The Angel of Death: 9 Facts About the Life of Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele

The Angel of Death: 9 Facts About the Life of Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele

Larry Holzwarth - October 12, 2017

Of all the demented psychopaths of the hierarchy of the Nazi Party in Germany, none is more notorious than the man nicknamed the “Angel of Death.” Using human beings as test specimens, without regard for suffering, the number of his personal victims is uncounted. His evil was so pronounced, and he appeared so indifferent to it, that he transcends the worst nightmare. He was too cruel to have existed in fiction, and when his reality is examined in detail he becomes much worse.

Mengele was a child during the First World War and was schooled in both the Germany of the Kaiser and later the Weimar Republic. He was trained in both Anthropology and Medicine in prewar Germany, taking doctorates for both disciplines from the prestigious Munich University. At first, he appeared to be a pioneering researcher in the field of genetics, being personally interested in twins and other multiple births.

He studied and wrote regarding the effects of genetics on hereditary symptoms and abnormalities such as cleft lip and palate. His early work was highly regarded by scholars both in and outside of Germany and became accepted scholastic positions in Europe and North America.

As the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany, Mengele became enamored of its positions in the areas of eugenics (the study of how to improve the human race through gene manipulation) and racial hygiene (limiting certain races from procreation to improve the overall human gene pool). Mengele was also attracted to the inherent Nazi antisemitism, which was certainly not limited to Nazis in Germany but was openly promoted by them as national policy.

Mengele’s studies and his developed theories agreed with and supported the Nazi idea of Lebensraum – living room – in which the purified German race would thrive without having to compete for survival with “subhuman” branches of the human race.

The Angel of Death: 9 Facts About the Life of Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele
As the Nazis rose in power Mengele found them a suitable source for funding his research into genetics and racial purity. Time

Mengele was decorated in combat on the Eastern Front

Although Mengele had attended meetings of various fringe groups since 1931, he did not formally join the Nazi Party until 1937. By then it had already achieved power in the German government. His position as a physician and noted researcher allowed him to join the prestigious SS, and he trained for military service with the Mountain Infantry.

He quickly volunteered to join the Waffen SS (a military unit which operated with the Wehrmacht but was loyal to Himmler) in a medical capacity, and by 1941 was serving in the Ukraine, where Nazi persecution and elimination of Jews and Slavs was already well underway. One of his duties was the determination of who may be eligible for Germanization (essentially someone of Aryan blood without the good fortune to reside in Germany proper) and who was to be eliminated.

After being wounded and decorated while in service with an SS Armored Division Mengele was deemed no longer fit for active service. He retained his SS rank and briefly returned to academia before volunteering for service in the burgeoning concentration camps in Poland and the Eastern USSR. Mengele cited the opportunity to study prisoners as research subjects as part of his application process, and he was accepted. Mengele was assigned to the Romani Family Camp, a separate section of the Birkenau concentration camp, itself part of the large complex in Poland known as Auschwitz.

Part of Mengele’s duties included the screening of prisoners arriving by train at Auschwitz, about three-quarters of whom were sent to the gas chambers immediately with the rest consigned to slave labor until they were too weak to work.

Thence they were gassed. Mengele frequently arrived to perform screenings when he was not scheduled, taking particular interest in locating twins, especially children, whom he would assign to the hospital for his own research studies. Fellow camp staff reported that Mengele showed an enthusiasm for the work, appearing in high spirits, often whistling, as he sent so many to their immediate deaths. Most screeners detested the duty and were sufficiently surprised by Mengele’s enthusiasm to make note of it.

The Angel of Death: 9 Facts About the Life of Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele
A section of the sprawling Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in Poland.

Mengele’s staff included respected Jewish physicians

As a senior doctor it was not Mengele’s role to treat inmates who were ill, but to supervise staff serving in the hospital. Most of these were Jewish themselves, including many distinguished doctors and scholars with whom Mengele had corresponded before the war. Mengele mandated that any hospitalized prisoner not recovering from illness or injury in two weeks be sent to the gas chambers.

Most of the doctors assigned to work for him were prisoners themselves, relegated to a temporary role as medical practitioners while awaiting their own turn to become part of the Final Solution. A few were Germans who, like himself, were no longer considered fit for front-line duty.

An epidemic of a bacterial disease struck the camp in 1943 and Mengele used it as an opportunity to develop antibacterial medications. His research included the execution of children stricken with the disease, at varying levels of infection, and the preservation of their internal organs to facilitate research studies at facilities outside the camp. Mengele was partnered for a time in this research by a pediatrician formerly of the University of Prague, a Jewish doctor of the name Berthold Epstein.

