The Nazi physician Josef Mengele spent most of World War II at Auschwitz, where he performed horrifically sadistic experiments on selected inmates. After the war, much like Adolf Eichmann, he escaped to South America, where, again as with Eichmann, the Mossad sought to capture him and take him to Israel for trial. Now that the Israeli intelligence agency has unclassified its file on Mengele, details of his escape, and of the Jewish state’s decision to give up on its hunt, are publicly available. Ronen Bergman writes:
Mengele fled Germany to Argentina in 1948, using false documents given to him by the Red Cross. (According to the Mossad’s file, the organization was aware that it was helping a Nazi criminal escape justice.) In Buenos Aires, he lived at first under an assumed name, but later reverted to his own name. He even had a nameplate on his door: Dr. Josef Mengele.
Though much about his wartime activities was known, the German government had not requested his extradition, and even supplied him with documents clearing him of a criminal record. The German ambassador in Buenos Aires is quoted in the Mossad file on Mengele as saying he received orders to treat Mengele as an ordinary citizen since there was no arrest warrant for him. When, finally, a warrant was issued in 1959, Mengele caught word. He went into hiding, first in Paraguay and then in Brazil.
In 1962, the Mossad agent Zvi Aharoni successfully tracked him down, and reported to his superiors.
But the head of the Mossad at the time, Isser Harel, ordered the matter dropped. On the same day, the agency had learned that Egypt was recruiting German scientists to build missiles; disposing of them was Harel’s top priority. The Mossad was still a young agency, short of resources and manpower. . . . Half a year later, Harel was replaced by Meir Amit, who ordered the Mossad to “stop chasing after ghosts from the past and devote all of our manpower and resources to threats against the security of the state.” . . . With the backing of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, Amit focused on the Egyptian missile program until that threat was resolved . . . and then on gathering intelligence on the Arab states that proved critical to Israel’s victory in the 1967 war.
The hunt for Mengele resumed in 1977 under the orders of the newly elected Prime Minister Menachem Begin. But it was not until the early 1980s that the Mossad learned that Mengele had died in 1979.