Just the mention of his name can still send a chill up the spine. In a place full of horror, he was the most feared monster of them all – the angel of death, Josef Mengele. Although trained as a doctor to preserve life, he brought a sadistic cruelty to the experiments that ended the lives of so many. His victims of choice? Children!
In this week’s Biographics, we reveal the depraved life of the monster of Auschwitz, Dr. Josef Mengele.
Josef Mengele entered the world on the 16th of March, 1911 in the German Bavarian town of Gunzburg. After three miscarriages, he was the first born of Karl and Walpurga Mengele. Karl was the owner of a farm machinery factory which turned to producing munitions when the war began in 1914.
The Mengeles’ would go on to have two more sons but Josef was the firm favorite of his mother. Walpurga was an obese woman who had a stern reputation and a voracious appetite. She doted on her oldest son and was much closer to him than she was to her husband. For his part, Josef proved to be a quiet child whose main goal was to please his overbearing mother.
At school, Josef was an average student. He struggled to keep his grades up to the standard that his mother expected. When he was fifteen he contracted the serious bone marrow disease osteomyelitis. The illness, which was often fatal in those days, kept him off school for six months. Returning to class, he was seriously behind his peers academically.
“There can’t be two smart peoples in the world. We’re going to win the war, so only the Aryan race will stand.”
Over the next two years, Josef showed a remarkable level of self-discipline to, not only catch up, but surpass many of his fellow students’ grades. By the age of seventeen he had outgrown his shyness and developed into a handsome, focused and driven young man who was popular with both teachers and classmates.
A Medical Career Beckons
In April 1930, the nineteen-year-old passed his high school exams and gained acceptance into the medical and philosophy faculties at Munich University. He had decided to become a doctor.
Mengele stood out from the other young men on campus. He was always impeccably dressed and had developed the air of a gentleman. He treated women with old fashioned dignity and was a very good dancer. All of these traits quickly got him noticed by the ladies with the result that his social calendar was usually full.
During his first year at university, Mengele began to show an interest in politics. He joined the Steel Helmets in March 1931, a paramilitary group who advocated a return to the pre-war monarchy. The Steel Helmets were a stepping stone in to the National Socialist, or Nazi, Party, which was being promoted in beer halls, as well as on university campuses. The Nazis advocated a return of German pride and pureness and the removal of racial impurities. These ideas appealed to Mengele and seemed to mesh with the Social Darwinism that he was being taught in the lecture halls. He became fascinated with eugenics, particularly the idea that a population could be made more perfect through selective breeding of those who had the most desirable characteristics. It would also help to weed out undesirable traits by the elimination of the weak and feeble.
The Emerging Nazi
While the Nazis belived in eugenics, for them the process of generational selective breeding was far too slow. They were determined to weed out the weak now. The Aryan race could no longer stand the contaminating influence of inferior races such as the Slavs and the Jews, both of whom were considered untermencsh, or sub human. These beliefs were enthusiastically embraced by the young, impressionable Josef Mengele.
In 1935, Mengele was awarded a PhD in Anthropology. His thesis was entitled Racial Morphological Research on the Lower Jaw Section of Four Racial Groups. The paper was free of any racial bias and set out to prove empirically by science alone that the German was a superior breed of human being.
A year later, Mengele graduated with a medical degree. He spent four months as an intern at the Leipzig university clinic before joining the staff of Germany’s leading racial expert, Dr. Omar Freiherr Von Verschuer at the institute for Heredity, Biology and Racial Purity, located at the University of Frankfurt.
Mengele’s job at the Institute was to examine people who were suspected of breaking the Nuremburg Laws to see whether or not they were Jews. He and his colleagues created thousands of files which would be out to devastating use in future years as people were rounded up for transportation to concentration camps.
In May of 1937, Mengele officially joined the Nazi Party. He became a member of the Nazi Doctor’s Party and then, in May of 1938, the Shutz Staffen, or SS. The SS had been created as Hitler’s personal protection squad but had expanded its role to the running of concentration camps. The leader of the SS was Heinrich Himmler, a meticulous organizer who had plans to make the still small organization as powerful as the national army. At the time that Mengele joined, the SS was an elite group that only allowed the best specimens of Aryan manhood into its ranks.
