Angel of Death: Dr. Joseph Mengele

Joseph Mengele was born on March 16, 1911, in the Bavarian town of Günzberg along the Danube River to Karl and Walburga Mengele.  His mother was a strict Catholic and a “fearsome disciplinarian,” while his father was often absent on business trips (Posner 4).  Karl was the founder and owner of Karl Mengele and Sons, a farm machinery factory.  The family was wealthy and well-known in the area, and Joseph’s parents expected much from their son (Snyder 273).  Joseph, however, wanted to stand out on his own merit instead of continuing in the family business (Posner 5).

     Young Joseph, nicknamed “Beppo” by family and friends, was known for his interest in music and art; he even wrote a fairy tale play called “Travels to Lichtenstein,” the profits of which he donated to local orphanages.  His interest in science, particularly anthropology, was inspired by his high school teacher Uri (Posner 6).  A childhood friend remembers Mengele claiming that someday he would be in encyclopedias (Koren 74).

     Mengele’s higher education was focused in the fields of medicine, anthropology, and genetics (Cornwell 365).  In October of 1930, he began studies in philosophy and medicine at the university in Munich, where Hitler was currently becoming popular (Posner 7).  Medicine at Munich University was taught more along the lines of anthropology and social Darwinism than simple healing; among the lectures which Mengele attended were those of Dr. Ernst Rudin, who said “that doctors should destroy ‘life devoid of value’” (Posner 9). 

     Joseph graduated from Munich University with a doctoral degree in philosophy and was accepted into the medical program at the University of Frankfurt am Main (Astor 19).  His advisor, Theodor Mollison, claimed that he could tell a Jew simply from a photograph, and in 1935 Joseph was granted his Ph.D. for a thesis entitled “Racial Morphological Research on the Lower Jaw Section of Four Racial Groups” which suggested that one could differentiate between races by their jaw structure (Koren 74).  Mengele received his medical license in 1936 and interned at the University Hospital in Leipzig (Astor 20).  It was here that he met and fell in love with 19 year old Irene Schoenbein, the daughter of a Leipzig University professor (Posner 11). 

     In 1937, Mengele became a research assistant at the Institute for Heredity, Biology, and Racial Purity at the University of Frankfurt.  He met and worked with Freiherr Otmar, von Verschuer, a geneticist whose racial theories and fascination with twin genetics were a major influence upon Joseph (Koren 75).  While in Munich, Mengele had already become a follower of Hitler and subscribed to Alfred Rosenberg’s “racial ideology” (Snyder 274).  He had also been influenced by the writings of Paul de Lagarde, who compared the Jews to “trichinae and bacilli” to be “exterminated as quickly and thoroughly as possible (Astor 21).  In the opinion of Professor Andreas Hillgruber, Mengele “became the incarnation of Nazism in its extreme” (Posner 15).  He fully believed that human beings had distinct pedigrees and wished “to breed a race of Nordic-Aryan giants” (Snyder 274).  Mengele was one of many Nazi scientists to seek a means of the artificial creation of “Aryan” children; he would later become known at Auschwitz as “the collector of blue eyes” (Snyder 273).

     On January 3, 1934, Joseph joined the SA only to resign in October after the June assassination of SA leader Ernst Rohm (Astor 18-19).  In May of 1937 he applied for membership in the Nazi party and was accepted as number 5574974.  He and Von Verschuer worked as experts in courts which determined the fate of cohabiting Jews and Aryans; under the September 1935 Nuremberg Race Law, this was now illegal (Posner 12).  Then, in May of 1938, Mengele was accepted into the elite Schutzstaffel, or SS (Posner 13).  He then married Irene, despite problems proving her genealogical “purity” to the SS (Astor 24-25).  Because of this, his family could not be entered into the Sippenbuch—“Kinship Book”—proving that his descendants would be pure Aryans (Posner 15).  He and Irene would later have a son, Rolf (Koren 159).

     In 1940, Mengele was posted as a medical officer.  He then joined the Waffen SS as Untersturmfuhrer, or sub-lieutenant (Posner 16).  He served in the Viking Division on the Eastern front, but was wounded in 1942 and sent home with an Iron Cross First Degree and an Iron Cross Second Degree (Astor 27-28).  Back in Berlin, Joseph worked at the Reichsarzt SS und Polizei headquarters of Race and Resettlement, an office which handled concentration camp medical experiments (Koren 76).  Then, in 1943, he was promoted to Haupsturmfuhrer by Heinrich Himmler and posted to Auschwitz (Snyder 274). 