More than 3,000 inmates died as a direct result of this research, though Epstein would survive the war, eventually serving as the chair of the pediatrics department at a Prague hospital, and dying of natural causes in 1962. Dozens of Jewish were forced to serve at the Auschwitz hospital.

Mengele welcomed a typhus epidemic in the camp by disinfecting barracks after first moving all of their occupants to the gas chambers, usually in groups of 500 or more. Mengele would continue the disinfection process until all prisoner blocks were cleaned and disinfected, demonstrating the need to eliminate typhus from the environment and not just its victims to prevent its spread.

For this effort – repeated during outbreaks of scarlet fever and other diseases – Mengele was promoted to the position of Head Physician of the Birkenau camp and awarded the War Merit Cross. In a letter to his wife, Mengele referred to the award as the “typhus medal“.

The Angel of Death: 9 Facts About the Life of Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele
Children of Auschwitz, displaying their identification tattoos. BBC

Mengele wanted to be called Uncle Josef by his victims

Mengele used twins and other children whom he saved from immediate gassing as subjects for medical research and experimentation. Besides twins, Mengele was interested in those with eyes of differing colors, persons suffering from a cleft palate or other physical deformities present at birth, and dwarves.

His research received funding from outside the camps and his results were shared with German scholars. In all of Mengele’s experiments, he was supported by a staff of noted Jewish physicians and researchers imprisoned in the camp. Jewish researchers and physicians who refused to co-operate were killed immediately.

Mengele’s subjects were kept separate from the main camp, and he provided them with a playground and a Kindergarten. Mengele told the children to address him as “Uncle” and frequently brought them candy and tea cakes. He made sure that his subjects received better food and were housed in better circumstances than ordinary prisoners in the camps.

Nearly all of the children were eventually killed by a variety of methods including beatings, lethal injection, shooting, stabbing, and through the administration of various poisons or medications. Mengele personally performed many of the killings as part of his experiments. Those children who somehow survived Mengele’s ministrations were invariably sent to the gas chambers.

Mengele’s interest in twins was believed by many to be partly driven by his desire to find a means by which the “master race” could procreate at a greater rate. As the twins under his supervision grew, they were tested for various physical attributes and differences between the two noted and examined. Mengele unnecessarily amputated limbs from one twin and then measured its overall growth and development against that of the other.

If a twin died of natural causes or from being murdered by Mengele, he would execute the other to perform comparative autopsies. The bodies and organs would usually be shipped to medical facilities outside of the camp for additional studies.

Mengele also attempted to create conjoined twins by sewing together the living bodies of children under his care. When it appeared they were dying (usually of gangrene) he monitored them closely to determine how the death of the first affected the other.

The Angel of Death: 9 Facts About the Life of Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele
Dr. Miklos Nyiszli. A Jewish physician who volunteered to work in the camp hospital under Mengele; Many of Mengele’s atrocities were reported by Nyiszli to Russian liberators. Wikipedia

A horrifying Angel of Death

Mengele conducted experiments to change eye color by injecting dyes into the eyes of his subjects. Persons with heterochromatic eyes – meaning the two eyes are of differing coloration – Mengele had executed. The eyes were then removed and shipped off for further studies, usually to researchers in Berlin.

Mengele performed several experiments on dwarfs and children with abnormalities, usually including unnecessary medications and charting of the entire body with x-rays before killing them, dissecting the body, and sending the skeletons, organs, and all of the collected data to Berlin.

Not all of Mengele’s crimes were confined to the laboratory. Eyewitness testimony following the liberation of Auschwitz included other tales of horror. One witness described Mengele killing an infant by tossing it off of the roof of a camp building. Victims who refused to submit to his demands that they submerge themselves in nearly boiling water were summarily shot, to be immediately replaced by another inmate.

Mengele used prisoners to test the efficacy of anti-burn medications by first inflicting phosphorous burns on their bodies. Wounds were inflicted on prisoners and then deliberately infected, in order to test potential battlefield antibiotics. Prisoners who recovered from the torment were then gassed. Some prisoners were denied water until nearly dead of thirst, then given only seawater, under the guise of developing recovery plans for shipwrecked sailors. Death was painful and carefully monitored and Mengele became known as the Angel of Death.

By late 1944, the Russian armies had advanced perilously close to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, and Mengele and many of his associates prepared to flee. Some of the Jewish doctors who had assisted him were gassed, others managed to survive by expressing the need to pursue further study. Some escaped in the rising chaos of the collapse of Germany. In January 1945 Mengele moved to another camp in Silesia, taking with him his few surviving records and notes which had escaped the SS attempts to destroy the evidence of what had transpired at Auschwitz.