At about the same time as he became a member of the SS, Mengele became engaged to Irene Schoenbein, the daughter of a professor at Frankfurt University. Six years younger than Josef, Irene was a blond-haired beauty and made the perfect complement to the handsome, athletic looking young doctor. When it came to getting married, however, there was a problem. While Josef was able to show documentation of his Aryan purity, Irene could not prove that her grandfather was 100% Aryan. It was only the influence of the Mengele family that smoothed the way for the wedding, which took place in July, 1939.
The failure to fully prove Irene’s ancestry precluded the Mengele’s from inclusion in the kinship book of the SS, which included couples who could prove the Aryan ancestry back to 1750. As a result, Mengele was deprived of the ‘swords and spoons’ ward which was given to an SS man on the birth of a child.
After just three months of marriage, Mengele was called for a three-month stint in the army. He was sent to the Tyrolean mountain region. Possessing a high level of physical fitness and being an adept hiker, he excelled in his service. Having completed his three-month service, he returned to his job at Frankfurt University. But with the coming of war in 1939, national mobilization was instituted. Mengele was rejected on the first draft due to a kidney infection that he had had as a child.
The War Hero
In June of 1940, Mengele was finally called up, becoming a second lieutenant in the Waffen SS. He was put in a no combat position, working in the Genealogical Section of the Race and Resettlement Office. By June of 1941, with the onset of Operation Barbarossa, there was an urgent need for men to serve on the eastern front. Mengele was pulled out of the office and sent to the Russian front. He proved to be a courageous solider, winning the Iron Cross, second class.
At the beginning of 1942, Mengele transferred to the Scandinavian Viking SS Division, where he served as a field doctor. Again, he proved his courage under fire, winning the Iron Cross, first class, when he pulled two men from a burning tank.
In November, 1942 he suffered serious wounds and was invalided out of the front lines. After a period of recovery, he returned to the Race and Resettlement Office. He gained promotion to captain and then, in mid-1943, he was given what was to him a dream job – practical eugenics researcher. This meant that he was able to indulge all of the wackiest eugenics theories, testing them out on living human subjects.
The human subjects who would be Mengele’s guinea pigs were to be found at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. He obtained a posting to the camp and set about extending his anthropological research into heredity.
Mengele was not the first doctor to use concentration camp inmates for research purposes. In Buchenwald and Dachau, Jews were injected with bacteria, exposed to all manner of deadly diseases and struck with rifle butts repeatedly to see how long it would take for them to suffer irreversible brain damage. At Auschwitz, itself, Dr. Horst Schumann had been conducting sterilization experiments, once castrating 90 men in a single day.
Yet Mengele was to take the scope and barbarity of his experiments to a whole new level. Auschwitz had been elected as the venue for his work because of its out of the way location and because it was close to a railway junction with tracks coming from all over Europe.
Mengele arrived at Auschwitz on May 23rd, 1943. The very next day he participated in his first selection. This involved selecting which of the new inmate arrivals were to live and which were to die. On that day, he sent 1035 Gypsies to the gas chamber.
As was his nature, Mengele was impeccably dressed during these selections. He wore a white SS medical uniform, white gloves and polished black boots. His face was emotionless as he quickly decided who was to die that day by way of the flick of his wrist. His constant chain-smoking and air of nonchalance presented a mystifying, yet terrifying sight for the bewildered new arrivals.
During his time at Auschwitz, Mengele oversaw selection on 74 transports. 80% of new arrivals were condemned to death immediately. All children under the age of 14 were killed, as were the aged and infirm. Mengele seemed to enjoy this aspect of his job, and was known to say . . .
Here the Jews enter through the doors and leave through the chimney.
“The Jewish people, no matter where they are, they become the best in the world.” As quoted in Defy the darkness: A Tale of Courage in the Shadow of Mengele (2000) by Joe Rosenblum and David Kohn, p. 192
Mengele’s passion, however, was for scientific research. He instructed the guards to seek out those who were deformed, overly tall, midgets or lame. His most prized subjects were twins, especially if they were children.
From his earliest days at University, Mengele had a fascination with twins. He believed that by studying them he could discover the secret to genetic manipulation. In fact, it was the search for twins that motivated him to attend so many arrival selections. During his time at Auschwitz he managed to find more than 1500 pairs of twin children that were put to use as human guinea pigs. Only 100 pairs were to survive.
The twins and other research subjects who were selected on arrival would be marched to living quarters at the Birkenau about two miles away. There they lived in appalling conditions, surrounded by rotting corpses and starving adults.