     Auschwitz, with its five crematoria and gas chambers, was under the rule of Commandant Rudolf Hoess (Posner 20).  Captain Tilo, one of the camp doctors, called it “anus mundi”—the anus of the world (Astor 33).  The arrival of Dr. Joseph Mengele certainly did nothing to improve these conditions.  The stories of Mengele’s cruelty are horrific to the point of disbelief.  During the daily roll call, or Appel, Mengele would laugh as he set German shepherds to tear through rows of kneeling Jews (Astor 5).  He once beat a woman until her head was an unrecognizable red lump, and it is rumored that he burned 300 children alive in a massive bonfire (Posner 47, 45).  To stall an outbreak of typhus in the women’s barracks, he gassed an entire block of over 600 women in order to make room for disinfection of the remaining barracks (Snyder 278).  During a food shortage in 1944, he liquidated all 40,000 women of C camp in Birkenau and for ten days sent truckloads of women to the gas chambers (Posner 26).  Then, amidst all of this, Von Verscheur obtained funding for Mengele to conduct experiments on heredity in Auschwitz (Cornwell 365).

     One of Mengele’s duties in Auschwitz was to select prisoners upon their arrival for either the work camps or the gas chambers; to be “the omnipotent arbiter of life and death” (Yahil 365).  Those who were deemed too weak for work were sent straight to the gas without even being registered; they simply disappeared from history (Astor 54).  From the testimony of those prisoners who worked at the arrival ramps, it seems that Mengele rarely or never missed a selection (Snyder 276).  One such prisoner, Arminio Wachsberger, says of Mengele that “he had a gentle manner and a quiet poise that almost always lay between the edges of smugness and the height of charm.  He whistled a Wagnerian aria as he signaled right or left for prisoners” (Astor 59).  Mengele “relished the job with its power to bestow life and sentence to death” (Aster 67).  His enjoyment of this perverse pleasure is evident in the fact that, ever a lover of irony, he particularly liked to select Jews for death on Jewish holidays (Posner 51).  

     During selection, Mengele kept a close watch out for deformities and abnormalitites, such as dwarfism or obesity, and his particular interest: twins.  Sara Nomberg-Przytyk, a prisoner who worked in the Birkenau infirmary, says that he “loved to single out those who had not been created in God’s image” (Koren 77).  These specially selected prisoners were the pride and joy of Mengele’s medical experiments.

     It was not until the Nuremberg Trials that any form of guidelines for human experimentation were drawn up (Cornwell 356).  Until then, however, German laws protected lab animals but not humans (Koren 90).  From 1939 until the end of the war in 1945, Nazi doctors and scientists were freely experimenting with human guinea pigs.  These experiments were connected to the Nazi concepts of the “racial hygiene movement, the ‘euthanasia’ operation, the slave labour policy and the Final Solution itself” (Cornwell 357).

     Dr. Mengele’s experiments in Auschwitz were among the most horrific.  With his grant from the German Research Council, he was able to build a pathology lab in Birkenau for experimentation and dissection staffed by the Hungarian Jewish pathologist Miklos Nyiszli.  Much of Mengele’s experiments were aimed towards discovering “a simple, chemical means of mass sterilization” (Astor 120).  Highly painful x-rays, surgeries, and injections were performed upon “subhumans” for the purposes of “racial cleansing” (Yahil 369).  Women were radiated and their ovaries removed in order to determine the exact amount needed for sterilization (Posner 31).

     Mengele also performed experiments for the army, injecting poisons and testing new drugs and surgical procedures (Koren 91).  He strapped prisoners to electrical machines to test their endurance (Posner 43).  Bone marrow transplants were performed, which in some cases necessitated amputations.  He cut off women’s breasts and thigh muscles for tissue samples.  One woman, Ruth Eliaz, was forced to tape her breasts after giving birth in order to see how long the baby could live without eating.  Mengele would stand on the stomach of pregnant women until the fetus was forced out, and it is even rumored that he performed vivisections on children (Posner 44).  He injected dyes to see if eye color could be changed, resulting in infections and blindness (Posner 34).  He also only allowed babies to be born so that he could use them in his experiments, prompting prisoner doctor Gisella Perl to perform abortions by hand or kill the infants immediately after delivery (Astor 81).

