The Disappearance of Josef Mengele

Written by Georgia de Chamberet (trans.) Olivier Guez
Review by K. M. Sandrick

A man calling himself Helmut Gregor arrives at the dock in Buenos Aires in 1949. He claims to be a mechanic and an amateur biologist, carrying in his luggage some prized possessions: a syringe, notebooks, anatomic drawings, and cell fragments. He is Josef Mengele, the former Auschwitz Angel of Death, who will live for the next 30 years in hiding, changing identities, moving from place to place, clinging “to fragile threads of life that can snap at any moment.”

The Disappearance of Josef Mengele is a phenomenal novel. It is based almost wholly on historical records that chronicle the time Mengele spent in South America. The book traces the salutary environment Peron’s Argentina offered to ex-Nazis in the early 1950s, which initially provides comfort to Mengele. The storyline shifts in the late 1950s to showcase a suddenly hostile terrain after agents from Mossad find another notorious ex-Nazi in South America, then capture, prosecute, and execute Adolf Eichmann.

Prose is spare and straightforward; the narrative is rooted in fact with occasional forays into Mengele’s state of mind. The result is a no-holds-barred reconstruction of events, an insightful portrayal of a man on the run, and a potent warning: “Every two or three generations, as memory fades and the last witnesses of past massacres disappear, reason is eclipsed and men return to propagate evil.”

Winner of the prestigious French Renaudot Prize, The Disappearance of Josef Mengele has been translated into 25 languages and is being produced as a major motion picture.