Category Archives: History

The day I saw Mengele

Mengele (left) and colleagues relax between torture sessions

It was the mid-seventies and the military rule was beginning to decline in Brazil. I was nine, traveling with my parents from Rio to São Paulo. We stopped for lunch at Itatiaia, a beautiful national park with a very European climate. There, on the top of a mountain, you can still find a German restaurant that is popular among those who visit the region. We chose a table and I went by myself to the bathroom, in the back of the house. I was walking through a hallway when I noticed, to my right,  a meeting room with a long table surrounded by old men discussing in passionate German. It looked like some sort of reunion. I continued towards the bathroom and, on my way, I bumped into a classy wood cupboard displaying a collection of swastikas. Embroidered, painted, carved, in iron, in wood. I returned to our table livid. I knew that symbol very well.

When I was a kid, I had nightmares with the Holocaust, that killed several great-uncles and half of  my grand-grand-parents. I also received this anonymous phone call from someone menacing me for being a Jew. Living in a dictatorship helped to build up the terror. My family told me not to discuss this subject in public – we knew the government accepted, and probably stimulated, the presence of Nazis in hiding. And let´s not forget that Brazil almost sided with the Germans during World War II and only supported the Allies in the end of the conflict.

Many years later, in 1985, it was revealed that Joseph Mengele, the doctor that performed all sorts of horrendous medical experiments in Auschwitz, lived in Brazil since 1969  and died of drowning in the ocean, in 1979. He spent that last decade in the surroundings of São Paulo, my hometown. It was also revealed that he attended frequent Nazi meetings at the restaurant in Itatiaia.

A picture taken in one of these meetings – one celebrating Hitler´s birthday – helped Nazi hunters to identify Gustav Wagner, an Austrian SS official that was the sub-commandant of the concentration camp of Sobibor, in Poland. Wagner was condemned to the death penalty by the Nuremberg court but fled to Brazil with another official, Franz Stangl. Wagner was arrested in Brazil in 1978 but the country refused to extradite him and he committed suicide.

The memories of that day in Itatiaia still give me chills.

Brazilian colonial beauties

Santo Antonio do Carmo church, Olinda, Pernambuco

Paço Imperial, Rio

The Portuguese colonial style is very consistent – you find its characteristics in houses and churches constructed between the 16th and the 18th centuries wherever Lisbon established its governors. Naturally, early colonial houses are very different from more recent ones. It is almost impossible to compare a baroque church of Ouro Preto (Minas Gerais) and a house in Paraty (Rio). In some cities you can see buildings built with hand painted tiles, soap stone and gold. Others adopted only modest materials. Yet, they have a few common characteristics, such as the doors and guillotine windows – generally framed and rounder on the top -, the contrast of white and bright colors, the iron balconies.These same features can be seen in other former Portuguese colonies, such as Goa, in India, and Macau, in China. By the way, Goa reminds me a lot of Salvador – beautiful coast of white sand, lined with coconuts; a few dishes vaguely similar; some wonderful baroque churches; and, of course, poverty. Not your average Indian poverty, but still. Continue reading Brazilian colonial beauties