Once established in their disgraceful living quarters, the children had to complete an intensive questionnaire in which they had to indicate their age, height, eye and hair color, ethnic background and any health problems. Older children assisted young ones to complete the forms, desperate to have everything completed to the satisfaction of the guards.
Children would then be interviewed by Mengele himself, who would take extensive notes and then have a file for each child drawn up. He was determined to have his research seen as legitimate and so went to great lengths to keep everything official.
In preparation for experimentation, the children were cleaned, bathed and dressed in clean pyjamas. They were then taken by Red Cross vehicles to one of Mengele’s research laboratories. He had established a number of labs around the Auschwitz, Birkenau area for specific purposes. At one, blood tests and X-rays were taken. Here the children were treated with care. Mengele would regularly come in to ensure that none were being mistreated. On these occasions he would hand out sweets to the children and talk gently and reassuringly to them. By doing so, he was able to engender the trust needed to get the children onto the experimentation table.
The Angel of Death
In other laboratories, the most heinous barbarism was taking place on a daily basis. Anaesthesia was never used, so the pain that was inflicted on the children can hardly be imagined. Experiments included the removal of specific organs or limbs, immersion in freezing water, the injection of dyes into the eyes, castration of boys, sterilization of girls and deliberate infection of wounds with gangrene.
Occasionally Mengele would organize endurance test experiments. These involved a group of subjects who would be given increasingly strong voltages of electricity until they either died, became unconscious or went into a coma.
As soon as a twin died, its sibling would immediately be killed in order to provide comparative data during the autopsies.
Despite Mengele’s attempt to cloak his work in legitimacy, there was no valid scientific reason for any of these horrendous experiments. Doctors who assisted Mengele later recorded that it seemed as if many of the experiments were inspired by pure sadism.
In addition to his diabolical lab work and his selection duties with new arrivals, Mengele occasionally delivered babies. Women who were found to be pregnant were immediately gassed. However, if they were near full-term, Mengele would deliver the baby, only to be sent, with its mother to its death. One of his greatest amusements was to allow them both to live for some time but to tape the mother’s breasts, so that she would be forced to watch her baby starve to death.
Of all of his atrocities, the worst occurred when he had a pit dug and a massive fire lit in the yard at Birkenau. He then had 300 children, all under the age of 5, thrown into the flames.
Unlike the majority of Nazi killers, Mengele did not have to be drugged or drunk in order to carry out his murderous work. In fact, according to Jewish survivors who were forced to assist in the laboratories, he was enthusiastic in his infliction of cruelty. At times his temper would flare to exhibit itself with sharp bursts of horror. On one occasion, he smashed an old man’s skull open simply because he wanted to be on his son’s work detail.
Within the camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, Mengele had unlimited power. This combined with his natural sadism turned him into a monster. He was often accompanied on his rounds by his female equal – SS guard Irma Gresse, a 21-year-old blonde beauty who was almost as depraved as he was. The two of them marched around the camp in immaculate uniform, the perfect Aryan couple.
Mengele’s hatred for the Jews knew no bounds. He would celebrate Jewish holy days, such as Yom Kippur, by ordering the gassing of 1,000 children. But, his extreme prejudice could not prevent feelings of lust from arising within him on occasion when naked young women were paraded in front of him. On one occasion, a beautiful 15-year-old Jewish girl from Transylvania stood in front of him. Mengele was clearly aroused by the girl. Obviously torn inside, he had the girl selected for special experimentation. Over the next hour he caused such deformity to her body that she resembled an old, decrepit hag. He left her to die, having overcome his illicit lust.
By early 1944, Mengele had taken to adopting a child. Invariably the little boy would physically resemble him and would be dressed in a small white medical uniform. Mengele would walk around the camp hand-in-hand with the child, providing him with sweets and toys. Within a month, the doctor would tire of the child and lead him, still hand-in-hand, to the gas chamber.
The crueler that Mengele was in the conducting of his duties, the more respect he got in the Nazi hierarchy. In a report written at the end of 1944, Auschwitz camp commandant, Rudolf Hoess, wrote that Mengele ‘carried out all tasks given to him, often under very difficult conditions, to the complete satisfaction of his superiors . . . often using his little off-duty time to utilize the scientific material at his disposal to make a valuable contribution to anthropological science’.
