Josef Mengele – the Angel of Death. His name alone sends chills down the spines of those who know the atrocities he committed during World War II. This German Schutzstaffel (SS) officer and physician was responsible for conducting deadly experiments on prisoners at the Auschwitz II (Birkenau) concentration camp.
As a member of the team of doctors tasked with selecting victims to be sent to their death in the gas chambers, Mengele relished the power he held over his prisoners’ lives. He didn’t stop there. Instead, he administered the gas, enjoying the sight of his victims’ final moments of agony.
No one was safe from Mengele’s sadistic experimentation. He subjected prisoners to horrific tests without regard for their well-being, leaving them disfigured, paralyzed, or dead. His obsession with creating the “perfect Aryan race” led him to perform barbaric surgeries and injections on twins.
Who Was Josef Mengele, the Good Doctor of Auschwitz?
Before the war, Mengele earned doctorates in anthropology and medicine, establishing himself as a respected researcher. However, his allegiance to the Nazi Party in 1937 and subsequent membership in the SS in 1938 set him on a path of unfathomable darkness.
At the beginning of World War II, Mengele served as a battalion medical officer. Still, his transfer to the Nazi concentration camps service in 1943 allowed him to conduct his heinous experiments on human subjects. Upon arriving at Auschwitz, he fixated on using twins as his primary subjects.
Mengele’s experiments were nothing short of barbaric, with no consideration for the well-being or safety of his victims. He subjected twins to gruesome surgeries, injections, and other painful procedures to further the Nazi’s quest for the perfect Aryan race.
As the Red Army moved closer to German-occupied Poland, Mengele was transferred to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, 280 kilometers (170 mi) from Auschwitz, on January 17th, 1945 – a mere ten days before Soviet forces arrived at the notorious death camp.
Following the war’s end, Mengele fled to Argentina in July 1949. With the aid of a network of former SS members, he could evade justice and settle in and around Buenos Aires. However, his past crimes quickly caught up to him, and he became the subject of a worldwide manhunt by West Germany, Israel, and Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal.
Mengele continued evading capture, even fleeing to Paraguay in 1959 and Brazil in 1960, all while being sought by those who wished to bring him to trial. Despite extradition requests by the West German government and secret operations by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, Mengele remained at large, eluding justice until the end of his life.
In 1979, Mengele met his end in a tragic and fittingly eerie manner. While swimming off the coast of Bertioga, he suffered a stroke and drowned. He was buried under the alias of Wolfgang Gerhard, further obscuring his identity.
It wasn’t until 1985, when forensic examination positively identified his remains, that the world could finally confirm the fate of one of history’s most notorious war criminals.
The Backstory of Josef Mengele
Born into a Catholic family in Günzburg, Bavaria, on March 16, 1911, Josef Mengele was the eldest of three sons of Walburga and Karl Mengele, who founded the Karl Mengele & Sons company, which produced farming machinery.
Despite his family’s success, Mengele developed a fascination for music, art, and skiing and excelled in his studies.
After completing high school in April of 1930, Mengele pursued his interest in philosophy by studying in Munich, where the headquarters of the Nazi Party were located. He later attended the University of Bonn and took his medical preliminary examination.
In 1931, he joined Der Stahlhelm, a paramilitary organization that eventually merged with the Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA) in 1934.
Mengele continued his studies, earning a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Munich in 1935. He then joined the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene in Frankfurt in January of 1937, working under the guidance of Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, a German geneticist interested in researching twins.
Here, Mengele began to develop a sickening fascination with human experimentation, eventually leading him down a path of unspeakable cruelty and horror.
While assisting geneticist Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, Mengele focused on genetic factors resulting in physical deformities, such as cleft lips, palates, and cleft chins. His dedication to this field earned him a cum laude doctorate in medicine from the University of Frankfurt in 1938, which was later revoked.
Von Verschuer praised Mengele’s abilities in a letter of recommendation, highlighting his reliability and talent for clearly presenting complex material. Despite the later condemnation of Mengele’s work and practices, American author Robert Jay Lifton notes that his published works at the time were considered valid scientific efforts, even outside of Nazi Germany.
Mengele’s marriage to Irene Schönbein in 1939 did not affect his growing obsession with his work, particularly his twisted experiments on prisoners. In 1944, their son Rolf was born, but Mengele’s commitment to his work at Auschwitz left him with little time to spend with his family.
Despite his personal life, Mengele was completely consumed by his pursuits at the concentration camp, taking perverse pleasure in conducting experiments on human subjects without regard for their lives or well-being.
The ideology of Nazism was a destructive amalgamation of several hateful beliefs, including antisemitism, racial hygiene, and eugenics, combined with pan-Germanism and territorial expansionism. The overarching goal was to acquire more living space, or Lebensraum, for the Germanic people.
