Josef Mengele, the infamous doctor of Auschwitz, referred to as the “Angel of Death,” selected arriving prisoners on the platform at Auschwitz for the gas chambers or incarceration. He also chose prisoners for medical experiments conducted by him and other camp “doctors.”
Mengele was born in Günzburg, Germany, on March 16, 1911. He was the eldest son of a well-to-do Bavarian industrialist whose family still runs an implement factory in Germany. He is described by those who knew him in his youth as a serious student and a young person with obvious intelligence and ambition. Mengele completed high school in April 1930 and went on to study philosophy in Munich.
In his university studies, Mengele chose to concentrate on physical anthropology and genetics. In 1935, Mengele earned a PhD in anthropology from the University of Munich. In January 1937, he joined the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene in Frankfurt, where he worked for Dr. Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, a German geneticist with a particular interest in researching twins. That same year he joined the Nazi Party and the SS.
Prior to his arrival at Auschwitz, he had published three articles, one of which was his dissertation in the Anthropological Institute at the University of Munich, entitled “Racial-Morphological Examination of the Anterior Portion of the Lower Jaw in Four Racial Groups.” His medical dissertation, published in 1938, was entitled “Genealogical Studies in the Cases of Cleft Lip-Jaw-Palates.” This was a predecessor to his work on genetic abnormalities and indirectly on twins which was to take place at Auschwitz. The paper earned him a cum laude doctorate in medicine from the University of Frankfurt. The third article, entitled “Hereditary Transmission of Fistulae Auris,” was published in conjunction with research done on the Lenz-Vershuer principle of “irregular, dominant hereditary process.”
It appeared that Mengele was destined for the academia; however, the route to a professorship was interrupted in 1938-1939 when he began his military experience by serving six months with a specially trained mountain light-infantry regiment. In 1940, he was placed in the reserve medical corps, following which he served three years with a Waffen-SS unit.
In June 1941, Mengele was posted to Ukraine, where he was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class. In January 1942, he joined the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking as a battalion medical officer. After rescuing two German soldiers from a burning tank, he was decorated with the Iron Cross 1st Class, the Wound Badge in Black, and the Medal for the Care of the German People. He was declared unfit for further active service in mid-1942 when he was seriously wounded in action.
Following his recovery, he was transferred to the headquarters of the SS Race and Settlement Main Office in Berlin, at which point he resumed his association with von Verschuer, who was now director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics. Mengele was promoted to the rank of SS-Hauptsturmführer (captain) in April 1943.
In early 1943, von Verschuer encouraged Mengele to apply for a transfer to the concentration camp service. Mengele’s application was accepted and he was posted to Auschwitz, where he was appointed by SS-Standortarzt Eduard Wirths, chief medical officer at Auschwitz, to the position of chief physician of the Zigeunerfamilienlager (Romani family camp) at Birkenau. According to Dr. Hans Münch, a colleague of Mengele’s at Auschwitz, Mengele arrived at the camp in a somewhat privileged position due to his array of medals.
Descriptions of him indicate he was a very attractive man, always well-groomed and very aristocratic in stature. Prisoners remember him as the man with the riding crop in his right hand and as the man who wore immaculately clean uniforms and boots with a high polish.
The SS doctors did not administer treatment to the Auschwitz inmates but supervised the activities of inmate doctors who had been forced to work in the camp medical service. As part of his duties, Mengele made weekly visits to the hospital barracks and ordered any prisoners who had not recovered after two weeks in bed to be sent to the gas chambers. Doctors and prisoners testified he was ubiquitous.
(from l. to r.) Richard Baer, Josef Mengele, and Rudolf Höss in Auschwitz (1944)
Mengele’s work also involved carrying out selections, a task that he chose to perform even when he was not assigned to do so, in the hope of finding subjects for his experiments, with a particular interest in locating sets of twins. In contrast to most of the other SS doctors, who viewed selections as one of their most stressful and unpleasant duties, he undertook the task with a flamboyant air, often smiling or whistling a tune. He was one of the SS doctors responsible for supervising the administration of Zyklon B, the cyanide-a based pesticide that was used for the mass killings in the Birkenau gas chambers. He served in this capacity at the gas chambers located in crematoria IV and V.
Selection of Hungarian Jews on the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau (May/June 1944)
Mengele’s research subjects were better fed and housed than the other prisoners, and temporarily spared from execution in the gas chambers. When visiting his young subjects, he introduced himself as “Uncle Mengele” and offered them sweets.
