with a very European climate. There, on the top of a mountain, you can still find a German restaurant that is popular among those who visit the region. We chose a table and I went by myself to the bathroom, in the back of the house. I was walking through a hallway when I noticed, to my right,  a meeting room with a long table surrounded by old men discussing in passionate German. It looked like some sort of reunion. I continued towards the bathroom and, on my way, I bumped into a classy wood cupboard displaying a collection of swastikas. Embroidered, painted, carved, in iron, in wood. I returned to our table livid. I knew that symbol very well.

When I was a kid, I had nightmares with the Holocaust, that killed several great-uncles and half of  my grand-grand-parents. I also received this anonymous phone call from someone menacing me for being a Jew. Living in a dictatorship helped to build up the terror. My family told me not to discuss this subject in public – we knew the government accepted, and probably stimulated, the presence of Nazis in hiding. And let´s not forget that Brazil almost sided with the Germans during World War II and only supported the Allies in the end of the conflict.

Many years later, in 1985, it was revealed that Joseph Mengele, the doctor that performed all sorts of horrendous medical experiments in Auschwitz, lived in Brazil since 1969  and died of drowning in the ocean, in 1979. He spent that last decade in the surroundings of São Paulo, my hometown. It was also revealed that he attended frequent Nazi meetings at the restaurant in Itatiaia.

A picture taken in one of these meetings – one celebrating Hitler´s birthday – helped Nazi hunters to identify Gustav Wagner, an Austrian SS official that was the sub-commandant of the concentration camp of Sobibor, in Poland. Wagner was condemned to the death penalty by the Nuremberg court but fled to Brazil with another official, Franz Stangl. Wagner was arrested in Brazil in 1978 but the country refused to extradite him and he committed suicide.

The memories of that day in Itatiaia still give me chills.



  1. Regina your recollection of the day in Itatiaia caused my heart to stop like seeing the devil. I remember having hung a Nazi flag in my room. It was a real one my father had from the war, something he had collected. Later that year in world history after viewing and learning of the planned atrocities perpetuated by the leadership of Germany the flag was hastily taken down never to see the light of day again. I shutter to think I ever hung it on my wall. My father was a witness to the aftermath as a liberating soldier and just recently sent me his memoirs. Least we forget. Obrigado..

    If you haven’t met Stuart Ashman Secretary of Arts for the State there in Santa Fe, give him a call you have much in common. His parents were survivors. Little known fact he was born in São Paulo, raised in Cuba and moved to NYC..Tell him Steve Villalobos sent you. Beijos enjoy your site. Your neighbor to the North/ Taos.

    • Thanks so much for your feedback and sharing your story, Steven. You know, I never met Stuart, but my husband Lenny knows him and promised to introduce me. Hope to see you next time you are in town.

  2. Wow. What a story. I met a very strange old German guy in Brazil too one day – and in the most unlikely place. It was in Parelheiros, outside Sao Paulo, at a clinic for drug addicts run by a monk. I was there to write a story about the clinic for a Brazilian newspaper. The German guy had nothing to do with the clinic, but apparently he lived close by and often went there for meals and to chat with the monk. I guess maybe he was lonely since this was a an isolated place. He was quite excited about the fact that I was a journalist and he wanted to tell me about how he had been kept in a “concentration camp” in Brazil during the war. It is true that there were about 10 camps in Brazil where Germans and Japanese in Brazil were sent to during WWII, and I think this was very unfair and I am not condoning it, but these camps couldn’t be compared to anything in Germany. His case was a little different though because he told me he had been arrested while on a ship with the German army (he wasn’t an immigrant in Brazil). I also found it a little strange he still lived such an isolated life. I don’t know who he was, but it was a mysterious encounter.

    • Silvia, your comment made me realize my total ignorance about Brazilian concentration camps. I went after this subject and found fascinating info about the 10 camps that operated in several states between 1942 and 1945, that received 3,000 Germans, Italians and Japanese, namely the crew of the Windhuk, a German ship that was trying to escape the British navy. Apparently these camps were pretty liberal, as you mentioned, allowing the inmates (or whatever we should call them) to leave the premises and go shopping in the nearby cities. I hope to write more about this episode in the future. There seems to be a huge void on the internet about this topic.

  3. Yeah, I think this story does deserve to be told. It seems the Japanese were the hardest hit – especially the ones living in Santos, since they were by the sea.Brazil is full of stories and secrets. A fascinating country. ;)

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