     Mengele was also famously obsessed with deformities, specifically their genetic origins.  Dwarfs and the handicapped were submitted to psychological and physiological testing; they often died of disease or were killed by lethal injection, and their organs were sent to the Von Verschuer at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology (Cornwell 365).  Mengele even forced a hunchbacked gnome to repeatedly have sexual intercourse with Gypsy women who had syphilis in order to see how long it would take him to contract the disease.  He eventually died of starvation and exhaustion (Koren 172).  Prisoners were subjected to blood tests, x-rays, and anthropomorphic measurements (Koren 108).  These repeated blood extractions were often fatal, especially to children (Koren 98).    The bodies of the dead were boiled in water or acid to clean the skeleton so it could be sent to Berlin (Koren 178-79).      

     Mengele was obsessed with finding the key to creating the perfect Aryan race; “he was looking for signs of heredity everywhere—in the hair, skin, and teeth; in the hormones in the blood; in the pigments and blood vessels in the retina of the eye” (Koren 113).  Nowhere was this obsession more apparent than in Mengele’s most infamous fascination: twins. 

     Witnesses claim that the only times Mengele ever broke his cool reserve was when he found twins.  He would run up and down the platform during selection shouting, “Zwillinge, Zwillinge, Zwillinge!” (Posner 29)  Miklos Nyiszli, the prisoner pathologist working in Mengele’s lab, says that Mengele was “obsessed with the belief that he had been chosen to discover the cause of multiple births, here, within these bloodstained walls, where he sat hunched for hours at a time over his microscopes” (Astor 102).  He was so determined to multiply the Aryan race by discovering the secret of multiple births that he performed selections even when off duty in order to find more twins (Posner 31). 

     The selected twins were housed in Barrack 14 of Camp F in Birkenau—called “the Zoo.” “Uncle Pepi,” as the children called Mengele, gave them better food and built their health up so that he could peform his experiments upon them (Posner 35).  The twins were strapped down and their eyes and bodies probed; they were injected with chemicals and operated upon with no anesthesia (Posner 3).  Mengele often infected twins with typhus to see if their reactions would be identical (Koren 92).  “There were needless amputations, lumbar punctures, typhus injections, and wounds deliberately infected to compare how each twin reacted.”  He is even said to have sewed two children together back to back in order form a “Siamese twin”; the wounds became gangrenous and infected.  Blood transfusions of the wrong blood type were often given to test reactions (Posner 37).  Injections were given, fluids were taken, they were stood on their heads for hours or dunked in freezing water, and numerous painful surgeries and castrations were performed (Astor 96).  Two female twins were forced into sex with two male twins to see if they themselves would bear twins (Posner 37). 

     Mengele also murdered twins simply to study simultaneous death (Astor 97).  He would lure them into his lab with soothing words and candy, only to kill them.  His preferred method was a simultaneous injection of chloroform into the heart (Posner 39).  All of this was simply to study genetics; Mengele hoped “to establish the supremacy of ‘blood’ as the determinant of desirable characteristics in a human” (Astor 92). 

     Towards the end of the war, Joseph Mengele was able to see the writing on the wall.  On January 17, 1945, he simply packed some of his medical records in his car and left.  The SS had orders to destroy the remaining evidence in his lab (Posner 57).  There are plenty of rumors, but no solid evidence for his activities from 1945 to 1949 (Astor 145).  When his name began to come up in the Nuremberg Trials, Mengele used ODESSA—an escape organization for the SS—and fled to South America (Snyder 279).

     The stories of Mengele’s life in South America are almost legend; the hunt was rife with rumors, false leads, and tight-lipped protectors.  Joseph Mengele became one of the most wanted Nazis during the trials; Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal was determined to find him (Snyder 278).  In 1949, Mengele arrived in Argentina as Helmut Gregor (Astor 163).  In 1952, he was practicing in Buenos Aires as Dr. Friedrich Edler von Breitenbach.  He changed his name at least seven more times (Snyder 279).  In March 1954, he divorced Irene; two years later he married his brother’s widow Martha and returned to his real name (Koren 257). 