On the Run
By early 1945, Mengele was at the height of his power. Yet, he could also read the writing on the wall. He knew that the war was lost and that soon the Russians would overrun the camp. In early January, the crematoria had been blown up and healthy prisoners were being forced marched to new destinations in Germany. Mengele continued his experiments until the last minute, but then he busied himself in shipping out all of his equipment, documents and reports. Then on January 17th, 1945 Josef Mengele simply disappeared from Auschwitz.
Ten days later the Russians arrived. They discovered a burnt-out horror factory. The place had been set on fire and the Germans, like Mengele, had fled. A few thousand survivors, more dead than alive, were found wandering among the ruins.
“Even the Russians are fighting us. They’ve brought in Jewish pilots, nurses, and doctors. Everybody’s ganging up on us. We didn’t think it would happen this way.”
Mengele had fled to Gross-Rossen concentration camp further south. Then, as the Russians closed in on that camp, he made for the Mathausen camp in Austria. When the allies approached, he ditched his Nazi uniform and went on the run.
His freedom didn’t last long. On May 2nd he had joined up with a war hospital unit. The unit soon was overrun by the Russians and all the Germans taken into custody. When arrested Mengele was wearing a Wehrmacht uniform. He proved to be a bad prisoner, constantly worrying that he would be exposed as an SS officer. With all of the suspected SS men weeded out, he and the other prisoners were handed over to the Americans and then released.
The Angel of Death had appeared to have escaped scot free. However, he knew that he would be constantly hunted down. He was too afraid to return to his family, and so travelled around West Germany and into Soviet occupied East Germany. For three years he worked as a laborer on an alpine farm in the hamlet of Mangolding in Bavaria.
Meanwhile the story of Mengele’s atrocities had been revealed to the world at large. As a result, he became the most sought-after Nazi scalp by post-war Nazi hunters. He made the decision to flee Europe, walking over the Alps and crossing into Italy in April, 1949. He then made his way to South Tyrol, where he managed to obtain an International Red Dross ID card under a false name. With this he managed to get a Swiss passport. Mengele next traveled to to Genoa, from where he set sail for Buenos Airies, Argentina.
Arriving on Argentinian soil, Mengele finally felt safe. He was taken in my Argentinian President Juan Peron and lived within his palatial compound. Peron had been a long-time supporter of Hitler and had opened up his country to fleeing Nazis.
Mengele established a comfortable life in Argentina. He found work as a carpenter, a trade at which he proved to be adept. He was a highly respected member of the local Nazi community. By now his father was extremely wealthy as a result of his business ventures. The old man financed international rendezvous, usually at skiing resorts. Absent from these family get togethers was Mengele’s wife, Irene, who had divorced her husband in absentia.
On a family skiing trip to Switzerland in 1956, Mengele charmed his dead brother Karl’s widow, Martha. A year later they were married, with Martha and her son Rolf moving to Argentina to be with Mengele.
With the backing of his father’s money, Mengele and his new family lived well. They moved into an upmarket villa in a luxurious suburb, ironically, in the midst of many wealthy Jewish families. He became so confident in his new life that, in 1956, he forsook his alias and reverted to his real name.
However, a determined handful of Nazi hunters, mainly made up of Holocaust survivors, were hot on his trail. One of them, Hermann Langbein, managed to get hold of the divorce papers filed by Irene. They indicated that Mengele was living in Buenos Airies. Langbein pressured the West German government to issue an arrest warrant, which they did on June 7th, 1959. The West German Foreign Ministry now demanded that Mengele be extradited to face the charges.
On to Brazil
Mengele was warned what was happening and fled to Paraguay. A year later he moved on to Brazil where he settled in with a Hungarian couple on a small farm about 300 miles from Sao Paolo. In mid-1962 he moved again, this time to a 45-hectare farm at Serra Negra, 150 miles north of Sao Paulo, where he boarded with the Strasser family.
In his old age, Mengele became arrogant, surly and self centered. He treated other people as his intellectual and racial inferiors.
In 1964, a war crime trial for Mengele was held in absentia. Throughout the course of the trial the gruesome details of his experiments were related, often by surviving human guinea pigs. As a result of these revelations, he became a hated figure for the vast majority of West Germans.
Death – Finally
By 1970, the efforts to get Mengele extradited had petered out and he had largely been forgotten about. He continued to live an unhappy life with the Strasser family, who had grown to loathe him. In 1976 he suffered a stroke from which he only partially recovered. He finally met his end in February, 1979, suffering a fatal stroke while swimming at the beach at Bertioga, Brazil. Until the moment he took his last breath he never uttered a single regret about his actions at Auschwitz.