Mengele, Josef

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Mengele, Josef

[MARCH 16, 1911–1979]

Notorious Nazi war criminal known as the "Angel of Death."

Born March 16, 1911, to Karl and Walburga Mengele, Josef Mengele grew up in Gunzburg Germany. His father, an engineer, owned a foundry and manufactured farm equipment for milling, wood sawing, and straw cutting. These enterprises formed the base of the Mengele family fortune that ultimately supported Mengele when he became a fugitive. Josef was raised in a devout Catholic home, passed his high school exams in April 1930 and by October had enrolled at Munich University as a student of philosophy and medicine, with a focus in anthropology and human genetics.

In Munich, Mengele became enamored with the Nazi Party and joined the military. At the rank of Unstersturmfuhrer (sub lieutenant), he was first posted to the Ukraine. His next military assignment was to the Geological Section of the Race and Resettlement Office. This was a program involved with classifying and eliminating non-Germans from annexed territories, including orphans and persons falsely claiming German blood. As a captain, in May 1943, Mengele was posted to Auschwitz. He served there from May 1943 through January 1945.

For many prisoners disembarking at the concentration camp railhead, one of the last things they would ever see was Mengele, the immaculate, well-mannered SS officer who greeted them. With a flick of his cane, the "Angel of Death" directed newly arrived prisoners to the right or to the left. This was the selection process employed to separate those fit to work from those destined for the gas chambers. Mengele was later charged with more than simply selecting victims. It was alleged that he used electricity to test women's endurance of pain; subjected patients to massive, burn-producing doses of radiation; and conducted bone marrow transplant experiments on healthy inmates. Most notorious of all were his abhorrent experiments on twins.

Mengele departed Auschwitz on the evening of January 17, 1945, with a ten-day head start on the advancing Russian Amy. Thus began a flight that successfully eluded his pursuers six years beyond his death. Mengele's first destination was Gross Rosen Concentration Camp, infamous for its biological warfare experiments using Soviet prisoners. On February 16 he fled again, this time into the no-man's land between the Russian and Allied Armies. He was captured in a sweep by American troops and detained for two months, but was then released. Part of the time during his detention, as often during the rest of his life, Mengele used his correct name. Nonetheless, his captors did not recognize him, even though his name had been placed on lists of wanted war criminals, including the list published by the U.S. Judge Advocates General and the First Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects. The oversight has been attributed to Allied administrative failure.

Upon release he took the name Fritz Hollman, and found work on a farm, milking cows and growing potatoes near Mangolding, in an agricultural area in southern Germany. He remained there for four years, during which the Nuremberg Trials were underway. Among the prosecutions, the Doctors Trials most likely provided Mengele with an incentive to depart from Europe. In mid-July 1949, he sailed for Buenos Aires, Argentina. In subsequent years, Mengele successively took up residence in Paraguay and Brazil. There he apparently suffered a fatal heart attack while swimming. A death certificate, issued in the name of his then-alias, Wolgang Gerhard, attributed the cause of death due to drowning. The body was buried in Brazil in 1979. Six years later authorities tracked down the grave's location.

In June 1985, a team of forensic experts from the United States, West Germany, and Israel released a controversial identification of Mengele's skeletal remains. In the absence of ante mortem dental records or medical X-rays, U.S. experts refused to definitively confirm the identification. Their cautious opinion was limited to a statement that the remains were those of Josef Mengele "within reasonable scientific certainty." Subsequent DNA analysis has provided strong independent evidence that the remains were indeed those of Josef Mengele.

SEE ALSO Auschwitz; Medical Experimentation; Physicians


Jeffreys, A. J., M. J. Allen, E. Hagelberg, and A. Sonnberg (1992). "Identification of the Skeletal Remains of Josef Mengele by DNA Analysis." Forensic Science International (September) 56(1):65–76.

Posner, G. L., and J. Ware (1986). Mengele: The Complete Story. New York: Dell Publishing.

Stover, Joyce C., and E. Stover (1991). Witnesses from the Grave: The Stories Bones Tell. Boston: Little Brown.

William D. Haglund