     In 1959, Péron was exiled and Mengele, along with many other fugitive Nazis, moved to Paraguay.  A year later, German officials requested that Argentinean officials find and extradite Mengele; they refused, claiming that his crimes were political, not criminal.  He was even granted Paraguayan citizenship.  In June of 1960, a warrant was finally issued for his arrest but Mengele continued to evade captors (Snyder 280).  Paraguay’s president continued to fend off requests from West Germany to find Mengele (Snyder 281). 

     Mengele apparently lived out the rest of his life in isolation in the restricted military zone with heavy protection, although authorities continued to deny any knowledge of his whereabouts (Snyder 281).  His final years were spent in an incredible paranoia (Astor 235-36).  The hunt continued to be plagued with rumors.  Huge rewards were offered, finally totaling around $3.4 million (Snyder 283).

     In 1979, while swimming at Bertioga Beach off of Paraguay, Mengele suffered a stroke and drowned.  He was buried in a local cemetery as Wolfgang Gerhourd (Astor 245-46).  On June 5, 1985, the Bossert family with whom he had been living finally confessed and the body was exhumed on June 7 (Astor 266).  Forensic experts identified it as Mengele’s, yet there was extreme doubt until DNA testing confirmed the identity in 1992 (Koren 259-60).  To this day, however, many still doubt that Joseph Mengele is truly dead.  Many feel cheated of true justice; “the ability of Mengele to escape justice for thirty-four years raises questions about the death of Nazism (Astor 9).

     There are few figures from the Holocaust who are more enigmatic and legendary than Dr. Joseph Mengele.  He has often been compared to Jekyll and Hyde.  Mark Berkowitz, a child prisoner in Auschwitz, describes the paradox of Mengele: “A doctor of philosophy, a medical doctor, a man who enjoyed music and poetry, his greatest weapon was his manner.  He could get people to do everything by appearing to be decent.  He would totally disarm someone.  You could not believe he was lying, yet he lied all the time” (Astor 129).  While at Auschwitz, he was constantly impeccably groomed and well-dressed; he was the only camp doctor with decorations and was very proud of displaying them (Posner 24).  He also differed from the other doctors in his “enthusiasm, ambition, charisma, and cruelty” (Koren 77). 

     The prisoners never knew how Mengele would act.  He was subject to sudden and unpredictable mood changes and felt no remorse for his actions (Posner 47).  Dina Gottlieb, and Auschwitz prisoner who drew portraits for and of Mengele, called his eyes those of “a dead man” (Koren 105).  Another prison says that “he had a look that said, ‘I am the power.’” (Posner 2)  Spurred by his ambition and thirst for discovery, Mengele continued to justify his experiments for the remainder of his life; he felt absolutely no guilt, as the Jews were going to die anyway (Koren 91).  He once said, “The Jews go through this door and out the chimney” (Snyder 271). 

     There are too many stories and legends about Dr. Mengele to ever be able to recount.  Nothing is completely certain about this diabolical figure; witnesses differ on their accounts of his appearance, his personality, his intelligence, and his actions.  Many are not even convinced that he is dead.  The figure that emerges seems almost fantastic and unreal; yet we must never forget that he was indeed a very real figure.  The stories of maimed and mentally scarred survivors, victims of Mengele’s total disregard for human life and his perversion of a trusted profession, are evidence of this.












Works Cited

Astor, Gerald.  The Last Nazi: The Life and Times of Dr. Joseph Mengele.  Donald I.

            Fine: New York, 1985.

Cornwell, John.  Hitler’s Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil’s Pact.  Viking:

            New York, 2003.

Koren, Yehuda and Eilat Negev.  In Our Hearts We Were Giants.  Carroll & Graf:

            New York, 2004.

Posner, Gerald L. and John Ware.  Mengele: The Complete Story.  McGraw-Hill:

            New York, 1986.

Snyder, Louis L.  Hitler’s Elite: Biographical Sketches of Nazis Who Shaped the

            Third Reich.  Hippocrene: New York, 1989.

Yahil, Leni.  The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry.  Oxford U. P.: New York,