Fifteen years ago the world let out a sigh of relief with the discovery of 208 bones and a few rags. For over forty years survivors of the Nazi death camps known as Auschwitz were haunted by the vision of the handsome, well dressed man with a caring smile who pointed his white-gloved finger either left or right deciding who lived (at least for the moment) and who died. Those who passed this man and survived have always remembered the man known as the Angel of Death. These are the people who question the identification of these bones as those of SS doctor Josef Mengele.
Josef Mengele was the eldest son of Karl and Walburga Mengele of Günzburg, Bavaria. Karl Mengele ran a machine tools factory and often put his eldest son Beppo, as he was known then, in charge of overseeing the transport of all goods to and from the factory (Drekel 29). Beppo was always happy when the transports arrived and years later an older Beppo still delighted at the arrival of trains and their cargoes, but at a different railway stop (30). Mengele’s childhood was one of privilege. His family was upper middle class and Beppo was well liked by the townspeople. Most townspeople recall an innocence and sweetness to him (31).
Josef Mengele was a promising student and went to Munich to study racial theories under the “philosopher” of National Socialism Alfred Rosenburg (THHP par.2). He then moved to Frankfurt-am-Main to receive his medical degree and study under Otmar von Verschuer. Verschuer was the director of the Institute for Racial Hygiene at the University of Frankfurt and is who began Mengele with his studies on genetic engineering (par. 2). By the time Mengele received his medical degree he was a member of both the National Socialist Party and the SS (par.2). Mengele did serve in battle and although there is little mention of the details of his service it is known that he was wounded while on the Eastern front (Astor 28). Mengele was sent back to Germany to recover and was awarded an Iron Cross First Degree, Iron Cross Second Degree and the standard decoration for service against the Red armies (28). It was after he recovered that Mengele volunteered as camp doctor at an installation in the southwest of Poland known as Auschwitz (29).
Dr. Mengele took his new position with the stated mission to perform research on human genetics. His mentor, Verschuer, had secured a grant through the German Research Council to fund Mengele’s work (Lynott screen 2). Dr. Mengele wanted to create a Germanic super-race by unlocking genetic engineering secrets and devising methods for eradicating inferior gene strands from the human population (screen 2). His most passionate interest soon became twins. Twins were the perfect specimens because one twin could act as the control while the other was endlessly experimented on. This passion is what drove Mengele to the arrival ramps at Auschwitz. In just over a year that Mengele was at the camp he is known to be present for at least 74 arrivals (Gilbert 582), but with 70 to 90 percent of new arrivals being sent immediately to the gas chamber after stepping off the train (Lynott screen 1) who knows how many other arrivals Mengele was at that no one has survived to recall.
Mengele’s selection process was very systematic. Young men and women aged eighteen to thirty-five that looked strong were sent to the left – to slave labor. The rest, consisting of the old, the very young children and their mothers, the sick, and the weak were sent to the right – to the gas chamber (Astor 55). Mothers with very young children and mothers with children who had died in transport, as many did, were sent to the gas chamber because, as Mengele himself said, “mothers won’t work well if they know their children are dead,” (60). Mengele selected certain people from the new arrivals for his own personal group. Anyone with certain abnormalities, such as dwarfs, midgets, hunchbacks along with other birth defects, and twins were sent to a special block where Mengele could perform his research (THHP par.7). The building in which Mengele housed his specimens was Block 10 – the Zoo, as it came to be called.
The twins became known as Mengele’s Children. They received certain privileges such as being allowed to keep their own clothes and their hair, the rest of the inmates were stripped and had their heads shaved. The twins were housed in their own compound with boys and girls lodged separately (Dekel 57). They were spared the beatings and punishment often received by other prisoners and the twins were sometimes even given better food rations (58). Many of the twins recall Dr. Mengele as very kind and remember him giving them treats and candy (Hizme 74). Irene Hizme, who was one of Mengele’s Children summed up the feelings of almost all his specimen’s saying, “he [Mengele] was our savior and our demon,” (74). But Mengele’s Children received a much worse fate than most other prisoners – the endless experiments. The children soon learned that the good treatment they were receiving was only to keep them healthy for these experiments. Mengele’s experiments on the twins are only partially known. Those who suffered the worst of his research took his actions to their grave (Josef Mengele par.5). Of the 3000 twins studied by Mengele only 200 survived, and those who survived say there were some experiments performed that they will never talk about (Dekel 70).
Once the twins were selected, they, like all new inmates, were showered and branded with a numbered tattoo (Dekel 57). They were then asked to complete a questionnaire detailing their background, health, demographic information, and all their physical characteristics – their age, weight, height, eye and hair color were very important (59). Each day the twins were awakened at 6 o’clock for roll call when they would each be called for a number of experiments (61). Almost every twin was subject to daily blood withdrawals and X rays (Josef Mengele par.2). These were quite painful and usually led to fainting and on occasion even death, but these were the experiments the children looked forward to. They knew of the children that went for surgery and returned paralyzed or didn’t return at all.
Dr. Mengele would often perform experimental surgery without using anesthesia. He would remove organs and limbs, sterilize the female twins and castrate the males, he even attempted to change the sex of some twins (Dekel 70). Moshe Offer remembers, of her twin brother Tibi, that one surgery on his spine left him paralyzed, then his sexual organs were taken out, and on the fourth operation he did not return (71). Moshe is lucky to have survived his brother’s death; as a rule, if one twin dies the other is killed. This would allow for an autopsy of both bodies simultaneously (Astor 96). Alex Dekel recalls a stomach operation in which pieces of the specimens stomach were removed and another were the heart was removed without anesthesia (Dekel 70). Many children also died from brain operations or were paralyzed by spinal operations. If the specimen were to die, their organs would be sent to Verschuer for further examination. There were a few cases were the head of a victim was sent (Astor 101). As cruel and painful as these operations were, the result was often a fairly quick death – other experiments did not have the same effect.
