Mengele's Boys from Brazil
Is the unusually high twin rate of a town in Brazil due to continued medical experiments by Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi Angel of Death?
Filed under Urban Legends
May 04, 2010
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By Brian Dunning, Skeptoid Podcast
Episode 204, May 04, 2010
Some may remember Franklin J. Schaffner's 1978 movie The Boys from Brazil, featuring the infamous Nazi death camp doctor Josef Mengele, nicknamed the Angel of Death. In the film, Mengele, played by Gregory Peck, had been living in Paraguay and spent 20 years producing clones of Adolf Hitler. These black haired, blue eyed "boys from Brazil" were seeded throughout the world, in the hope that one may grow to take Hitler's place. Laurence Olivier played a Nazi hunter who tracked down Mengele to a farm in Pennsylvania, where they engaged in the film's climactic duel to the death. The movie was nominated for three Academy Awards, and while many realized it was fiction, some no doubt assumed it was based on a reasonable account of actual events. How much truth is there to the story?
Complicating this question is the fact that enough building blocks from Mengele's true life story can be arranged to create a reasonable foundation for this. Jorge Camarasa is an Argentinian historian who has specialized in the exodus of Germans and other Europeans to South America before, during, and after the second World War. In 2008 he wrote a book called Mengele: The Angel of Death in South America in which he noted that a town in Brazil, Cândido Godói, has a rate of twin births that is ten times higher than normal; and he attributes this to a series of visits made there by Mengele under an assumed name during the 1960's. Did Josef Mengele continue his human experimentation in Brazil after the war?
Mengele arrived in Auschwitz as a capable young medical doctor and researcher, only 32 years old. Before joining the military, he'd worked at the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene, and developed a particular interest in multiplying the Aryan race through multiple births. Auschwitz provided him the perfect opportunity: A large experimental population over which he had complete control. His first duty was to find all the twins, and he earned his nickname "the Angel of Death" as one of the selectors who decided the fate of each new arrival to the camp. He instructed his assistants to especially look for twins, dwarves, or anyone with any kind of physical irregularity.
Mengele wanted to know what caused Aryan traits, and identical twins afforded him the opportunity to experiment on one while keeping the other as a control. He tested hypotheses about the causes of eye color and other racial traits. Dissections and comparative autopsies are believed to have been a large part of this. Much of what actually happened will never be known, since the Nazis destroyed all of Mengele's records, leaving us with only survivor testimony to go on. The stories they tell are an appalling patchwork of surgeries and butchery, often with depraved sexual overtones, almost always without anesthesia, and arguably constitute the darkest moment in all of human history.
Contrary to popular retellings, Mengele was not doing any kind of research having to do with genetics, and the reason we know this for a certainty is that the science of genetics had not yet been invented. DNA was not yet known until the 1950's. So while Mengele may have had an interest in heredity, there is no way he could have experimented with genes or manipulated twin heredity other than the trial and error method of selective breeding. I've not found any record that he attempted this, and it wouldn't have made much sense anyway because World War II didn't last long enough. In fact, from a study of Mengele's actual experiments at Auschwitz, I didn't find a strong reason to even suggest Mengele as a possible factor in South American twin populations.
At the war's end, Mengele did like most German soldiers and escaped west in hopes of surrendering to Americans rather than to Russians. He was successful, and giving a fake name, was released and lived peacefully in Bavaria for several years, working as a farmhand, careful not to divulge that he was a doctor. Mengele knew that he was a wanted war criminal, and in 1949 he made his way to Buenos Aires, Argentina via the German underground, and joined other former Nazis in relative safety. At first he continued working as a laborer, but after a few years felt safe enough to resume medical practice, and worked as an abortionist. After more than a decade, Israeli agents began stepping up their game, and Mengele's friend Adolf Eichmann (known as "the architect of the Holocaust") was captured. Mengele again faded into the woodwork. He spent a few years in Paraguay, then later moved to Brazil, relocating from town to town until he finally died in 1979.
Though reports often say Mengele was "posing" as a veterinarian in Brazil, he was in fact earning a living as a veterinarian. Farm animals were an important commodity, and Mengele had the means and knowledge to treat them, which included artificial insemination. He also worked as a farm manager for a time. I found no records that he ever worked as a doctor in Brazil, and certainly no reports that he ever did any further human experiments. His life in Brazil is fairly well documented, and at no time were his circumstances such that he could have been continuing his Auschwitz work in secret. Histories of some of the South American Nazis and those pursuing them read like modern spy novels, and there were only a few times when Mengele had any chance to settle down for as much as a year or two.
