Join Our Mailing List

Sponsor Us!

Josef Mengele

(1911 - 1979)


Print Friendly and PDF

Much debate is focused on Josef Mengele, the infamous doctor of Auschwitz, commonly referred to as the "Angel of Death". His most famous role was played out as the selector on the platform at Auschwitz whose whims sent one either to the gas chambers or to the camp.

Mengele was the second 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.

In 1931 at the age of 20 he joined the Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet); he joined the SA in 1923 and applied for party membership in 1937. Upon being accepted into the Nazi party, he applied for membership in the SS.

In his university studies, Mengele chose to concentrate on physical anthropology and genetics, eventually working under Otmar von Verschuer at the Frankfurt University Institute of Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene.

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 and which was 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-Palate". This was a predecessor to his work on genetic abnormalities and indirectly on twins which was to take place at Auschwitz. 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 in 1928 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. It was during this time period he was wounded and declared medically unfit for combat. Because he had acquitted himself brilliantly in the face of the enemy during the Eastern Campaign, he was promoted to the rank of captain.

According to Dr. Hans Münch, a colleague of Mengele’s at Auschwitz, Mengele arrived at the camp in a somewhat privileged position - he had been wounded on the Eastern front and was the recipient of an array of medals, including the Iron Cross. It would also appear that Mengele selected Auschwitz because of the opportunities there to continue his research. According to one source (Lifton, The Nazi Doctors) he did receive financial support for his work there. Support for continuing his professional career in genetics appears in another book, And the Violins Stopped Playing written by Alexander Ramati, where it is reported that a Professor Epstein told a comrade that "he (Mengele) has 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."

No doubt exists that Mengele was a very active commandant of the Auschwitz camp after he arrived there in 1943. Most doctors who have testified and prisoners who have testified have indicated he was ubiquitous, and, indeed, stories do exist of his selection activities and of his medical involvement. 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. He was religiously involved in all aspects, but particularly in the twins experiments, according to members of C.A.N.D.L.E.S., twins who survived the experiments.

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.

Of all the aspects of Mengele’s character which are of interest, his research on twins is the focus of the C.A.N.D.L.E.S. organization. Beginning in 1944, twins were selected and placed in special barracks. 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. It is believed that Mengele had worked with twins under Verschuer at the University of Frankfurt. Auschwitz offered Mengele unlimited number of specimens where twins could be studied at random. According to Dr. Miklos Nyiszli in Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account, 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, (s)he never returned and that the other twin disappeared too (Eva Mozes Kor, Echoes from Auschwitz). Nyiszli describes the shots of phenol which were used to kill the second twin.

Twins in the experiments describe 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." (Echoes from Auschwitz, Kor).

The laboratory experiments were described by Kor as follows: "Most of the time, they would take blood from one arm, and they gave us shots in the other." (Echoes from Auschwitz, Kor).

Experiments did not end with the death of the twins. Dissection of the corpses for final medical analysis is well documented by Nyiszli and by Lifton.

Being a twin, regardless of age, meant 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 today.

To these twins, what happened to Mengele remains a mystery as well. While the bones found in 1985 have been identified by the authorities in charge of the investigation as Mengele’s, many do not believe that he is dead.


Sources: C.A.N.D.L.E.S; Kor, Eva Mozes. Echoes from Auschwitz. IN.: C.A.N.D.L.E.S. 1995; Lifton, Robert Jay. The Nazi Doctors. The United States: Basic Books. 1986; Nyiszli., Dr. Miklos. Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account. New York: Fawcett Crest. 1960; Posner, Gerald L. and John Ware. Mengele: The Complete Story. New York: Dell Publishing. 1986; Ramati, Alexander. And the Violins Stopped Playing

Back to Top