To achieve this, Nazi Germany waged war against Poland and the Soviet Union, aiming to either deport or exterminate the Jewish and Slavic populations living there, who were deemed inferior to the supposed Aryan master race.
In early 1943, Mengele was transferred to the concentration camp service and assigned to Auschwitz. His official title was SS-Hauptsturmführer (‘captain’) and chief doctor of the Zigeunerfamilienlager (‘Gypsy family camp’). He soon became notorious for his inhumane medical experiments, particularly those involving twins.
Mengele believed that by studying the genetics of twins, he could develop methods to increase the Aryan population and eliminate undesirable traits.
Mengele’s experiments included injecting dyes into children’s eyes to try and change their eye color and sewing twins together to create conjoined twins. He also conducted experiments on pregnant women, often killing the mother and fetus.
Mengele was known for his sadistic and callous behavior toward his subjects, and many died due to his experiments or were later killed in the gas chambers.
Mengele was also involved in the selection process at Auschwitz, deciding which prisoners would be sent to the gas chambers and which would be used for forced labor. He often chose those who were physically weak or had disabilities, as he believed they were not fit for work and were a burden on the Aryan race.
In the summer of 1941, Mengele was sent to Ukraine, where he was honored with the Iron Cross 2nd Class. By January 1942, he had joined the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking as a medical officer for the battalion. Mengele proved his bravery by rescuing two soldiers from a tank that had caught fire.
As a result of his heroic actions, he was awarded several prestigious military honors, including the Iron Cross 1st Class, the Wound Badge in Black, and the Medal for the Care of the German People. His time in active service was cut short when he suffered serious injuries during a battle near Rostov-on-Don in mid-1942.
After recovering from his wounds, Mengele has transferred to the Berlin SS Race and Settlement Main Office headquarters. He reunited with his former mentor, Von Verschuer, now the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics.
What Did Josef Mengele do at Auschwitz?
In 1942, the purpose of Auschwitz II (Birkenau) changed from housing slave laborers to functioning as a combined labor and extermination camp. People were brought there by train from across Nazi-controlled Europe daily.
SS doctors would perform “selections” in which the incoming Jews were separated, and those considered fit to work were accepted into the camp. At the same time, those who were deemed unfit for labor were immediately sent to the gas chambers.
Sadly, about three-quarters of the arrivals were chosen to die, including nearly all children, women with small children, pregnant women, the elderly, and anyone who appeared to not be in good health.
In early 1943, Mengele’s mentor, Von Verschuer, encouraged him to apply for a transfer to the concentration camp service. After his application was accepted, Mengele was posted to Auschwitz, where he became the chief physician of the Romani family camp at Birkenau.
At Auschwitz, the SS doctors oversaw the work of inmate doctors in the camp medical service but did not provide treatment themselves. Mengele’s responsibilities included weekly visits to the hospital barracks and deciding which prisoners, who had been bedridden for more than two weeks, were to be sent to the gas chambers. This was a brutal and inhumane practice that contributed to the deaths of thousands of innocent people.
Mengele’s work at Auschwitz involved conducting selections, determining which prisoners would be used for forced labor and which would be sent to the gas chambers. He was particularly interested in finding twins for his experiments and would even perform selections when it wasn’t required of him.
Unlike other SS doctors, who found selections unpleasant and stressful, Mengele enjoyed it and often smiled or whistled. Additionally, he supervised Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide used in the Birkenau gas chambers, and was responsible for its crematoria IV and V administration.
In 1943, an outbreak of noma, a bacterial disease affecting the mouth and face, broke out in the Romani camp at Auschwitz. Mengele, interested in determining the cause of the disease and developing a treatment, initiated a study.
He enlisted the help of Berthold Epstein, a Jewish pediatrician and professor at Prague University who was also a prisoner at the camp. Mengele had the infected patients isolated in separate barracks. Some children were even killed so that their preserved heads and organs could be studied at the SS Medical Academy in Graz and other facilities.
Unfortunately, this research was ongoing when the Romani camp was liquidated in 1944, and the remaining prisoners were killed.
In his efforts to control the spread of disease in the concentration camp, Mengele showed a callous disregard for human life. When a typhus outbreak occurred in the women’s camp, Mengele ordered exterminating six hundred Jewish women, who were sent to their deaths in the gas chambers.
He then had the building cleaned and disinfected before moving in the occupants of a neighboring block, who were given new clothing after being bathed and de-loused. This process was repeated until all the barracks were disinfected. A similar approach was taken for other diseases, such as scarlet fever, with infected prisoners also being killed in the gas chambers.
Mengele’s actions earned him the War Merit Cross (Second Class with swords) and a promotion to First Physician of the Birkenau subcamp in 1944.
