Geopolitics

The German Detective Hunting Down The Last Nazis In Brazil

More than 70 years after the end of World War II, Uwe Steinz wants to bring the Nazis' "lower clergy" to justice.

Twins who were kept allive as part of Josef Mengele's experiments at Auschwitz. The Nazi doctor lived for decades in Brazil without ever being captured.
Twins who were kept allive as part of Josef Mengele's experiments at Auschwitz. The Nazi doctor lived for decades in Brazil without ever being captured.
Anna Virginia Balloussier

RIO DE JANEIRO — The Third Reich collapsed 71 years ago, forcing Nazis of all ranks to flee Germany en masse, like rats scurrying off a sinking ship. Many found refuge in Latin America.

German police detective Uwe Steinz, 58, still hopes he can track down some of those responsible for the genocide of Jews during World War II — and that he will find them alive. Having fought organized crime and prostitution in his own country, Steinz now makes his living "hunting Nazis," and he's convinced that the place to look is in Brazil.

Since 2009, the official from Germany's central office for investigating Nazi war crimes has already visited Rio de Janeiro's National Archives 14 times. Steinz is combing through the records of five million immigrants, looking for German nationals born between 1916 and 1931. If people fit the bill, their data is sent back to Germany, so the central office can check whether they'd ever worked for the Third Reich.

Most of the names Steinz finds belong to legitimate war refugees, but there are also "criminals," he says. They're now between 85 and 100 years old, the maximum age for imprisonment according to German law. The youngest would have been 14 at the end of the war, possibly former members of the Hitler Youth.

"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," says Mauro Lerner, coordinator at the National Archives.

Monica Marraccini, Steinz's personal interpreter, notes that often when the "needle" is found, the person in question turns out to be already dead.

Take the example of a man who'd lived in the southern Brazilian state of Paraná. Among all the records analyzed by Steinz and his team (comprised of an assistant and an intern), a single name had matched what they were looking for. It belonged to a man who had indeed served in the Nazi regime, but died more than three decades ago. He had been a member of the infamous Einsatzgruppen, Nazi Germany's death squads, in the Ukraine, before settling down for a peaceful life in Paraná. He died in 1986 of old age. Steinz prefers not to reveal the man's name to protect his family members, who are well settled in the area.

Is Dr. Death alive?

There are other cases that likewise seem to be closed. But they only seem that way, Steinz insists. As an example, he mentions Aribert Heim, also known as Dr. Death, who survivors said used to decorate his office with the skulls of Jews. Heim was reported to have died in 1992, at the age of 78, in Cairo.

"But I'm not certain he's dead," Steinz says, without further clarifying Heim's potential whereabouts. Should he still be alive, Dr. Death would be 102.

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Steinz with his files — Photo: Mauro Pimentel/Folhapress

During his last visit to Brazil, Steinz jotted down 423 names to bring back to Germany. The investigator's work in Brazil is far from being done. He's got another five years at least, Mauro Lerner believes. Steinz is due to retire in two years.

He didn't come to go after big SS fish: Those former paramilitary officers were older, and are most likely dead. Instead, Steinz is after what he calls the "lower clergy," like former guards and controllers in concentration camps.

Steinz first came to check the immigration registers following a tip from Maria Luiza Tucci Carneiro, a professor at the University of São Paulo who's writing a book on "the Reich's missionaries," due to be released in August. In it, she explains how Nazis used Brazil as a shelter.

"And they didn't always arrive with a fake identity, given that the local governments of that time were Germanophile and anti-Semitic," she says.

Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death" who served as a physician in Auschwitz, where he selected those fit to work and those who should be exterminated in the gas chambers, is the most famous of Nazis who settled in Brazil. He died in 1979 at the age of 67, apparently suffering a heart attack and drowning at the coastal resort of Bertioga, in the São Paulo state. He never went on trial for his crimes.

But Mengele was by no means the only high-profile Nazi to seek refuge in Brazil. There were also Herbert Cukurs, who later rented out paddle boats, and Franz Stangl, who ended up working in a Volkswagen factory. Captured in 1967, Stangl was extradited to Germany and was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the death of 900,000 people.

"My conscience is clear," he said then.

Rats be damned.

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