When an outbreak of noma – a gangrenous bacterial disease of the mouth and face – struck the Romani camp in 1943, Mengele initiated a study to determine the cause of the disease and develop a treatment. He enlisted the assistance of prisoner Berthold Epstein, a Jewish pediatrician and professor at Prague University. According to Alexander Ramati, Epstein told a comrade that Mengele “offered to prolong my life. Mind you, not to save it, just to prolong it, if I prepare a scientific paper on noma, which he would publish under his own name. It will keep him away from the front, he said, and justify his presence here as a scientist.”
The patients were isolated in separate barracks and several afflicted children were killed so that their preserved heads and organs could be sent to the SS Medical Academy in Graz and other facilities for study. This research was still ongoing when the Romani camp was liquidated and its remaining occupants killed in 1944.
When a typhus epidemic began in the women’s camp, Mengele cleared one block of six hundred Jewish women and sent them to their deaths in the gas chambers. The building was then cleaned and disinfected and the occupants of a neighboring block were bathed, de–loused, and given new clothing before being moved into the clean block. This process was repeated until all of the barracks were disinfected. Similar procedures were used for later epidemics of scarlet fever and other diseases, with infected prisoners being killed in the gas chambers. For these actions, Mengele was awarded the War Merit Cross (Second Class with swords) and was promoted in 1944 to First Physician of the Birkenau subcamp.
Mengele used Auschwitz as an opportunity to continue his anthropological studies and research into heredity, using inmates for human experimentation. His medical procedures showed no consideration for the victims’ health, safety, or physical and emotional suffering. He was particularly interested in identical twins, people with heterochromia iridum (eyes of two different colors), dwarfs, and people with physical abnormalities. A grant was provided by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation), at the request of von Verschuer, who received regular reports and shipments of specimens from Mengele. The grant was used to build a pathology laboratory attached to Crematorium II at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
Mengele’s eye experiments included attempts to change the eye color by injecting chemicals into the eyes of living subjects, and he killed people with heterochromatic eyes so that the eyes could be removed and sent to Berlin for study. His experiments on dwarfs and people with physical abnormalities included taking physical measurements, drawing blood, extracting healthy teeth, and treatment with unnecessary drugs and X-rays. Many of his victims were dispatched to the gas chambers after about two weeks, and their skeletons were sent to Berlin for further analysis. Mengele sought out pregnant women, on whom he would perform experiments before sending them to the gas chambers. Alex Dekel, a survivor, reports witnessing Mengele performing vivisection without anesthesia, removing hearts and stomachs of victims. Yitzhak Ganon, another survivor, reported in 2009 how Mengele removed his kidney without anesthesia. He was forced to return to work without painkillers.
Beginning in 1944, twins were selected and placed in special barracks. Auschwitz offered Mengele a large number of specimens to study. Some of those selected – like Irene and Rene Guttman – were already in the camp. Others like Eva and Miriam Mozes were selected on the ramp and placed in the twins barracks.
The twin research was in part intended to prove the supremacy of heredity over environment and thus strengthen the Nazi premise of the genetic superiority of the Aryan race. The twin studies may also have been motivated by an intention to increase the reproduction rate of the German race by improving the chances of racially desirable people having twins.
Dr. Miklós Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jewish pathologist who arrived in Auschwitz on May 29, 1944, performed dissections and prepared specimens for shipment in this laboratory. According to Nyiszli, twins provided the perfect experimental specimens. One could serve as a control while the other endured the experiments. It was well known in the camp that when a twin went to the infirmary, they never returned and that the other twin disappeared too. Nyiszli describes the shots of phenol which were used to kill the second twin. The corpses were dissected for final medical analysis.
Eva Mozes Kor described three days of what must have been psychological examination and three days of laboratory experiments. “Three times a week we were marched to Auschwitz to a big brick building, sort of like a big gymnasium. They would keep us there for about six or eight hours at a time – most of the days. ..... We would have to sit naked in the large room where we first entered, and people in white jackets would observe us and write down notes. They also would study every part of our bodies. They would photograph, measure our heads and arms and bodies, and compare the measurements of one twin to another. The process seemed to go on and on.” Kor said, “Most of the time, they would take blood from one arm, and they gave us shots in the other.”
Witness Vera Alexander described how Mengele sewed two Romani twins together, back-to-back, in a crude attempt to create conjoined twins. Both children died of gangrene after several days of suffering.
Being a twin, regardless of age, meant a chance for survival in 1944. Some 3,000 children (or about 1,500 sets of twins) were selected for the experiments. They were not terrified of him but rather they were often intimidated by some of what he did. They knew of his temper and his passion for his work. Yet, they were also aware of his role in their survival. “Being on Mengele’s list was better than being on no list,” said Eva Mozes Kor.
