La Casualidad is an outskirt in all the meanings of the word. Was it here he hid from the Nazi-hunters, the well-known and infamous Dr. Mengele?
The man who used humans as ”animal experimentation” in Auschwitz, and then escaped from Germany in 1945. He was also the dictator Perons guest in Argentina, something no-one knew before now.
A cold high mountain-desert is surrounding me. Without humans, but still not totally empty of traces of civilisation. Everywhere we look, we are passing abandoned houses and a railways that hasn’t seen activity for many years. Nevertheless, nothing has prepared me for what I am about to meet in a small valley between these mountains, 4100 meters above the sea - La Casualidad.
Several years ago, over 3500 people lived here according to Victor, my guide. We paused right next to the church. The surroundings are dry and the silence is more or less infinite. This building housed the high-society guests to the city, Victor continues to tell me, and digs out the tent. I grab my backpack and begin my journey in the ghost city of La Casualidad.
The reason that this town was located so far away from everything else was sulphur. The mine was administrated by the military, but operated by the civilians. And here they had everything: a cinema, a school, two churches, a hospital and shops. Before we went here, I was talking with Delia Rodriguez in the city Tolar Grande. She was born in La Casualidad and her memories from the city were only positive.
The city was completely isolated because of the weather and heavy snow, she said, but proudly added: they sent the military air-force who dropped supplies over the town in parachutes. We never suffered at all, she claimed. But then mentioned something that seemed strange to me. - The military was watching us closely, so even if a stranger speaking another language appeared, we knew that the leadership had approved them and therefore we trusted them.
I head back to Victor. The place we have decided to erect the tent was once a hotel. This may not seem strange, but what is very haunting is a man who was once a guest in the former hotel.
Due to its location, La Casualidad was the perfect place for people that had no intention of being found, says Victor, and reminds me that around 5000 Nazi`s escaped to Argentina after the war. Many were earmarked by the Nazi-hunters, but they were safe and protected here. Victor claims that it was no secret at all, that if you had the money, the corrupted leaders in La Casualidad would happily protect you.
In 1978 the citizens of La Casualidad suddenly received information that the mine would be shut down and all citizens had to leave the city at very short notice. Many had worked and lived here for 30-40 years, and suddenly they had to move, most on the same day, Victor says. He shakes his head when asked if the citizens protested: At that time, the military junta was ruling Argentina. The ones that opened their mouth risked disappearing, never to come back, so people kept their mouth shut.
To get a better impression of how life in La Casualidad really was, I decided to track down some of the earlier citizens. This was not easy as most are scattered around and there are no books or archives to find out where they moved to. But in Salta, the capital of the province where La Casualidad is located, I find a older couple that lived for 20 years in the old mine-city.
- I was in direct contact with the military leaders since they were responsible for supplies sent to the town, Francisco Quintar (89) tells me. He has a good memory, and the same can be said for his wife, Edy. They bring out a handful of old pictures and begin to reminisce about their time living there.
- I was young and needed money... had nothing to hide, Francisco is saying, knowing that many people that arrived this city had exactly lots to hide. - Lots of wanted people came to La Casualidad and especially two faces he remember well, because they both had a ‘paranoic aura’. Both of them were Germans. One of them used an Italian name and talked a little bit of spanish.
- The other one didn’t speak at all, but I soon learned who he was... Francisco is lowering his voice before he says the name Mengele. I’m quite certain that Dr .Mengele was in La Casualidad.
Francisco underlines that because of his profession, he often met the military leadership and it was during meetings like this he probably stood face to face with the most wanted war-criminal.
This is indeed quite a big claim, but can we trust what he is telling us? Francisco seems like a man of honor, so maybe we shouldn’t even think this is a lie, but it’s possible he was wrong?
We decided to search some more and we are given a tip about a man, Gary Pekarek. A nice gentleman , 60 years old, speaking fluent German. Something he learned from his father.
- My father fled here after the war, escaping from a Nazi Germany that was in total chaos, Gary admits, but he is sure that his father didn’t have blood on his hands. Even though, he refused to tell us his father’s name.
Gary is very interested to find more about the possibility Mengele could have been in La Casualidad, but also quite uncomfortable about his fathers past.
- My father died in 2014, but before he died, he told me that he knew Josef Mengele.... and that Mengele had spent around 5 years in La Casualidad.
Gary is not sure if the father had been told that Mengele had been living there, or if he just visited it often during the 5 years. But he is sure that his father would never been lying about knowing Mengele. Why should he be lying about this in 2014? Everybody knew by now what Mengele had been doing. It’s certainly no honour being one of Mengele`s former friends, Gary says.
