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Mengele's Bones

updated 12/23/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/23/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Workers at the Instituto Médico-Legal, the São Paulo, Brazil medical examiner's building, scrambled about looking for the key to the tiny room where the bones are kept in a safe. After half an hour trying different keys, Dr. Daniel Muñoz, 39, the forensic anthropologist who initially cleaned and examined the bones last summer, clicked open the lock on the door, smiling in relief. Inside the cramped storage room he knelt to work the combination of the small, green safe tucked among file cabinets and cardboard boxes. Safe opened, Muñoz plucked out 19 white plastic bags, all labeled and tied at the tops. These he carried out by the arm load, cradling them carefully, to a wooden table in an adjoining room. Within minutes he had silently arranged the skeleton, from the wired-together feet to the topmost vertebra. Standing back, he nodded to the dark, earth-stained bones and said simply, "This is Josef Mengele."

In the long, book-lined room, the afternoon sunlight dappling the ghoulish remains, Muñoz fingered a shoulder blade, then straightened the snakelike pieces of the spine. An intense, small man, he is Mengele's last caretaker, having studied and cataloged every fragment of disinterred evidence, including the burial clothes heaped at one end of the table. "It's the most famous case we've ever had here," Muñoz said. "But clinically it's like most of the others—routine." Perhaps it was fitting that Mengele—a man who had studied so many of his wartime victims in grisly, piecemeal fashion—had himself finally passed under such precise scrutiny. His bones have been stored away since the investigation, moldering footnotes to a monstrous infamy.

Muñoz appeared pleased that this time his display had been a quiet affair. It was far different from the early-June spectacle, when scores of reporters and cameramen jostled outside at the windows for yet another gruesome glimpse of the remains of the World War II concentration camp doctor who sent some 400,000 prisoners to their deaths and experimented on thousands more in his grisly genetics research. The search for Mengele in Europe and South America had consumed 40 years; the discovery of his grave became a worldwide sensation. Muñoz—as part of the São Paulo police forensic team, later joined by American and West German scientists—worked tirelessly to positively identify the bones exhumed June 6 in the cemetery of suburban Embu. By early July, the experts had examined every detail, from microscopic fractures to mustache hairs imbedded in a cheekbone. Their reports led to the same conclusion: The bones were those of Mengele, the Nazis' notorious "Angel of Death," who had lived under the alias Wolfgang Gerhard and died of drowning at 67 in 1979 when he suffered a stroke while swimming at a beach near São Paulo.

Long after the international experts have left, and despite months of further investigation, scientists in Brazil continue to work on the puzzle that all agree will never be complete. Some concentration camp survivors have refused to accept that the bones are Mengele's. Others are suspicious that the grave was found only in the weeks after a reward totalling $3.4 million had been posted, intensifying the four-decade search for the fugitive. (No one has claimed the bounty.) Israel, pointedly, has not yet closed its files on Josef Mengele. "What is missing are the fingerprints, X rays and dental records," says Muñoz. "No one has been able to provide us with these, not even his blood type. So no matter how many coincidences we find between the bones and the live man, we can never be more than 98 percent certain that the skeleton is Mengele's."

What is definitely know about Mengele—from such sources as the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, German SS records, U.S. Justice Department dossiers and even the Mengele family in Günzburg, West Germany—matches in every detail the forensic findings. The profile of the living man confirmed by this and other evidence found in Brazil shows that Josef Mengele had been of robust build, 5'8½" tall, roundheaded, right-handed and of erect posture. At the time of death he had graying brown hair, a mustache, a small hole in the left cheekbone—perhaps initially caused by a tooth infection—10 teeth and partial dentures, which cover clear signs that his two upper front teeth were widely spaced prior to removal. Finally, studies reveal a healed fracture of the right hip, a healed break at the base of the right thumb, old injuries to the right shoulder blade and collarbone and osteoarthritis of the spine. As for his burial clothes—a blue cotton shirt, gray trousers, a leather belt with a used cinch hole, Jockey-type shorts and beige socks—these have the same measurements as the clothes Mengele wore when alive. Especially conclusive were the sleeve sizes taken from a knee-length Burberry coat belonging to Mengele and kept by Wolfram and Liselotte Bossert, the last of two couples to befriend him in Brazil.

"It's known he liked to garden and in his last years he often complained of back pains," Muñoz says, referring to the arthritis. "The hip injury definitely occurred from a direct fall on his right knee. Although it wouldn't cause him to limp, he wouldn't have been able to spread his legs wide after the break had healed." Muñoz and others conjecture that this injury and those to his shoulder blade and collarbone might have been caused by a 1943 motorcycle accident at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.

The small hole in Mengele's cheekbone, according to Dr. Fortunato Pal-hares, 38, who examined bone particles around the hole under 400x microscopic magnification, was at first believed "to have been caused by rusty water dripping into the skull while it was in the coffin." Chemical analysis showed it was caused either by a tooth infection or surgery, maybe to remove a tumorous growth. "My guess," says Palhares, "is that Mengele aggravated the area by repeatedly puncturing the inside of his mouth with a hypodermic needle to drain the wound." The doctor adds that the hole could have been made by a .22 cal. bullet. Lead was found around the edges of the hole, he said, but "a bullet hasn't been discovered, and the earth in the grave contains large amounts of lead."

The most dramatic and perhaps most convincing evidence that the disinterred skull is Mengele's stems from the remarkable superimpositions of Mengele's photographed face on his skull, meticulously measured by a West German forensic team. Although Brazilian Dr. Wilmes Teixeira did similar superimpositions, using sketches, the West German work seemed to prove more clearly, Muñoz says proudly, that "bones and skulls don't lie." He adds that 21 of 23 fixed facial and skull points, from chin and brow to cranial curvatures seen face-on and in profile, match perfectly.

And, as if to further convince any remaining doubters, Mengele's face, complete with parted brown hair, thick mustache and greenish-brown glass eyes, is being reconstructed with strips of flesh-colored clay and pink molding wax. When completed in January by Brazilian anthropologist Nelson Massini, the diabolical doctor's countenance, he says, may well be consigned to a museum. "We don't know where it will be placed," Massini says. "We don't even know where or if the bones will be buried again. That's up to the Brazilian courts. But, for sure, I hope that my children and everyone get a good look at this man and that they understand what he did."

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