Jim Juhnke, co-editor of Mennonite Life, is a retired history teacher at Bethel College. He is the co-author, with Carol Hunter, of The Missing Peace, The Search for Nonviolent Alternatives in United States History, 2nd ed., 2004.
Ingrid Rimland was a twelve-year old refugee in the flight of Mennonites out of the Ukraine in World War II. She was on the ship Volendam that carried Mennonites to Paraguay. After a difficult childhood and early adulthood in the Volendam colony of eastern Paraguay, she migrated to North America and became a successful writer. Her first book and best literary effort, The Wanderers (1977), was a three-generation story of Mennonite women caught in the social upheavals of revolution and war. In the 1990s she was converted to the "revisionist" Holocaust-denial movement and became a significant spokesperson and web site manager for that cause. Her fourth major book, the trilogy Lebensraum (1998), is another Mennonite history saga, permeated with anti-Semitism and romantic German nationalism.
Rimland's revisionist crusade recently was energized when her second husband, Ernst Zundel, was extradited from Canada to Germany. Zundel, who had been denied citizenship in Canada and the United States, is in prison and awaiting trial for the crime of denying the Holocaust. Bruce Leichty, a Mennonite immigration attorney in Fresno, California, helped in Zundel's legal defense. Leichty has urged Mennonite publications, so far unsuccessfully, to pay more attention to the Zundel story.
Although Rimland occasionally refers to Mennonites as "my people," she was not a baptized member of the church. She has been persistently hostile to Mennonitism and dismissive of religion in general. Yet her creative writing, nearly all of which is semi-autobiographical, is an important window into the experience of some alienated people on the fringes of Mennonite communities.
Demon Doctor is the third and the least well known of Rimland's four major books.(1) It is the story of Rimland's quest in the mid-1980s to demonstrate that Dr. Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi "Butcher of Auschwitz," had fled to Paraguay, taken on the identity of one Dr. Hans-Joachim Fertsch, and practiced medicine in the Mennonite colony of Volendam.(2) Rimland's mother worked as Fertsch's assistant, until the Mennonite colony leaders dismissed the eccentric, paranoid, philandering "Demon Doctor" from his position in 1951. Thirty years later, according to Rimland, the fugitive Mengele/Fertsch collaborated with Alfredo Stroessner, the dictator-president of Paraguay, to fake the fugitive doctor's death and funeral. Then the doctor retired to live out his days as a gardener in Stroessner's compound. With just a little more help and some good luck, Rimland tells us, she could have set up Mengele/Fertsch's capture.
Rimland's quest to prove the identity of Fertsch and Mengele led her to a strange association with Jewish Nazi-hunters who were pursuing Mengele. The book tells how Simon Wiesenthal (who Rimland thinly disguises as "Simon Rosenblatt") arranged to finance an information gathering trip to Paraguay for Rimland and an adventurer pilot-friend. She also records visits and conversations with Mennonites who once knew Dr. Fertsch in Volendam and were now living in Canada. The book quotes extensively and repetitively from Rimland's correspondence with potential informants.
Rimland is unabashedly transparent about her ambition as a writer who is eager to advance her own literary career with a sensational story. She endows her narrative with an amateurish cloak-and-dagger conspiratorial aura. She changes names, as though seeking protection from libel or retribution. The Mennonites are "Bennobites;" the MCC is the "BCC"; Stroessner is "General Strongman." Rimland darkly implies that her revelations could place her reputation and even her life in danger. The readers are left to guess whether the threats might come from the Paraguayan authorities, the Jews, or the Mennonites.
The Demon Doctor narrative does not succeed as literary art. The evidences for Rimland's thesis are circumstantial and unconvincing. Because Mengele's trail went cold, the story has nowhere to go. By chapter 25 (p. 236) she confesses: "I have been told to cut this chapter because it makes for repetitive reading. I have decided not to do so because it illustrates my mounting frustration as the year wore on and nothing of consequence happened." The book has no climax. In the end, with nothing proven and the popular Mengele mania eclipsed in the mass media, she writes, "Thus ends my Gothic tale. You are free to believe it or not." (p. 315)
There is no doubt what Rimland believes about the Mennonites, the people of her ethnic origin. She holds them in contempt. The North American Mennonites who brought the Russian-German refugees to Paraguay, she says, "held us hostage in the bush for the sake of punishment and penitence." The Mennonite Central Committee forced the refugees "to kneel and pray to God in the BCC-approved wayor else we weren't fed." (41) Behind this abuse, says Rimland, was North American resentment that some Russian Mennonites had collaborated with the German forces and had taken up arms to fight the Communists. Misguided missionaries from North America offered bribes to Volendam colony children if they would give their hearts to Jesusa bribe that Rimland stoutly resisted. Prominent among her personal resentments is that Volendam colony leaders denied her mother a position as German teacher because she refused to give up smoking cigarettes. Rimland's Mennonites are grim, repressed, moralistic, authoritarian, and altogether despicable religionists. Yet she finds it quite unfair that Mennonites have disliked her writing.
On one point, however, Rimland defends the Mennonites against unjust charges. Contrary to some press releases by Jewish Nazi hunters, Mennonites in Paraguay did not know the true identity of Dr. Fertsch/Mengele. They made a temporary place for the butcher of Auschwitz, but not wittingly.
Rimland wrote The Demon Doctor before her conversion to the revisionist camp of Holocaust denial. But the book manifests her consistent predilection for conspiracy theories. She is inclined to piece together bits of circumstantial evidence to construct a grand conspiratorial theorywhether about fugitive ex-Nazis or about Jewish claims regarding their unique suffering.
There must be an interesting story behind the publication and marketing of The Demon Doctor. According to the World Cat database of the Online Computer Library Centera comprehensive database of worldwide library holdingsonly three libraries worldwide own this book. One of them is the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College. It seems that the book was not marketed at all, or withdrawn almost immediately after publication. Rimland doesn't list the book alongside her other publications on her web site. Why not? Perhaps her 1980s hunt for Mengele, in association with Jews, is an embarrassment in her present campaign, in opposition to Jews, to deny the Holocaust. In any case, this book should not be ignored by anyone who wants to understand Ingrid Rimland's biography and to puzzle over her relationship to the Mennonites.
1. Ingrid Rimland, Demon Doctor. Stockton, CA: Crystal Books, 1988. 315pp.
2. Dr. Hans-Joachim Fertsch was replaced in Volendam by a Dr. Hannes Riverreich (names as given in The
Demon Doctor). Rimland believes these men were both ex-Nazis who knew each other in Germany,
perhaps at Auschwitz, during World War II. It was Riverreich, not Fertsch, whose bungled operation
caused brain damage to Rimland's infant son. This is a correction to a note in the essay review by James
Urry, "Fate, Hate and Denial: Ingrid Rimland's Lebensraum," Mennonite Quarterly Review, January 1999,
note 9, p. 109.
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