In 1985, the body of Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele, who had drowned in Brazil in 1979, was exhumed in a suburb of São Paulo. The ensuing process of identification became a legal and technological turning point.
Whereas the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann introduced the victims as legal and historical agents, and gave birth to what has been called the “era of the witness,” the process by which Mengele’s remains were identified inaugurated a new forensic sensibility in which it was not the human subject but rather objects (in this case, bodily remains) that took center stage.
The Mengele investigation helped consolidate the process for the identification of missing people, a set of techniques and operations that has since identified thousands of bodies in South America and beyond.
- Thomas Keenan
- Eyal Weizman
"Mengele's Skull" – Video
Assistant coroner José António de Mello displays a skull to press photographers at the exhumation site in the Nossa Senhora do Rosário Cemetery, Embu das Artes, Brazil, June 6, 1985. Romeu Tuma, the chief of the federal police in São Paulo, shown standing over the site of the grave as the skull and bones were exhibited to the cameras, told the assembled reporters that Mengele “was well and truly dead.” But this statement was immediately contested, for not everyone was convinced that the bones were Mengele’s.
Forensic experts assemble around the bones exhumed in Embu das Artes, Medico-Legal Institute labs, São Paulo, Brazil, June 1985. Photo: Eric Stover.
The body of Mengele, himself a phrenologist, faced not a juridical but a scientific forum, a forensic analysis undertaken by the world’s leading pathologists. It was not to pronounce a verdict of guilt or innocence but rather to arrive at a positive identification.
German forensic scientist Richard Helmer prepares the skull suspected to be that of Mengele, Medico-Legal Institute labs, São Paulo, Brazil, June 1985. Photo: Eric Stover.
Helmer prepares the skull. Photo: Eric Stover.
Brazilian forensic expert Daniel Romero Muñoz displays the skull of Josef Mengele at a press conference, São Paulo, Brazil, June 21, 1985. It seemed as if the skull itself was giving the press conference. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Liaison.
Images produced using photographs of Mengele and images of his skull in Richard Helmer’s face–skull superimposition demonstration, Medico-Legal Institute labs, São Paulo, Brazil, June 1985. Courtesy of Maja Helmer.
The match was perfect. The video image of the photograph was imposed precisely over the video image of the skull. It was a face wrapped over a skull, subject over object, an image of life over an image of death. While the images helped to push the probability calculation further in the direction of a definitive identification, they did more than that, for it was the appearance of a previously unseen image that produced the potential for conviction.
Forensic experts (from left to right) Clyde Snow, John Fitzpatrick, Daniel Romero Muñoz, and Leslie Lukash examine bones, Medico-Legal Institute labs, São Paulo, Brazil, June 1985. Photo: Eric Stover.
Photographic comparison between known images of Josef Mengele and images of “Wolfgang Gerhard” found in the Brazilian home of people thought to have sheltered him. These were annotated to find twenty-four matching physical traits. Photos: “Behördengutachten i.S. von § 256 StPO, Lichtbildgutachten MENGELE, Josef, geb. 16.03.11 in Günzburg,” Bundeskriminalamt, Wiesbaden, June 14, 1985. Courtesy of Maja Helmer.
Richard Helmer (right) with Ali Hameli (left) and the skull of Josef Mengele, as prepared for the demonstration of face–skull superimposition, Medico-Legal Institute labs, São Paulo, Brazil, June 1985. Courtesy of Maja Helmer.
Final page of Richard Helmer’s report, “In dem Ermittlungsverfahren gegen den ehemaligen Lagerarzt des Konzentrationslagers Auschwitz Josef Mengele, geb. am 16.3.1911 wegen vielfachen Mordes,” dated Kiel, July 5, 1985. Courtesy of Maja Helmer.
The front pages of Brazilian daily newspapers announced the results of the Mengele forensic investigation with photographs from Helmer’s face–skull superimposition test, June 22, 1985. Courtesy of Maja Helmer.
Brazilian daily newspapers announced the results of the Mengele forensic investigation, June 22, 1985. Courtesy of Maja Helmer.