If what Gary`s father said and if Francisco`s observations are correct, this is most likely the first time Mengele`s name is appearing in this part of Argentina - even beyond the historians that knows Mengele`s history well. On the other hand, Josef Mengele`s life has been a fog of mystery from start to the end.
Mengele, born on the 16 March 1911, was a well-educated man who already at the age of 27 had two doctor-degrees, one in anthropology and one in medicine. In 1943 he arrived as doctor and medical officer at Auschwitz that already had over prisoners. It was here, between May 1943 and January 1945 that Mengele developed the nickname ‘Angel of Death’. In Auschwitz he was doing the most gruesome experiments on prisoners. His actions were so extreme that it’s hard to believe. Its assumed that he sent 400,000 into the gas chambers. Mengele`s goal for his so-called research was to create a new super-human. He believed that his experiments would one day provide him high recognition, but besides the disgusting side of his work, the experiments were totally worthless.
On the 17th January 1945, the Russians were on his trail. Germany would soon lose the war and Mengele decided to leave Auschwitz. From that evening in January 1945, the SS-doctor spent the rest of his life on the run.
But things could have ended differently. During his escape in Europe he was caught twice by the Americans and put to dentation. But even though he gave them his original name, he was free again.
The author Gerald Posner of the book, “Mengele-The complete story” says that Mengele had not tattooed his blood-type on the chest or arm like most other SS had done. The Americans checked this, and when they didn’t find any tattoo he wasn’t suspected as a member of the SS. Mengele was lucky that his family’s lucrative farming business was earning good money and thanks to this, he got financial support from the family in Günzberg. He was able to buy false travel-documents and hire guides to take him through Europe before finally reaching a boat heading for South America. Also the Catholic Church and individuals in the Red Cross helped him on his journey.
Before travelling to South America in 1949, he was arrested by the Italian Police. Under a false name he sat in jail for 3 weeks, until a corrupted officer came back from vacation and “fixed the misunderstanding”. Shortly after, in mid-July 1949, the ship ‘North King’ sails to Buenos Aires with Josef Mengele on board.
On the 26th of August and after four weeks at sea, Mengele enters the land of Buenos Aires under the name of Helmut Gregor. He was not the only Nazi on the run in Buenos Aires. Juan Peron took the control during a coup in June 1943, and thereafter won the legal voting in 1946. Peron was a greedy president and during the war he sold 10,000 blank passports and ID papers to the helpers of Nazi escapees in Europe. Another Nazi who left for Buenos Aires was Adolf Eichmann. The architect of the Jewish extermination.
In 1952, Mengele was introduced to Eichmann who lived under the name of Ricardo Klement. According to Willem Sassen, who introduced the two men to each other, Mengele and often met in the Argentine capital. But Mengele was extremely uncomfortable with this. He didn’t like the aura of fear that surrounded Adolf Eichmann. The hunt for Eichmann was intense. Since the hunt for Mengele was not a priority like it was for Eichmann who seemed to be getting the majority of press space, Mengele became more and more comfortable with living in South America. He even started to use his actual name, Josef Mengele, in the mid 1950’s.
When he successfully applied for citizenship in Paraguay, it was in his real name. When Eichmann was arrested by Mossad in May 1960, their intentions were to find Mengele and arrest him in the same time. According to Isser Harel, leader of Mossad, Eichmann leaked to Mossad where they could find Mengele, most likely in Buenos Aires. But Mossad never found the Nazi-doctor. The kidnaping of Eichmann also led to several demonstrations against the Jews all over South America. Jewish graves were destroyed and a young Jewish girl suspected to be a part of the kidnapping of Eichmann, was kidnapped and killed in Buenos Aires.
Even though Mengele was on the run his whole life, he never became physically confronted by the ones that searched for him. But in 1972 after many year in fear of being caught, Mengele had developed a bad habit of chewing on his moustache. During many years he had swallowed so much hair that a hairball had blocked his guts and gave him sharp pains. He had to have surgery, something that led Mengele to believe could reveal his identity.
The closest anyone ever came in the hunt for him was most likely Israel led by Zvi Aharoni. He was on the trail of Mengele and claimed that on one occasion he stood face to face with Mengele right outside Sao Paulo in 1962. History suggests that this most likely happened, but due to other internal priorities in Mossad at the time the report was not followed up.
In 1979, Mengele drowned following a heart-attack while out swimming. Today, letters between Mengele and his family in Europe provide a more accurate picture of where and how this man lived his life on the run.
Nevertheless we still don’t know everything. There are still gaps in the story and how it was possible to evade justice from the world. Unfortunately, Mengele took the answer with him to his grave.
Original article and images courtesy of: www.vimenn.no
Article kindly provided by: Bjørn Emil Hallager
English translation: Thomas Gudbrandsen