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Elsewhere, tantalizing tidbits trickled out to support both sides of the Mengele argument. Six days before the exhumation at Embu, Alfonz Dierckx, a Belgian photographer based in Paraguay, told the Paraguayan paper Hoy that Mengele, whom he had known in the early 1960s, had gone to a German colony in Brazil. There, said Dierckx, he had drowned some years earlier.
Arguing against at least one aspect of the Bossert story, the drowning, was the revelation of Marc Berkowitz, who as a twelve-year-old in 1944 had been one of Mengele's guinea pigs, and also served the doctor as a messenger boy. From his home in New City, N.Y., Berkowitz recalled that the doctor "had a phobia about water. He was afraid of water-carried diseases." Mengele told Berkowitz that he never swam in rivers or lakes. In Brazil, meanwhile, a dentist said that she had treated a man just like Mengele two months after the alleged drowning. At the same time, the coroner in the port city of Santos claimed that the dead man he examined in 1979 after the drowning at Bertioga was in his early 50s and could not therefore have been Mengele, who would have been 67 at the time.
From the very beginning, the Mengele story has been riddled with irony and anomaly. Born in 1911 into the affluent family that controlled Gunzburg's main industry, Josef mastered his studies with ease and by his mid-20s had earned doctor of philosophy and medical degrees. After World War II broke out, Mengele decided that he could best serve Hitler's Reich as an SS doctor. In 1943 he was assigned to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Before long, the impeccably well-mannered and well-dressed young doctor had made his grisly mark. Whenever cattle cars filled with detainees rolled into the camp, Mengele was there to greet the new arrivals. With a nonchalant flick of his hand, he consigned some to labor duty, some to the gas chambers. Those who survived often ended up as human guinea pigs in the doctor's special lab, where he performed a variety of ghoulish experiments in genetics.
In the hope of turning brown eyes to blue, for example, Mengele injected the eyes of children with dyes and poisons. He castrated men, forced miscarriages in women. He exposed healthy patients to yellow fever and X-ray radiation and, when he was finished with an experiment, had his subjects exterminated. Of particular interest to Mengele were twins and dwarfs: at a tribunal in Jerusalem last February, Auschwitz survivors told of how he had had two toddler twins stitched together and of how, discovering a Rumanian circus family of seven dwarfs, he exhibited them naked before an audience of 2,000 cheering SS men. On the walls of one of the doctor's labs were, remembered one victim, rows upon rows of eyes "pinned up like butterflies."
Yet Mengele maintained some method amid his madness. A few survivors remember him as a man of sobriety and serenity, attending to his research with careful scientific discipline. He was also given to occasional flourishes of gallantry: after transferring a pregnant Jewish doctor to Cracow to do research for him, Mengele sent her flowers upon the birth of her son. Yet his sadism could cause even his colleagues to shudder. According to Miklos Nyiszli, a Jewish prisoner-doctor forced to act as his assistant, "in Mengele's presence, the SS themselves trembled."