Experimentations of Josef Mengele
Mengele’s experiments on twins included injecting dyes into their eyes to change color and experimenting with different chemical compounds to see if they could cause infertility or sterilization.
He also performed numerous surgeries without anesthesia, often resulting in death or permanent disability for the subjects. In addition to his twin studies, Mengele conducted experiments on Romani children, including testing the effects of different substances on their eyes, injecting them with various chemicals, and performing blood transfusions between twins.
Many of his subjects were killed, and their bodies were dissected and studied in the aforementioned pathology laboratory.
Mengele’s “privileged” research subjects lived in their barracks with better food and living conditions than the other prisoners. This was merely a ploy to manipulate and exploit them for his inhumane experiments.
He lured his innocent victims with sweets and acted like a caring “Uncle” while simultaneously inflicting unimaginable physical and emotional pain on them. Mengele showed no compassion for the countless lives he destroyed through lethal injections, shootings, beatings, and his twisted research.
He saw the Jewish people as an inferior race, and his actions demonstrated a complete lack of remorse or empathy for the atrocities he committed.
A chilling contradiction existed in Mengele’s behavior toward his research subjects. While offering them sweets and presenting himself as “Uncle Mengele,” he was simultaneously responsible for the deaths of an unknown number of victims, who were killed via lethal injection, shootings, beatings, and his gruesome experiments.
Despite this, he could display kindness towards the children, making them fond of him and paying attention to small details in their daily lives. As a former Auschwitz inmate and doctor recounted, this was the disturbing anomaly of Mengele’s character – his capacity for both kindness and cruelty coexisting alongside the smoke of the crematoria where his victims were sent.
Mengele’s heinous experiments on twins included subjecting them to weekly examinations and measurements of their physical attributes, with no regard for their pain or suffering. He would amputate their limbs unnecessarily, infect one twin with a deadly disease, and then observe the effects on the other twin.
Blood transfusions were also carried out between twins. Many victims died due to these procedures, and those who survived were often killed and dissected for research purposes. In one instance, Mengele murdered fourteen twins in a single night by injecting chloroform into their hearts.
If one twin died, he would kill the other solely to produce comparative post-mortem reports for research purposes.
Mengele’s twisted experiments knew no bounds as he delved into even more heinous and barbaric procedures. In his quest for knowledge, he injected chemicals into living subjects’ eyes, attempting to alter their color, and killed those with heterochromatic eyes to harvest them for further study.
Dwarves and those with physical abnormalities were also subjected to cruel experiments, such as unnecessary drug treatments, X-rays, and the extraction of healthy teeth. Pregnant women were not spared from Mengele’s sadistic practices, as he would perform experiments on them before sending them to the gas chambers.
He even performed vivisection without anesthesia, tearing out the hearts and stomachs of his victims. In one instance, he sewed two Romani twins together, back-to-back, in a barbaric attempt to create conjoined twins, and both children died a slow and agonizing death from gangrene after days of suffering.
Such atrocities left survivors traumatized and scarred for life.
After the War
Like many other Auschwitz doctors, Mengele fled the concentration camp in January 1945, taking records of his cruel experiments and two boxes of specimens. The SS had already destroyed the medical records of the camp, but Mengele wanted to ensure that his research would survive.
He continued to move westward and eventually arrived in Žatec in Czechoslovakia, where he entrusted his incriminating documents to a nurse whom he had befriended. Mengele and his unit then hurried west to avoid being captured by the advancing Soviet forces, but the Americans eventually took them prisoner in June 1945.
Although Mengele was a major war criminal registered under his real name, he managed to escape identification by the Allies due to their disorganization in distributing wanted lists and the fact that he did not have the standard SS blood group tattoo.
He was released in July and then assumed the false identity of “Fritz Ulmann” with the help of false papers. Later on, he altered these papers to read “Fritz Hollmann.”
Mengele got work as a farmhand close to Rosenheim after spending several months on the run, including a trip back to the area under Soviet occupation to retrieve his Auschwitz records. On April 17, 1949, he finally managed to flee Germany because he believed that he would face a trial and the death penalty if he were found.
He traveled to Genoa through the ratline with the help of a network of former SS members, where he received a passport from the International Committee of the Red Cross under the name “Helmut Gregor.” He boarded a ship for Argentina in July 1949.
His wife declined to accompany him, and the two separated in 1954.
Mengele moved again in 1960 due to ongoing newspaper accounts of his wartime activities and the accompanying images. Hans-Ulrich Rudel, a former pilot, connected Mengele with Nazi supporter Wolfgang Gerhard, who assisted Mengele in crossing the border into Brazil.
Until a more permanent residence could be secured, he resided with Gerhard on his farm outside of So Paulo. This was made possible by Hungarian expatriates Géza and Gitta Stammer. With a contribution from Mengele, who was responsible for managing them, the couple purchased a farm in Nova Europa.