Of the children involved, only about 200 were alive when the camp was liberated by the Soviet Army on January 27, 1945. These are the children shown so often in documentaries walking between the wires of the Auschwitz I camp. Today they reside all over the world and they seek information on what was done to them. Their files have never been located and what was done to them remains a mystery.
Along with several other Auschwitz doctors, Mengele transferred to Gross-Rosen concentration camp in Lower Silesia on January 17, 1945, taking with him two boxes of specimens and the records of his experiments at Auschwitz. Most of the camp medical records had already been destroyed by the SS by the time the Red Army liberated Auschwitz on January 27. Mengele fled Gross-Rosen on February 18, a week before the Soviets arrived there, and traveled westward to Žatec in Czechoslovakia, disguised as a Wehrmacht officer. There he temporarily entrusted his incriminating documents to a nurse with whom he had struck up a relationship.
He and his unit then hurried west to avoid being captured by the Soviets, but were taken prisoners of war by the Americans in June 1945. Although Mengele was initially registered under his own name, he was not identified as being on the major war criminal list due to the disorganization of the Allies regarding the distribution of wanted lists, and the fact that he did not have the usual SS blood group tattoo. He was released at the end of July and obtained false papers under the name “Fritz Ullmank,” documents he later altered to read “Fritz Hollmann.”
After several months on the run, including a trip back to the Soviet-occupied area to recover his Auschwitz records, Mengele found work near Rosenheim as a farmhand. He eventually escaped from Germany on April 17, 1949, convinced that his capture would mean a trial and death sentence. Assisted by a network of former SS members, he used the ratline to travel to Genoa, where he obtained a passport from the International Committee of the Red Cross under the alias “Helmut Gregor,” and sailed to Argentina in July 1949. His wife refused to accompany him, and they divorced in 1954.
Mengele worked as a carpenter in Buenos Aires while lodging in a boarding house in the suburb of Vicente López. After a few weeks, he moved to the house of a Nazi sympathizer in the more affluent neighborhood of Florida Este. He next worked as a salesman for his family’s farm equipment company, Karl Mengele & Sons and, in 1951, he began making frequent trips to Paraguay as regional sales representative.
He moved into an apartment in central Buenos Aires in 1953, used family funds to buy a part interest in a carpentry concern, and then rented a house in the suburb of Olivos in 1954. Files released by the Argentine government in 1992 indicate that Mengele may have practiced medicine without a license while living in Buenos Aires, including performing abortions.
After obtaining a copy of his birth certificate through the West German embassy in 1956, Mengele was issued an Argentine foreign residence permit under his real name. He used this document to obtain a West German passport, using his real name, and embarked on a trip to Europe. He met up with his son Rolf (who was told Mengele was his “Uncle Fritz”), and his widowed sister-in-law Martha for a ski holiday in Switzerland. When he returned to Argentina in September 1956, Mengele began living under his real name. Martha and her son Karl Heinz followed about a month later, and the three began living together.
Josef and Martha were married in 1958 while on holiday in Uruguay, and they bought a house in Buenos Aires. Mengele’s business interests now included part ownership of Fadro Farm, a pharmaceutical company. Along with several other doctors, he was questioned in 1958 on suspicion of practicing medicine without a license when a teenage girl died after an abortion, but he was released without charge. Aware that the publicity could lead to his Nazi background and wartime activities being discovered, he took an extended business trip to Paraguay and was granted citizenship there in 1959 under the name “José Mengele.” He returned to Buenos Aires several times to settle his business affairs and visit his family. Martha and Karl lived in a boarding house in the city until December 1960, when they returned to West Germany.
Mengele’s name was mentioned several times during the Nuremberg trials in the mid-1940s, but the Allied forces believed that he was probably already dead. Irene Mengele and the family in Günzburg also alleged that he had died.
Working in West Germany, Nazi hunters Simon Wiesenthal and Hermann Langbein collected information from witnesses about Mengele’s wartime activities. In a search of the public records, Langbein discovered Mengele’s divorce papers, which listed an address in Buenos Aires. He and Wiesenthal pressured the West German authorities into starting extradition proceedings, and an arrest warrant was drawn up on June 5, 1959. Argentina initially refused the extradition request because the fugitive was no longer living at the address given on the documents; by the time extradition was approved on June 30, Mengele had already fled to Paraguay and was living on a farm near the Argentine border.
