At Auschwitz, he was the notorious Nazi doctor who performed grisly experiments on Jews and other inmates. After the war, Josef Mengele found refuge in Argentina and later Paraguay and Brazil. In his exile, he kept a diary.
This week that diary goes on auction in the United States—31 volumes to be precise, including his racist ramblings, pencil drawings, and political commentary. The autobiographical details contained in the writings reveal Mengele in the last years of his life as sick, poor, and constantly fearing exposure.
The content of the diaries is already familiar to scholars of Nazi history. Brazilian police discovered the journals years after Mengele’s apparent drowning death in 1979 and turned them over to his only son, Rolph. At least one book has been written based on a review of the journals.
But their sale marks one of the largest single off-loadings of Nazi material in years, and it raises certain ethical questions, including who should have access to the papers and whether it’s right for someone to profit from them.
For the uninitiated, it also raises a more prosaic question: who buys this stuff?
“The public perception is that a lot of this material ends up getting sold to knuckle-dragging neo-Nazis, but it’s quite the opposite,” says Bill Panagopulos, the president of Alexander Historical Auctions in Stamford, Conn., where the sale will take place Thursday.
“Actually, the buyers are often Jews representing Jewish organizations or Jewish collectors who intend to open their own museums,” he told The Daily Beast. Panagopulos estimated the journals would fetch up to $400,000.
How the Mengele diaries circulated over the years remains unclear. Rolph Mengele, who shared them with several journalists in the 1980s, appears at some point to have handed them to a consigner. Panagopulos would say only that the writings were offered to him by a dealer.
He grasped their significance instantly. Though not a policymaker in the Nazi regime, Mengele had gained considerable notoriety during the war, first by supervising the selection process at Auschwitz, which determined who would be sent to forced labor and who would be gassed to death. Later, he ran gruesome medical experiments on children, twins, pregnant women, and others at the camp, usually without anesthesia. Mengele is thought to be responsible for thousands of deaths.
So notorious was he that the mission Israeli Mossad operatives mounted in Argentina in 1960 to capture Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Nazi genocide against the Jews, was originally conceived as an operation against Mengele as well. The agents whisked Eichmann back to Israel for trial and eventually execution. Mengele managed to elude them, later making his way to Paraguay.
Four weeks after arriving in his new country, he wrote this in his journal, according to a translation provided by Alexander Historical Auctions: “As much as I was opposed to relocating to this place, I have become well-adjusted to this remote place. It has everything to give a restless person a homeland and a place to stay ... Tired from the day’s work I usually sleep deeply. Occasionally I dream about a double-bladed Guillotine, adventurous encounters with old acquaintances or similar things.”
Panagopulos says he initially offered to sell the journals to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust museum and memorial, but was turned down. Estee Yaari, a spokesperson at Yad Vashem, said after examining the material a decision was made not to buy it. “In principle, our view is that when it comes to Holocaust artifacts, those things should not be traded for financial gain. They should be in open archives and made accessible to researchers.”
But Efraim Zuroff, who heads the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he advocates paying for Nazi documents if they shed light on how crimes of the Third Reich were perpetrated or who took part in the genocide. He also said it was important to keep key papers and artifacts from falling into the hands of people who prefer to see the Holocaust fade from memory.
Earlier this year, the Simon Wiesenthal Center paid $150,000 for one of Hitler’s earliest anti-Semitic writings, a four-page screed he penned in 1919 known as the Gemlich letter.
“There’s an obvious fascination with people like Mengele,” Zuroff said. “There are enough people out there who would buy it. For Jewish groups, it’s a chance to showcase the relic and maybe fight the incidents of Holocaust denial.”