According to Camarasa, it was during one of these periods when Mengele lived in Colonias Unidas, Paraguay. Camarasa cites the testimony of several witnesses who recall that in the 1960's, Mengele made several short trips across the border into Cândido Godói, which like many towns in the region consisted almost entirely of German expatriates. Camarasa speculates that these are the times in which he performed his twin experiments. DNA had been discovered by then, but the science was in its infancy, and was being studied largely in the United States and Europe. Practical gene manipulation was not yet being done. Mengele had scarce opportunity to learn about it in the backcountry of Brazil. By that time, his medical knowledge was almost 20 years outdated.
Corroborating evidence for these alleged visits seems hard to come by. Even if Mengele did visit Cândido Godói, even Camarasa himself offers nothing firmer than speculation that he ever did any experimentation. Nobody in Cândido Godói reports ever having met or been treated by Mengele, and there is no record of a laboratory or victims.
So where does this leave us? We have no proof that Mengele performed twin experiments in Brazil, and also no proof that he didn't. When setting out to solve a mysterious event, first find out whether that mysterious event ever actually happened. Let's look and see if there actually was a five-fold or ten-fold explosion in the twin birth rate in Cândido Godói in the 1960's. When we do this, we quickly learn two things:
- It turns out that Cândido Godói experienced no notable change in the twin birth rate in the 1960's. According to the town's baptismal records, twins had been unusually common in the town since at least the 1920's, decades before Mengele's arrival. Twin births are still common in the town today, decades after Mengele's death. Even if Mengele had developed some ovulation induction drug, it would have affected only that generation; he had no knowledge or ability to modify genetic code, which would have been necessary to pass the trait to future generations.
- Cândido Godói's twin rate is very high, but not extraordinarily high compared to similar towns in the region. It turns out that many such communities, not only in South America but worldwide, consisting of small, isolated populations, often expatriates, have high twin rates. In particular, isolated villages in Nigeria and Romania have similar histories and similar twin rates.
So it appears that we do have a bit of a mystery to solve, but it's not the one we started with. Whether Josef Mengele ever visited these twin towns or not, it's known that it had no effect on their twin rate, and thus it would be illogical to introduce him as a possible explanation.
A better explanation for the high twin rate lies in established genetics, where we have something we call the "founder effect". When a community is founded by a small number of individuals, particular genetic traits can become common among their descendants. This is observed all over the world; the best example being the mitochondrial Eve. While she was not the only person alive at the time, say 200,000 years ago, her descendants intermarried with enough other people that eventually everyone in the small population was related to her, and their descendants eventually colonized the whole world.
The Amish population in the United States exhibits a founder effect where polydactyly (extra fingers and toes) was inherited by the community from one of the original founders who had the gene, and that gene is expressed more in the Amish community than in the United States at large. One island in Micronesia was decimated by a hurricane in 1775, leaving only twenty survivors, one with an extremely rare form of colorblindness. Today their rate of that type of colorblindness is 1,500 times higher than average.
As it happens, many of the founders of Cândido Godói and the many other German towns in Brazil and Paraguay came from a region of western Germany called Hunsrück, which has a higher than average twin rate. When Cândido Godói was first settled, the founding families happened to include seventeen pairs of twins. With such a high expression of the twin gene in the founding population, and being socially isolated within Brazil, it was a virtual certainty that Cândido Godói would become one of the Twin Capitols of the World... no need to introduce Josef Mengele or other external influences.
Paolo Sauthier, the historian at Cândido Godói's small museum, perhaps said it best: "People who are speculating about Mengele are doing so to sell books." Although the sensational explanation can often be the most compelling, it's usually not the true one. Dig enough to find the facts, and you'll almost always learn something new and true; and since it's real, you can apply it elsewhere. It's the value of knowledge.
© 2010 Skeptoid Media, Inc.
References & Further Reading
Camarasa, J. Mengele: El Angel de la Muerte en Sudamerica. Mexico City: Norma Libros, 2008.
Editors. "Nazi Mystery: Twins from Brazil." Explorer. National Geographic Society, 25 Nov. 2009. Web. 30 Apr. 2010. <http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/series/explorer/4087/facts>
Geddes, L. "Nazi Angel of Death not responsible for town of twins." New Scientist. Reed Business Information Ltd., 27 Jan. 2009. Web. 25 Apr. 2010. <http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16492-nazi-angel-of-death-not-responsible-for-town-of-twins.html>
Handwerk, B. "Nazi Twins a Myth: Mengele Not Behind Brazil Boom?" National Geographic News. National Geographic Society, 25 Nov. 2009. Web. 29 Apr. 2010. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/11/091125-nazi-twins-brazil-mengele.html>
Matalon-Lagnado, L., Cohn-Dekel, S. Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz. New York: Morrow, 1991.
Walters, G. Hunting Evil: The Nazi War Criminals Who Escaped and the Quest to Bring Them to Justice. New York: Broadway Books, 2009.
Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Mengele's Boys from Brazil." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 4 May 2010. Web. 11 Dec 2013. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4204>
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