Bonn — In the nearly 40 years since Dr. Josef Mengele left West Germany, family members have lived under a ``monstrous shadow`` cast by the Nazi fugitive, running a farm machinery business and saying almost nothing of their infamous relative to the world.
The relatives have not publicly dissociated themselves from Mengele. But they have denied periodic reports that the business, Karl Mengele & Sons, which is run by a nephew of Mengele, funneled money to the doctor living in South America.
Mengele married twice, with the second marriage arousing suspicion that he was positioning himself to have a stronger hand in the family business in his hometown of Guenzburg, a Bavarian town of 19,000 nestled at the confluence of the Guenz and Danube Rivers.
Mengele divorced his wife Irene and married Martha, the widow of his brother, Karl, in Uruguay in 1958. ``Nobody in Guenzburg believes this was a love match,`` said the news magazine Der Spiegel. ``By marrying the widow of his brother, Josef Mengele may have taken possession of his share in the company.``
When Bavarian Prime Minister Franz Josef Strauss visited Israel last winter, he was confronted with allegations that the company had been transferring money to a Swiss bank account for Mengele.
The family quickly labeled the allegations as lies, and the Bavarian government later said there was no indication the payments had been made.
Martha Mengele, now living in Merano, Italy, refused earlier this year to be interviewed by another German news organization. She did deny, however, that Mengele conducted experiments on hundreds of Jews at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
``It`s all lies and propaganda,`` the Bild am Sonntag newspaper quoted her as saying.
The relatives` silence has frustrated some in Guenzburg who are unhappy about the reputation of their town but still feel loyalty to the family that provides jobs for 1,200 people, one-fourth of the city labor force.
``The family here is highly regarded,`` said Mayor Rudolf Koeppler.
``Slowly a legend is being formed that Guenzburg is a stronghold of incorrigible Nazis who stand behind Mengele.``
The mayor added that the publicity has created a ``monstrous shadow``
over the town. ``The burden we bear is not just Guenzburg`s but our entire people`s. . . . Some people think you can have collective guilt in a small town.``
Guenzburg citizens are upset at the invasion of reporters and television cameras. They rebuffed the media by speaking irritably about ``an obsession with the past.``
Koeppler feels Mengele`s relatives in Guenzburg--two sisters and two nephews--should ``clear the air.`` And the townspeople, concerned about the reputation of the farm machinery company that has annual sales of $80 million, cannot understand why the family members have not publicly dissociated themselves from their uncle.
In 1960, the company`s executive secretary, Hans Sedlmeier, returned from Asuncion, Paraguay, with a statement from Mengele that said, ``I personally have not killed, injured or caused bodily harm to anyone.``
The doctor insisted in the statement that he had selected Jews not for death in the Auschwitz gas chambers but for work in the German armament industry.
Petra Kelly, deputy director of Germany`s Green Party who also was born in Guenzberg, indicated that Mengele may have made clandestine visits to the town in the early years of his exile.
After Mengele`s father`s death in 1959, Kelly said three nuns told her the fugitive had returned and hidden himself in a Catholic girls boarding school.
Also, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Los Angeles, said his office recently learned about two phone calls last year to Mengele`s son, Rolf, in West Germany. The caller, the rabbi said, identified himself as Rolf`s father.
The official family position is that Mengele is no longer alive. In a statement last March, a nephew, Karl Heinz Mengele, told a German newspaper,
``We presume he is dead.``
But Koeppler voiced doubt that the body found in Brazil is the doctor`s.
``I think if he had died in 1979,`` the mayor said, ``the family would have declared to the world, `Our uncle is dead.``