I was born two decades after World War II. I don’t remember when I first heard about World War II but I do know that much about what I knew of the 1940s came from three sources — books (both textbooks and fictional novels), movies and television, and my grandmother’s accounts.
The textbook angle is self-explanatory. We had Philippine History in grade school so we learned a few things about World War II — a timeline, mostly, about how the Americans “rescued” us from the Spaniards in 1898 (“bought from Spain” was not a widely known perspective at the time — at least, not in the Catholic school I attended) and then “rescued” us again from the horrible Japanese invaders in 1944. It was very easy for me to remember MacArthur’s landing in Leyte on October 20, 1944 because I was born on October 20 albeit some twenty years later. My father was also born on October 20 and he was nine years old when MacArthur landed in Leyte to “liberate” the Philippines from the Japanese.
The American propagandist version of the Philippine experience of World War II was further bolstered by the entertainment media. I remember black and white movies made in the 1950s and shown on television decades later where the Filipino guerilla fighters were invincible and never seemed to run out of Japanese soldiers to fight with. I remember my brother commenting that it looked like the Japanese soldiers stood up again after having been gunned down so that the fighting never ended. In short, the war movies made in the 1950s were as unrealistic as they were lopsided.
It was no wonder that I never really knew much about World War II and there came a time when I asked my grandmother what it was like. She would know and she would remember — she was already a mother of three when the Japanese invaded the Philippines. It was she who told me about the food shortage in the city and the worthless paper money (called “Mickey Mouse”). My brother and I used to laugh at her habit of hoarding sacks of rice and keeping them behind her bedroom door (this was in the 1970s already) but those war stories sort of made her hoarding habits understandable. She had lived through a war, she knew what it was like to worry about whether there would be food for the next meal, so, she hoarded long after the war was over.
But, perhaps because my brother and I were young children, my grandmother’s stories didn’t include the really atrocious episodes. Whether it was because she didn’t really know about them or because she felt we were too young too hear about the real horrors, I will never know. She did not talk about the “comfort women” although she talked about the guerilla movement. Like most in her generation, my grandmother was pro-American.
If I knew very little of the real World War II experience in the Philippines as a child, I knew even less about the European experience. Although Adolf Hitler was mentioned in grade school textbooks, there wasn’t enough information to give a clear picture of the extent of his madness. And, just like the local movies where the Filipino guerillas didn’t die but surged on like superheroes killing Japanese soldiers left and right, propagandist Hollywood war movies and TV series (including “Combat!” which my grandfather faithfully watched every Sunday evening throughout my childhood) didn’t really relay anything real.
My curiosity about Europe during World War II came in an unexpected way. There was a book lying around in the house (my mother’s copy, I presumed), the title was The Odessa File and, for some reason, I picked it up one day. I was in high school. That was the beginning. Later, I would shift from fiction to non-fiction and devour information about Hitler and Josef Mengele. I would even come across the theory that Jose Rizal might be Hitler’s biological father as he was living in Heidelberg around the time that Hitler was conceived and… check their heights.
I don’t mention this now to embark on an academic discourse about Hitler and the Nazi. It’s just that Speedy and I saw The Boys From Brazil again (the last time we saw it, I don’t think we had met yet) and it’s just so uncanny how the story tells of Josef Mengele living in Paraguay. The novel by Ira Levin on which the film was based was published in 1976. The movie itself came out in 1978. Mengele died in 1979 but the fact that he had escaped to South America and lived in Paraguay and Brazil was not known until 1985 when the remains of one Wolfgang Gerhard were exhumed and declared to be the remains of Mengele. And it gets weirder.
The Boys From Brazil tells about how Mengele managed to clone Hitler in experiments conducted in Brazil. The babies were distributed for adoption to carefully chosen couples whose ages and backgrounds were the same as Hitler’s. Because Hitler’s father died when he was 14, in the story, Mengele, then living in Paraguay, sought the murder of the adoptive fathers of all of the 94 Hitler clones.
In 2008, the book Mengele: the Angel of Death in South America by Argentine historian Jorge Camarasa came out. Camarasa wrote about the Brazilian town of Candido Godoi where “as many as one in five pregnancies in a small Brazilian town have resulted in twins – most of them blond haired and blue eyed.”
And I wonder… did author Ira Levin base his story on factual information about Mengele and his activities in South America after World War II? It’s just so strange that his fictional novel was almost a correct prediction of things that would be discovered years later.
Or were the analysis of the remains of Wolfgang Gerhard and the theories of Jorge Camarasa heavily influenced by Ira Levin’s “fictional” account?
Curious. Very curious.