The most notorious of Mengele’s research was with eye coloration. Mengele wanted to create the perfect Aryan race – children with striking features possessing blond hair and blue eyes. To do this, he needed to understand the genetics behind eye coloration. Mengele would try to alter the color of the twins’ eyes by introducing different fluids. He would either inject these fluids with a shot into the eye or by using eye drops (Dekel 65). He tried to inject dyes, methylene blue, bleach and other agents into the eyes. Of course the result was only pain and infection, in one case blindness, and in one case death (THHP par.8). Hedvah and Leah Stern remember, “One day, we were given eye-drops. Afterwards, we could not see for several days. We thought the Nazis hade made us blind” (Dekel 66). His obsession with eyes led to his collection. There are eyewitness accounts of an entire laboratory wall that was covered with human eyes “pinned like butterflies” (Astor 98).
Mengele also subjected his twins to experiments studying infectious diseases. He would inject lethal germs into his twins to study their reactions (Josef Mengele par.3). Mengele injected typhus and tuberculosis, along with other fatal diseases, just to see how long it would take for the patients to succumb to the disease (Lynott screen 3). Once a specimen died, through any means, their remains were taken to Mengele’s pathology lab. The final step of all Mengele’s experiments was always a post-mortem examination (THHP par.6). In some reported cases, the post-mortem exam was administered with the child still alive (Gilbert 688).
Mengele did not spend all his energy on the twins. He was also very interested in midgets, dwarfs, hunchbacks, and any other abnormalities. Mengele conducted most of the same tests on these specimens as he had his twins, but the people with these abnormalities suffered other tortures. In the case of the Ovitch family, a group of seven dwarfs and three children of normal height, Mengele made the family perform circus-type acts fully nude in front of a large gathering of SS officers and camp guards – some were sexually abused (Gilbert 689).
As a doctor at Auschwitz, Mengele rarely offered treatment to those who were sick. Mengele would often examine the hospital facilities and infirmaries at Auschwitz. For prisoners, illness involved great risk – if weak and ill they served no labor purpose to the Nazi’s. During Mengele’s examinations he would require the inhabitants to rise for roll call. Anyone to weak to stand for this was sent to the gas chamber. His treatment for any disease that might cause an epidemic was simple. If even only one prisoner showed symptoms of a contagious disease every inmate in that barrack would be gassed and the barrack disinfected (Astor 75). He was known to do this on over thirty occasions.
Especially disturbing to Mengele was typhus. It seemed Mengele had an almost phobic reaction to symptoms that even hinted at typhus (Astor 75). It is said that during the summer of 1943 Mengele himself came down with either typhoid or typhus and spent a month recuperating (75). Upon his return, Mengele was determined to eradicate all sources of infection. This led to more mass gassing. Mengele sent these groups to death because they scared him, but there is one group of people Mengele actually is said to have enjoyed sending to the gas chambers.
Pregnant women of Auschwitz had the most to fear of Dr. Mengele. Women became aware of Mengele’s attitude and started to hide their pregnancies (Astor 80). Pregnancy at Auschwitz meant certain death to both mother and child, if the child were even given a chance to be born. Mengele tried to boast his “humanitarianism” in having these women killed. He would say how Auschwitz had no facilities for newborns (Dekel 80). A child was allowed to be born in the case of one girl who eluded Mengele with her pregnancy for seven months. To punish the mother for tricking him, Mengele bound her breasts so she could not nurse the child. The mother laid in torment listening to her child’s cries of hunger for days until a prisoner on the hospital staff helped her administer a strong dose of morphine to kill the child (Astor 82-83). Other prisoner hospital workers began administering abortions to women before Mengele could learn of their pregnancy. In cases where the pregnancy was too far along for abortion the child would be killed at birth and the mother told the child was stillborn (Astor 81). These abortions were extremely painful. There was no anesthesia administered and the only instruments were the two hands of the nurse or doctor administering the abortion (81).
By the time the Russians liberated Auschwitz Menegle had disappeared. He was spotted at Mauthausen shortly after, but when it seemed the Russians would soon control that death camp also he left his SS uniform behind and took on the role of a soldier of the Wehrmacht (Dekel 102). The unit later surrendered to American troops and Mengele became a prisoner of war. At this time he began using an extra set of identification papers a friend had given him under the name of Fritz Ulmann. Mengele changed the papers to read Fritz Hollman and was released from the POW camp by soldiers who saw no evidence he had been in the SS (103). After this, Mengele began a long trail that no one could ever quite catch up with.
The cruelty of Mengele’s actions will never be understood by anyone who was not a part of it. There is no way to describe in a few pages the terrible physical and psychological torment Dr. Mengele’s “patients” endured. Unfortunately, all of his experiments and torment left the world with no practical information. Mengele was quite unsuccessful in his goal to unlock the secrets of genetic engineering. As surviving Mengele subject Alex Dekel states, “I have never accepted the fact that Mengele himself believed he was doing serious work – not from the slipshod way he went about it. He was only exercising his power” (Lynott screen 3). It is almost impossible to imagine any person capable of committing such cruelty and having such disregard for human life, yet it is necessary to strive to understand what motivates such a person to do these things. Unbelievably, genocide and ethnic cleansing are still taking place in the world today. At least six million people died because the world turned its head to what the Nazis were doing. How long can this continue.
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Dekel, Sheila Cohn and Lucette Matalon Lagnado. Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele
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1 Nov. 2000. *http://www.modcult.brown.edu/Students/angell/mengele.html*.
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