In 1962, the trio purchased a coffee and cow property in Serra Negra, with Mengele owning a fifty percent stake. The Stammers first believed Gerhard when he informed them the fugitive’s name was “Peter Hochbichler,” but in 1963, they learned the truth.
Gerhard convinced the couple might be held accountable for harboring a fugitive to prevent them from informing the authorities of Mengele’s whereabouts. West Germany expanded its extradition request to include Brazil in February 1961 after receiving information that Mengele might have relocated there.
Mengele became a co-owner of a farmhouse in Caieiras with the Stammers in 1969, solidifying his dark presence in Brazil. Even after being given the identity card of a sick man, Wolfgang Gerhard, Mengele continued to evade justice.
The Stammers’ relationship with the Nazi doctor soured in 1974, and they eventually bought a house in São Paulo, intentionally leaving Mengele out. But even that was not enough to rid themselves of the evil in their lives, as they rented a bungalow in the Eldorado neighborhood of Diadema to the unrepentant Mengele.
Rolf, Mengele’s estranged son, finally reunited in 1977, only to find a man who justified his heinous actions as merely fulfilling his “duties” as an officer.
Mengele’s physical condition had steadily declined since 1972, with a series of health issues plaguing him until his death. Despite his ailing health, he continued evading justice and living under false identities.
In February 1979, while staying with friends in the coastal resort of Bertioga, Mengele suffered another stroke while swimming and ultimately drowned. He was buried under the assumed identity of “Wolfgang Gerhard,” the same identity card he had taken from a fellow Nazi in 1971.
Mengele also used other aliases in his later life, including “Dr. Fausto Rindón” and “S. Josi Alvers Aspiazu.”
Despite Mengele’s death, reported sightings of him continued to emerge from various parts of the world. A prominent Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal claimed to have information that placed Mengele in different locations, such as the Greek island of Kythnos in 1960, Cairo in 1961, Spain in 1971, and Paraguay in 1978 – eighteen years after he had left the country.
In 1982, Wiesenthal offered a reward of $100,000 (equivalent to $300,000 in 2021) for Mengele’s capture, and he continued to insist that Mengele was still alive as late as 1985, six years after his death. The mock trial in Jerusalem in February 1985, which featured the testimonies of over one hundred victims of Mengele’s experiments, generated global interest in the case.
The West German, Israeli, and U.S. governments coordinated to locate Mengele. The West German and Israeli governments, The Washington Times, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center also offered rewards for his capture.
In a stunning turn of events, the elusive Josef Mengele continued to evade capture for years, with alleged sightings being reported worldwide. Despite the passage of time, Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal remained convinced that Mengele was still alive, offering a substantial reward for his capture as late as 1982.
This led to a mock trial held in Jerusalem in 1985 that featured the harrowing testimony of over one hundred of Mengele’s victims, igniting worldwide interest in the case.
Finally, in May 1985, the West German prosecutor’s office received crucial intelligence that led to a raid on the home of one of Mengele’s lifelong friends. Among the papers seized were a coded address book and letters exchanged with Mengele, including one informing the friend of Mengele’s death.
The authorities in São Paulo were alerted, and after extensive interrogation of Mengele’s acquaintances, they were able to locate his grave and exhume his remains. Forensic examination confirmed with a high degree of probability that the body was indeed Josef Mengele’s.
His son Rolf finally issued a statement confirming his father’s death and revealing that news of it had been concealed for some time to protect those who had helped him evade capture.
Despite DNA testing confirming Mengele’s identity in 1992, his family members have refused to repatriate his remains to Germany despite repeated requests by Brazilian officials.
As a result, Mengele’s skeleton remains stored at the São Paulo Institute for Forensic Medicine, where it is used as an educational tool during forensic medicine courses at the University of São Paulo’s medical school.
The decision to use Mengele’s remains in this way has been controversial, with some arguing that it is disrespectful to the victims of his horrific experiments. However, others have defended the decision, arguing that it serves as a reminder of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust and the importance of preventing such atrocities from happening again.
The story of Josef Mengele is a haunting reminder of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. Mengele’s horrific experiments on innocent people will forever stain human history, and his evasion of justice for so long only adds to the horror of his crimes.
Even in death, his body has been a source of controversy and contention, as his family refuses to repatriate his remains to Germany, leaving them in a Brazilian forensic institute.
Mengele’s life and legacy warn about the dangers of ideology and the potential for evil within individuals, even if the said individual has received a good education. It reminds us that we must always be vigilant against those seeking to dehumanize and harm others based on race, religion, or other characteristics.
The story of Mengele’s life and crimes should never be forgotten and should continue to be taught as a lesson in the importance of empathy, compassion, and the protection of human rights for all.
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