West Germany offered a reward for his capture, which prompted Mengele to flee. Former pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel put him in touch with the Nazi supporter Wolfgang Gerhard, who helped Mengele to cross the border into Brazil. He stayed with Gerhard on his farm near São Paulo until more permanent accommodation could be found, with Hungarian expatriates Géza and Gitta Stammer. The couple bought a farm in Nova Europa with the help of an investment from Mengele, who was given the job of managing for them. The three bought a coffee and cattle farm in Serra Negra in 1962, with Mengele owning a half interest. Gerhard had initially told the Stammers that the fugitive’s name was “Peter Hochbichler.” but they discovered his true identity in 1963. Gerhard persuaded the couple not to report Mengele’s location to the authorities by convincing them that they themselves could be implicated for harboring a fugitive.
In February 1961, West Germany widened its extradition request to include Brazil, having been tipped off to the possibility that Mengele had relocated there.
Mossad director Isser Harel hoped to locate Mengele and bring him to be tried in Israel as he had done with Adolf Eichmann. According to Rafi Eitan, the Mossad knew Mengele was living in Buenos Aires at the time of Eichmann’s capture. They decided to focus on Eichmann because he was deemed a more important target and they feared an attempt to nab Mengele would threaten the mission to get Eichmann.
Zvi Aharoni, one of the agents who had been involved in the Eichmann capture, was placed in charge of a team of agents tasked with finding Mengele. Aharoni and his team followed Gerhard to a rural area near São Paulo, where they identified a European man whom they believed to be Mengele. This potential breakthrough was reported to Harel, but the logistics of staging a capture, the budgetary constraints of the search operation, and the priority of focusing on Israel’s deteriorating relationship with Egypt led the Mossad chief to call off the manhunt in 1962.
In 1969, Mengele and the Stammers jointly purchased a farmhouse in Caieiras, with Mengele as half owner. The Stammers’ friendship with Mengele deteriorated in late 1974, and when they bought a house in São Paulo, he was not invited to join them. The Stammers later bought a bungalow in the Eldorado neighborhood of Diadema, São Paulo, which they rented out to Mengele. Rolf, who had not seen his father since the ski holiday in 1956, visited him at the bungalow in 1977.
Mengele’s health had been steadily deteriorating since 1972. He suffered a stroke in 1976, experienced high blood pressure, and developed an ear infection which affected his balance. On February 7, 1979, while visiting his friends Wolfram and Liselotte Bossert in the coastal resort of Bertioga, Mengele suffered another stroke while swimming and drowned. His body was buried in Embu das Artes under the name “Wolfgang Gerhard,” whose identification Mengele had been using since 1971.
Meanwhile, sightings of Mengele were being reported all over the world. Wiesenthal claimed to have information that placed Mengele on the Greek island of Kythnos in 1960, in Cairo in 1961, in Spain in 1971, and in Paraguay in 1978, eighteen years after he had left the country. Wiesenthal insisted as late as 1985 that Mengele was still alive – six years after he had died.
Worldwide interest in the case was heightened by a mock trial held in Jerusalem in February 1985, featuring the testimonies of more than one hundred victims of Mengele’s experiments. Shortly afterward, the West German, Israeli, and U.S. governments launched a coordinated effort to determine Mengele’s whereabouts. The West German and Israeli governments offered rewards for his capture, as did The Washington Times and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
On May 31, 1985, acting on intelligence received by the West German prosecutor’s office, police raided the house of Hans Sedlmeier, a lifelong friend of Mengele and sales manager of the family firm in Günzburg. They found a coded address book and copies of letters sent to and received from Mengele. Among the papers was a letter from Wolfram Bossert notifying Sedlmeier of Mengele’s death. German authorities alerted the police in São Paulo, who then contacted the Bosserts. Under interrogation, they revealed the location of Mengele’s grave, and the remains were exhumed on June 6, 1985. Extensive forensic examination indicated with a high degree of probability that the body was indeed that of Josef Mengele.
Rolf Mengele issued a statement on June 10 confirming that the body was his father’s, and he admitted that the news of his father’s death had been concealed to protect his family from the public and the press, and the people who had sheltered him for many years. He finally spoke out, he said, because “the pressure has become too great. You must understand I did not support my father, but I didn’t want to expose him either.”
In 1992, DNA testing confirmed Mengele’s identity beyond doubt, but family members refused repeated requests by Brazilian officials to repatriate the remains to Germany. The skeleton is stored at the São Paulo Institute for Forensic Medicine, where it is used as an educational aid during forensic medicine courses at the University of São Paulo’s medical school.
