“Everything that happens once can never happen again, but everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.” (Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist)
“One of the worst things about racism is what it does to young people.” (Alvin Ailey)
As host of the upcoming 2014 World Cup soccer event, scheduled to start in June, Brazil is frequently featured in the international press. This beautiful country, like most other places, also has a dark side. Among the many stories about football, which Americans call soccer, we find a BBC World Service account of the life and times of Argemiro dos Santos. Also known by his nickname Marujo, “sailor”, in recognition of his Naval War service, Santos is famous as one of Brazil’s top footballers of the 1940s, and midfielder for some of his country’s biggest teams. Now 89, he recalls being found on the streets, as a non-white orphan, taken away to a Brazilian ranch where pre-war Nazis kept child slaves conscripted for farm work. During the 1930s Brazil had close economic links with The Third Reich, and together with Argentina, had the largest fascist party membership outside of Germany.
There were 50 boys taken in three waves, the first group in 1933, ten at a time, into legal custody of the Rochas Mirandas, a family of wealthy industrialists, who were members of the extreme right wing Acao Integralista Brasileira, founded in 1932 and sympathetic to European Nazism. After they promised the world that these boys would ride horses and play football, there was none of that, only implements to clear away weeds and clean up the farm. “They didn’t like black people, at all”, Santos recalls. The children, addressed only by number, were often starved and beaten regularly with a palmatoria, a wooden paddle with air holes designed to increase air resistance and increase pain. Young people were required to salute photographs of Adolf Hitler and vicious guard dogs were trained to keep them in line.
For Santos and the other boys, their only respite came during football matches with local farm workers. There were military parades, and captive boys carried swastika flags for these events staged for propaganda purposes under Brazil’s dictator, Getulio Vargas, who was finally ousted in 1945. Football was key to the ideology of the fascist integralistas. One night, Santos found a gate unlocked and escaped. After some years of rough living, he eventually joined the Navy when Brazil entered World War II, on the side of the Allies.
The story of this sinister Nazi farm, deep in the countryside, 160 km west of Sao Paulo, might have been lost without the dedicated detective work of history Professor Sidney Aguilar Filho. He was able to establish that the Rocha Mirandas family held rallies on their farm, hosting thousands of members of the right wing organization. Photographs also exist, which document that this site was, in fact, a brutal work camp for abandoned, non-white children. There are also pictures of bricks used for a pigsty, each stamped underneath with a swastika, as well as of cows branded with the same symbol. (Gibby Zobel, Campino do Monte Alegre, Brazil, January 20, 2014).
In the popular imagination, this subject of Nazis, boys and Brazil was the focus of the British American thriller, The Boys From Brazil (1978), starring Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier and other luminaries, such as Bruno Ganz. (Perhaps you remember this Swiss actor’s amazingly evocative performance as Hitler in his final bunker in, Downfall, [Der Untergang]). Set in a later time, this post-war Brazilian story is based upon Ira Levin’s sci-fi mystery novel by the same name. Most of the action takes place after the spectacular fall and total defeat of Germany’s Third Reich. Both novel and cinematic plot line feature a sinister operation involving a Nazi doctor whose character is clearly patterned after SS. medical Dr. Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death”. As a member of a well to do Bavarian family known for their manufacture of quality farm machinery, he was also a physical anthropologist, fascinated with eugenics, racial theories, genetic anomalies; as well as his utterly grotesque “study” of twins, in hopes of increasing the Aryan birthrate. Mengele became notorious for sadistically gruesome “medical experiments” performed upon helpless, captive camp inmates, at the slave labor and extermination camps at Auschwitz/ Birkenau.
This fictional story is set in a post-war, secluded Brazilian clinic, where a fanatical Nazi researcher has obtained permission to carry out genetic experiments, creating 94 perfect clones from Hitler’s DNA and sending them to different parts of the world for adoption. The master plan was to then discover which of these boys will be the chosen one, destined to return The Fuhrer to the world, in order to establish a glorious, everlasting, Fourth Reich. In general, both the the literary and cinematic versions of The Boys From Brazil were well received as entertaining fiction; however, more than a few critics found any premise of politically motivated cloning, as well as genetic engineering itself, to be just too far removed from their culturally conditioned lack of imagination. Now, in our 21st century, cloning for nefarious and other dubious, “medical” and possibly even eugenic purposes, has garnered the attention of even our most conservative news outlets. Nevertheless, given the recent uproar about assisted reproduction, as well as the ethics of human cloning, it might be useful to bear in mind that Aldous Huxley clearly foresaw this imminent possibility as early as 1931 with his dystopian novel: Brave New World.
Ira Levin’s seemingly far-fetched tale was carefully crafted within an actual, historical, extensively documented reality. It is a fact that many notorious, as well as, major and minor Nazi functionaries sought refuge through a Vatican aided, “ratline” to Latin America; where they were skillfully assisted by any number of well-funded, right wing, sympathizers. National Socialist war criminals and other dubious refugees, soon found that they were able to feel at least somewhat safe and protected from their pursuers, in various South American countries. The real Dr. Mengele evaded capture and died in 1979, in Bertioga, Brazil, apparently drowning as a result of natural causes. At that time he was buried under the name of Wolfgang Gerhard, whose ID card he had used since 1976. Mengele’s remains were refused by family members and still remain in his adopted country.
Given a not so surprising, over-abundance of lies, cover-ups and denials, surrounding an ongoing nightmare of a heinous individual’s genocidal history and “work”; reports of Dr. Mengele’s apparent demise , have not put an end to dark speculation. His well known, and remarkably unapologetic, ongoing commitment to pseudo-scientific twists in Nazi eugenic reasoning, and other politically motivated racial and genetic theories, may or may not have been carried out in clandestine facilities in South America.
In 2009 Argentine historian Jorge Camarasa speculated that under the alias Rudolf Weiss, Mengele continued his twin experiments in the Brazilian municipality of Candido Godoi. This rural farming community in the State of Rio Grande do Sul, near the Argentine border has an astonishingly high birthrate of twins. One in five pregnancies produced twins, a rate of 6000% above the national average. A substantial number of these babies have Nordic, blond and blue eyed features. This in itself is not so surprising given that the community was originally founded by eight families of German speaking immigrants. Professor Camarasa noticed that although there were twins there since the 1930’s, their numbers suddenly skyrocketed during the 1960’s at precisely the time when there were numerous reports of a German doctor visiting this community. (Nick Evans, “Nazi Angel of Death Josef Mengele Created a Twin Town in Brazil”, U.K. Daily Telegraph, March1, 2010)
Initially presenting himself as a veterinarian, this “Rudolf Weiss” offered to help cattle farmers increase their herds. After a while, he also began treating women who wished to become pregnant. When residents were shown photographs of Dr. Mengele, many confirmed, “Yes, that’s him, the doctor who was here”. Interestingly, twinning expert, Dr. Gary Steinman, at Long Island Jewish Hospital, has a theory that among the possible causes of twinning, a growth hormone known as IGF produces a protein that many be linked to multiple births, in humans and in cows. Needless to say, this remains a politically sensitive issue for Candido Godoi, as well as the government of Brazil. Geneticist, Ursula Matte disputes Camarasa’s hypothesis, citing her own research in this community which reveals that eight families, some bearing genetic markers for twins, interbred and that records show an above normal rate for multiples as far back as the 1930s, long before Mengele was reportedly in the region. This mystery, she believes, can be solved by the presence of a “rogue gene”.