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

Skeptoid #204
May 04, 2010
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Mengele's twins at Auschwitz
Children at Auschwitz, including some of Mengele's twins
(Public domain photo)

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time
Cândido Godói
Cândido Godói today
(Photo credit: Wikimedia)

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.

Follow me on Twitter @BrianDunning.

Brian Dunning

© 2010 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

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. 24 Apr 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4204>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 39 comments

Mengele was and should be remembered as somebody who couldnt crack it past the equivalent of a captain even though he was a professional entry into the SS.

A military buffon, a professional failure after what appears (but one doubts) a stellar student.

Why did this ghoul behave the way he did? He appears to have been a psychopath with typical psychopaths talent ~ none. Shoved from "harms way" and into immediate infamy.

The science fiction precept of the movie is just as good as that on what appears to be copied to "Jurrassic park"

Given that the seventies were well oiled with szitchin, von Daniken and Lyall Watson, I find it amasing we didnt get a whole rash of "wonky science" plots. These were reserved for other technologies in the special effects lab we now call the eighties.

Boys from Brazil comes on the tail end of disturbing notions started with the exorcist, the omen and omen II.

An imaginable notion panning out to what was a chilling scenario but all threes precept falling over quickly if folk just tested it with a bit of history, science or theology.

Nowadays, Its very hard to watch movies for me as they become ridiculous very, very quickly. Most of them want you to continue viewing when really silly mistakes are appearing.

Maybe I have been spoiled by the hilarious Lone Gunmen and the fantasia of Dr Who and the ridiculous vampire mythology pathos of "Angel".

Its a given that Ratchett refuses to watch TV with me anymore.

Mud is a major irritant.

Mud, At virtually missing point, NSW, OZ,
January 18, 2013 2:05am

The high rate of twins due to a ovulation drug, if ever created, could have effect of more than that generation. Due to evolutional theory you could have multiple manipulated genes. You have the possibility of having more than one family getting slipped this drug, plus you could design the drug to have almost a poisoning effect that could stay in the female system for days. Then it could effect the fetus like FAS, and there you have deformed genetics. Then the next generation could populate with the same type of deformity, giving the chance of it's offspring having the same deformity. You also said that he did travel from town to town. So, the same could happen to the surrounding regions that you said also have a decent twin rate. Also, Nazi scientific discoveries were years past the other powers of the world due to Hitlers love for the occult and science. Hell, there are accounts of them having flying saucers, using electronic propulsion. So there is a slight possibility that the Nazi regime could have been into genetics years before its popularity. Now this is all hypothetical, because as the author said they did destroy almost all of there studies after the war, but do not deny the the science of the Nazi's because a great deal of our technology now came from them and their fleeing scientists. As evil as these people were, they were smart and due to there inhumane methods they could do testing on humans, where in other places in the world would be frowned upon.

Monk, Huntington, wv
January 18, 2013 10:29am

Well I haven't based anything I've posted on the film. It was compulsive viewing (for me anyway) with great acting and an intriguing story-line.

Mengele had over 30 years from the end of WW2 to the time of his death, to continue his fiendish work. There would almost certainly have been the occasional opportunity to indulge his murderous tendencies, and given his Nazism, and many of those in South America that fled Germany after WW2 through organised ratlines, I am sure he had the opportunity to carry on where he had left off, albeit in a greatly reduced manner.

Unlike other Nazi doctor war criminals like Hubertus Strughold and some of the members of the Japanese unit 731, the American administration had no use for Mengele, and had he been caught, I'm sure he would have been among those sentenced to death at the Nuremburg war trials.

Mengele's "experiments" were apparently no more than heinous dabblings, and had he been showcased at Nuremburg, the public in many countries would have had ample opportunity to frown upon his hideous actions during the war.

Meanwhile, away from the public eye, the American administration under Operation Paperclip began to use the services of 1600-1800 German scientists and doctors, many of them war criminals, but whose heinous work was useful to the US govt.

Along with Unit 731 members,they not only were exempt from prosecution,but either gained American citizenship,or were returned to Japan to carry on after as though nothing had happened.

Macky, Auckland
January 18, 2013 2:09pm

myself i feel they did cloning on these ppl and believe Hitler was a cloned or has a son that is his twin that is still alive today would be in his 80's or 90's true story

kelly leveque, windsor
February 26, 2013 10:42am

It's not a true story though, is it Kelly?

Darren, Liverpool, UK
March 30, 2013 12:31pm

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZF58wf9VWI

Here's a good youtube, part 7 of 13 dealing with the post-war hunt for Nazi war criminals.

It generally agrees with the report link I posted.

http://www.justice.gov/criminal/hrsp/archives/1992/10-01-92mengele-rpt.pdf

It's a pity they never captured him alive, for more reasons than one.

Macky, Auckland
May 17, 2013 10:15pm

Thanks for the lookey sees Macky..

Youtube is a better TV than commercial in some eyes..

Magnanamous Dinoflagellate, sin city, Oz
July 04, 2013 4:40am

"Thanks for the lookey sees Macky.."

You've mentioned "lookey sees" quite often, Mud.

What's a "lookey see" ?

Macky, Auckland
July 13, 2013 3:25pm

Brian says, "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."

As others have noted, this statement posits a very narrow definition of "genetics", and even under that definition, is historically incorrect. Wikipedia offers a broader definition and historical context: "Although the science of genetics began with the applied and theoretical work of Gregor Mendel in the mid-19th century, other theories of inheritance preceded Mendel."

Derek, Santa Fe
March 04, 2014 7:25pm

1] The increased incidence of twins in a limited gene pool is for fraternal twins rather than identical twins. I do not find any records of an hereditary factor in identical/mirror twins. Menegle could not use a fraternal twin as a control for his experiments. The same applies to twins resulting from ovulation stimulants: two sets of DNA not guaranteed to be identical any more than siblings conceived by the same parents at separate times.

2] It is my understanding that blood is not a useful source of DNA for cloning because blood DNA in not nucleated. The technology to isolate genetic material suitable for even the primitive cloning attempts of the late 20th century did not exist.

3] Mengele was a sick ***k who should be condemned to be reincarnated as one of his experimental subjects (along with the rest of his medical colleagues.

Swampwitch, Gainesville Fl
March 06, 2014 2:30pm

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