Rolf flew to South America after the death of his father and brought back documents but incriminating evidence was likely destroyed. In the letter he had received from the Bosserts, they had written, “We have guarded your uncle’s estate . . . every scrap of paper and every easily movable object of value is stored with us. My personal feelings are, as yours must be, to burn everything, but I also feel a responsibility. This destiny is too extraordinary not to preserve it for the family. Since I am pretty much aware of the private matters and the political issues, you can leave these items in my care for the time being. It will always be my aim to leave nothing harmful behind.”
In February 2010, a 180-page volume of Mengele’s diary was sold at auction for an undisclosed sum to the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. The unidentified previous owner, who acquired the journals in Brazil, was reported to be close to the Mengele family. In 2011, a further 31 volumes of Mengele’s diaries were sold to an undisclosed collector of World War II memorabilia.
Lifton describes Mengele as sadistic, lacking empathy, and extremely anti-Semitic, believing the Jews should be eliminated as an inferior and dangerous race. The Frankfurt Court, which indicted him, charged him with “hideous crimes” committed alone or with others “willfully and with bloodlust.” Included in the crimes against humanity were selections, lethal injections, shootings, beatings and other forms of deliberate killing.
Rolf gave the West German magazine Bunte hundreds of photographs, letters, and documents he said traced his father’s escape after the war. He also presented evidence to the court in Frankfurt. At that time, Mengele’s death had still not been proven and the prosecutor said he would continue to search for the doctor.
In 2020, after Mengele’s death had been established, Rolf gave an interview recalling a visit with his father in Sao Paulo in 1975. Before arriving, Rolf received a letter from his father looking forward to his visit. Another, however, said, “I do not have the minutest inner desire to justify, or even excuse, any decisions, actions or behavior regarding my life….my tolerance has its limits.”
Rolf was given directions to use a false passport on his trip and to return to Germany if he suspected he was being followed after arriving in Brazil. Josef asked Rolf to bring him several books, a Latin-English dictionary, and parts for his German electric razor. When he arrived, he found “a broken man.”
Rolf spent 14 days with his father, asking him about his activities at Auschwitz and his beliefs. He learned nothing about what he did at Auschwitz from him beyond the excuse that he “had to do his duty, to carry out orders.” Mengele claimed that “twins in the camp owed their lives to him” and that he “personally had never harmed anyone in his life.” Seeing his son’s skepticism, he shouted, “Don’t tell me that you, my only son, believe what they write about me?....On my mother’s life, I have never hurt anyone.”
Rolf had hoped his father would offer some justification for his action but realized “he would never express any remorse or feeling of guilt in my presence.”
He received an undated letter from the Bosserts through Sedlmeier informing him of his father’s death. The letter ended, “Heroically struggling until his very last breath, as he had been doing throughout his long life of chaos, our friend passed away on a subtropical beach.”
When asked how he felt when he received the letter, Rolf said, “Relief.” He was glad his father had not been tried because of the impact it would have had on his family. “The trial,” he says, “whatever the outcome would have been, would have taken years. And the injuries it would have inflicted upon me and my family are beyond comprehension. No, none of the Mengele family members ever wanted Josef Mengele caught. And there is no doubt that his family did everything –some more, some less – to see to it that Josef Mengele went unpunished.”
“Josef Mengele,” Wikipedia.
Joachim Sondermann, “Nazi Doctor’s Son To Give Evidence To Prosecutor,” AP, (June 14, 1985)
Inge Byhan, “Son’s Silence Helped Mengele Win Game Of Hide-And-Seek,” Orlando Sentinel, (June 30, 1985).
Eva Mozes Kor, Echoes from Auschwitz, (Indiana: C.A.N.D.L.E.S., 1995).
Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, (Basic Books, 1986).
Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account, (NY: Fawcett Crest. 1960).
Gerald L. Posner and John Ware, Mengele: The Complete Story. (NY: Dell Publishing. 1986).
Alexander Ramati, And the Violins Stopped Playing, (Franklin Watts: 1986).
“Ex-Mossad Agent: We Let Nazi Doctor Mengele Get Away,” AP, (September 2, 2008).
John Ware, “My mission to track down Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s Angel of Death,” The JC, (February 20, 2020).
John Ware, “When Rolf Mengele questioned his father, the ‘doctor’ of Auschwitz,” The JC, (February 27, 2020).
Photos: Portrait - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Auschwitz - Bernhard Walther or Ernst Hofmann or Karl-Friedrich Höcker, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Selection - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
ID - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.