The Angel of Death: 9 Facts About the Life of Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele
Post War Europe was in chaos, as indicated by this unguarded entry into the American zone in Berlin, 1945. Library of Prussian Culture

Finding help to flee from Europe

The Soviet Army arrived at Auschwitz in late January 1945. About three weeks later Mengele was on the move again, fleeing the Gross-Rosen camp where he had arrived after Auschwitz and traveling westward across Germany. Mengele adopted the guise of an officer of the Wehrmacht, (the German military, not yet associated with the atrocities being unveiled by the Russians) and after leaving his notes and other documents with a friend, made for the advancing American Army. He was captured by the Americans in June 1945, after Germany’s surrender.

Mengele took advantage of the immediate post-war confusion and the lack of coordination between the allies to avoid being placed on a suspected war criminals list. Most of the documents which incriminated him in the crimes at Auschwitz-Birkenau had not yet come to light, and he was regarded by the Americans as a simple prisoner of war. Released in 1945 he obtained false identity documents using the name Fritz Hollmann.

Under that name, he wandered across post-war Europe, never staying long in one place and always wary of being identified. By then the stories of his activities in the camps were becoming known. Mengele eventually fled to the Soviet zone, in part because of an attempt on his part to reclaim his personal records of his activities in Auschwitz.

Mengele eventually found work and temporary hiding at an isolated farm near Rosenheim, remaining in hiding there until the spring of 1949. As the international pursuit of Nazi war criminals intensified, Mengele contacted former members of the SS who had established underground escape routes out of Europe, used to reach Argentina. There a large German community was known to harbor former officers and officials of the Third Reich.

The Angel of Death: 9 Facts About the Life of Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele
Many Germans sought and found refuge in Nazi-sympathizing Argentina in the 1940s and 50s. Wikipedia

Sympathy and support in South America

Europe was a hotbed of intrigue and distrust between the former allies, and growing numbers of Germans (and others including the Vatican) assisted escaping former Nazis as part of resisting the domination of the Soviet Union on Eastern Europe. Many escape routes went through Italy, and Mengele used one of these, arriving in Genoa sometime in the summer of 1949. By August, he was on a ship to Argentina, traveling under an International Passport issued by the Red Cross as a war refugee, using the alias Helmut Gregor.

In Argentina Mengele found work as a salesman of farm implements and in that role traveled throughout the region, including frequent trips to Paraguay. He achieved access to family funds (his father had accumulated significant wealth) through Swiss banks and in the early 1950s invested in a carpentry company. At first, residing in a Buenos Aires apartment, Mengele later rented a house in Olivos, an affluent suburb, and evidence indicates that he soon resumed practicing medicine, in the form of performing illegal abortions.

By 1954 Mengele had obtained a West German passport with his real name and traveled to Switzerland for a ski vacation. Despite the efforts of West German police and the Israeli secret service, Mengele returned to live openly in Argentina, under his real name, protected from extradition by international law. He invested in a pharmaceutical company, purchased property, and according to evidence uncovered in the 1990s, resumed his experimental research on twins.

After moving to Paraguay, using the name Jose Mengele, the now remarried Mengele (his first wife had remained in Europe and divorced him) remained out in the open. During the Nuremberg Trials, his name and activities had been a common topic of testimony by accused Nazis and surviving prisoners, prompting legal action by the West Germans to extradite him to Europe to face a military tribunal. When Argentina was presented with extradition papers they rejected them out of hand, since Mengele was not a resident at the time the papers were prepared.

The Angel of Death: 9 Facts About the Life of Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele
Josef Mengele (left rear) dining with his wife and guests in Brazil, circa 1960. Wikipedia

Mengele hid in plain sight

Mengele had lived well in Argentina, with family money (thanks to his father’s investments in Argentine industry) at his disposal. He was well-received by Argentine society, including being an occasional guest of Argentine President Juan Peron. When Peron was ousted in the mid-1950s Mengele’s influence began to wane, and the Nazi hunters closing in on him led him to flee to Paraguay, near the Argentine border.

Likely the event which was the greatest stimulus for his relocation was the seizure of fellow Nazi Adolf Eichmann, captured by the Israeli’s off of the streets of Buenos Aires and rushed out of the country before legal obstacles could be imposed. Mengele then reconsidered living openly and went underground.

Mengele adopted different aliases and identities over the next several years, moving often between Paraguay and Brazil, with frequent sojourns into Uruguay and Argentina. While residing undercover in the largely German community of Colonias Unidas on the Brazil-Paraguay border, Mengele made repeated trips to the Brazilian farm town of Candido Godoi.

The Brazilian town sheltered another large community of German refugees. Under the guise of working as a veterinarian, Mengele examined and treated cattle herds for various ailments. He also returned to attending pregnant women and began to inform the residents that he was capable of artificially inseminating cattle and humans, producing male twins as a result.

