During the last two years of World War II Josef Mengele (1911-1979), a German physician, conducted atrocious medical experiments and sent tens of thousands of Jews to the gas chambers at Auschwitz/Birkenau, a concentration camp in south western Poland. In 1949 he fled Germany for Latin America where, 30 years later, he died by drowning. He was never apprehended and thus was never prosecuted as a war criminal.
The son of an agricultural machinery manufacturer in Günzburg, Bavaria, Josef Mengele was born on March 16, 1911. Brought up as a Catholic, the popular and talented boy grew into a promising, ambitious student. He received his doctorate in medicine under Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer in 1938 with a dissertation on hereditary deformities. Von Verschuer, director of the Frankfurt University Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene—established in 1934 to pursue research in a field strongly supported by the fanatically racist National Socialist regime—made Mengele his assistant. Since twins were especially suited for genetics research, Mengele focussed his work on them.
His academic career was interrupted by World War II, during which he served in the military, first with the army mountain troops, then with the 5th SS Panzer "Viking" Division. He became a battalion surgeon with the rank of SS-captain and was repeatedly decorated for valor. Severely wounded in fighting on the Donets River in Russia during the spring of 1943, Mengele was declared unfit for combat duty, and in May he was assigned to Auschwitz (Oswiecim), where some two million people, most of them Jews, were murdered—largely by poison gas. Until January 20, 1945, he conducted experiments on inmates, concentrating on twins and dwarfs. His victims were Jews and Gypsies, females as well as males, children as well as grown-ups.
In his position as "health director" Mengele, according to an inmate-physician's postwar testimony, "was the first one to rid the entire women's camp of lice. He simply had an entire block gassed." Disposing of 750 women in this manner, and thereby reducing the danger of typhus, was for Mengele a morally and scientifically rational option.
Mengele was interested in eyes. He sent pairs of different colors to Verschuer, who after the war said he had not known that they had come from persons killed for their sake. Also, in order to see if it were possible to change the color of the iris, Mengele gave dozens of children eye injections, causing agony, at least one case of partial blindness, and the death of a newborn baby.
His primary interest remained twins. Mengele studied their similarities and differences under conditions unprecedented in his field: the circumstance, for example, of both twins dying at the same time from the same cause—such as an injection, according to the postwar testimony of his autopsist, of chloroform into the heart.
Aside from conducting experiments on humans and screening new arrivals at Auschwitz for slave labor, laboratory exploitation, or the gas chamber, Mengele organized Bach concerts, wrote skits, and created a lilliputian circus for the dwarfs he collected for his lethal research—to which, in the end, they also were sacrificed.
As World War II drew to a close and the SS destroyed the gas chamber and crematoria in Auschwitz, Mengele reluctantly gathered up his extensive research notes and disappeared. The notes never resurfaced, but Mengele did a number of times. He was reportedly arrested in 1947 by two American servicemen in Vienna, Austria, but released by the U.S. Army's C.I.C. (Counter-intelligence Corps) because the British wanted to use him as an agent. In 1949, before going to Latin America, he lived in his home town of Günzburg in the U.S. Zone of Occupation; the Cold War had begun, West Germany was being brought into the Western alliance, and Washington had no interest in harassing old Nazis who, if nothing else, were known to be anti-communist.
After about ten years in Argentina Mengele moved on to Paraguay, ruled by a pro-German, right-wing military dictatorship. Repeated requests were made to extradite Mengele to West Germany, where he was wanted for the murder of 2,000 human beings and for rendering assistance in the killing of another 200,000, but a concerted international effort to apprehend him, supported by a reward of some $2 million, was made only in the mid-1980s. By then he was (supposedly) dead, having drowned in 1979 at a Brazilian beach resort and having been buried under an assumed name. His remains were identified in 1985 by Brazilian, German, and American forensic specialists, and his death was confirmed by his family in Germany. By that time, the five-year statute of limitations in the Federal Republic of Germany precluded anyone being prosecuted for having aided and abetted Mengele's flight from justice. During the second half of his life he evidently was treated as a political refugee rather than as one of the cruelest tormentors of his fellow man in recorded history.
Further Reading on Josef Mengele
The "Last" Nazi! The Life and Times of Dr. Josef Mengele (1985) by Gerald Astor argues that he was the product of his time and environment. An article by Robert Jay Lifton, "What Made This Man? Mengele," published on July 21, 1985, in the New York Times Magazine, was adapted from a book on Nazi doctors published in 1986. A graphic picture of Mengele's activity emerges from a report on a West German trial of Auschwitz personnel in the mid-1960s by Bernd Naumann in Auschwitz, translated by Jean Steinberg, with an introduction by Hannah Arendt (1966). The Holocaust, vol. 9, Medical Experiments on Jewish Inmates of Concentration Camps, edited and with an introduction by John Mendelsohn (1982), provides authentic archival material in facsimile (in English or in German with English translation) on the kind of work in which Mengele and his colleagues were engaged. In The Destruction of the European Jews (1961) Raul Hilberg describes the medical experiments in the context of his comprehensive history of the Holocaust. In German, there is a probing, analytical, yet humane account of what went on in Auschwitz by a former Austrian inmate, Menschen in Auschwitz (Vienna, 1972) by Hermann Langbein, who also carefully edited and annotated a two-volume account of the West German trial mentioned above, Der Auschwitz-Prozess. Eine Dokumentation (Frankfurt, 1965). In Mengele: The Complete Story (1986) authors Gerald L. Posner and John Ware discuss how he escaped from Germany after World War II and survived for more than 30 years in South America.
Additional Biography Sources
Abraham, Ben, The Angel of Death: the Mengele dossier, Sao Paulo, Brazil: Sherit Hapleita, Brazilian Association of the Survivors of Nazism, 1986.