In subsequent interviews with those who remembered Mengele’s frequent visits, he was described as appearing to be an old-fashioned country doctor. He visited the patients, rather than the other way around. He treated livestock, family pets, and performed dental services, in addition to medical examinations and treatments, for the residents. Frequently his only compensation was an invitation to dinner.

The Angel of Death: 9 Facts About the Life of Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele
Josef Mengele as he appeared at the time of Auschwitz (left) and two sets of Brazilian twins from a town where he worked as a country doctor in Brazil. DailyStar (UK)

A Brazilian boom of twins in Mengele’s wake

The Boys From Brazil is a 1978 film which describes a fictional Nazi conspiracy in South America. The film presents unusual male children who bare physical resemblances to a youthful Adolf Hitler, and although there are several different Boys the similarities between them and Hitler – and each other – are unnerving. In the film, a total of 94 boys, all of whom are clones of Adolf Hitler, are produced.

The children are then sent to various locations around the world to be raised in a manner similar to Hitler’s childhood, in the hope that one will grow into a living replica. The project is masterminded by a fictionalized Josef Mengele operating out of Paraguay.

Beginning in 1963 and continuing into the 21st century a small town in Brazil experienced birth rates of twins of about one in five pregnancies, vastly exceeding the normal rate. The overwhelming majority of these births have been blue-eyed, with blond hair. An unusually large number have been boys. The town is Candido Godoi, which welcomed the disguised Mengele in the 1960s. Residents of the town have discussed the circumstances of Mengele’s visits. Many recalled that Mengele openly discussed artificial insemination of women to increase the odds of successful pregnancy.

In 1969 Mengele, still living under various identities and assumed names, purchased half interest in a farm in Brazil near Sao Paulo. In the early 1970s, he acquired the identity and papers of Wolfgang Gerhard and took up residence in a small house in the Eldorado section of Sao Paulo.

His son Rolf visited him there in 1977 and later reported his father to have no regrets over his career and his activities, other than the loss of much of his work. Mengele still feared pursuit by both the West Germans and the Israelis, although subsequent to his death it became known that the Israelis suspended attempts to capture the fugitive in 1962.

The Angel of Death: 9 Facts About the Life of Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele
Josef Mengele as he appeared around the time of his death in South America. He escaped justice for 34 years. Quora

Even his death escaped detection – for a while

By the mid-70s Mengele’s health was in decline and he suffered from high blood pressure, leading to at least one stroke while in residence in Eldorado. In 1977 he visited friends in the Brazilian resort town of Bertioga.

While swimming in February 1979, Mengele suffered a stroke which caused immediate paralysis, leading to his death by drowning. Still using the identity of Wolfgang Gerhard, he was buried under that name.

Privately funded efforts such as those conducted by Simon Wiesenthal continued to search for the fugitive and supposed “sightings” of the living Mengele were reported all over the world. A reward of $100,000 for Mengele’s capture was offered in 1982, and the Israeli’s staged a mock trial of the Nazi doctor in 1985, which made his crimes again international news. In 1985, after research by the United States, Israeli, and West German experts and the help of uncounted private investigators, Mengele’s burial place, and false identity were revealed. Not until 1992 would DNA testing confirm the identity of Auschwitz’s Angel of Death.

Josef Mengele eluded pursuit for 34 years. To read of his unspeakable crimes, for which he never showed regret or remorse, is to realize the depths of depravity to which one man can sink. As one of history’s ironies, Mengele’s skeletal remains are in the possession of the medical school of the University of Sao Paulo, where they are used for medical training. They are deemed particularly useful in matching skeletal remains to the existing medical record for a given individual in forensic science courses.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Holocaust Survivor 91, Meets Nephew of Doctor Who Saved His Life 4 Times at Auschwitz – Pix11

Auschwitz: How Death Camp Became Centre of Nazi Holocaust – BBC Channel

German Doctors and The Final Solution – The New York Time Magazine

Mengele letters reveal life ended in pain and poverty – The Guardian

What Made This Man? Mengele – The New York Time Magazine

The Mengele Twins and Human Experimentation – CHCUK dot CO

A History of Mengele’s Gruesome Experiments on Twins – ThoughtCo

Dr. Mengele’s Twins – The Daily Beast

Evil Doctors and Scientists From World War II – History Collection

Did the Nazis’ ‘Angel of Death’ Leave a Lasting Legacy in Brazil? – History Net

Nazi Angel of Death Josef Mengele ‘Created Twin Town In Brazil’ – The Telegraph

Why Did Israel Let Mengele Go? – NY Times