Mengele, Josef°

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MENGELE, JOSEF ° (1911–1978), doctor of the Auschwitz extermination camp. Born in Guenzburg, Germany, he studied medicine and anthropology at the University of Munich, the University of Vienna, and the University of Bonn. At Munich he obtained a doctorate in anthropology (Ph.D.) with a dissertation in 1935 on racial differences in the structure of the lower jaw, supervised by Prof. Theodor Mollison. After his exams he went to Frankfurt, working as an assistant to Otmar von Verschuer at the Frankfurt University Institute of Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene. In 1938 he obtained a doctorate in medicine (M.D.) with a dissertation called "Familial Research on Cleft Lip, Palate and Jaw." (He was deprived of both academic degrees in 1961 and 1964, respectively.) Declared medically unfit to serve at the front in World War ii, he was, at his own request, appointed doctor of the Auschwitz camp where, from 1943 to 1945, he initiated a series of cruel "medical" experiments which caused the death of many Jewish inmates. To perfect the master race he studied twins to see if the breeding of the German people could be improved and two members of the race could be obtained in a single pregnancy. He studied dwarfs and other abnormalities, in his mind to protect the German people and improve the species. And while he was experimenting, he could be kind and generous to those who were specimens for his lab. He dreamed of scholarly prominence. He participated in the selection of tens of thousands of prisoners in the Birkenau camp (see *Auschwitz), whom he consigned to die in the gas chambers. The figure of Mengele decreeing life or death by a flick of his finger has become one of the symbols of the Holocaust; he was called by the camp inmates "the Angel of Death." But not all survivor recollections of Mengele are accurate. He could not have done all that he was credited with doing. Mengele did work with a "scientific team" recruited from among arriving physicians who faced the choice of Selektion or working with him. Several of these inmate physicians have written memoirs, and they are among the most important recollections of life inside Auschwitz. At one moment Mengele could be gracious, but not for long. He was unpredictable and everyone around him lived in constant fear. Thus, Dr. Olga Lengyel reveals that Mengele supervised the birth of a child with meticulous care. Within an hour mother and child were sent to the gas chamber. Dr. Gisella Perl, a Hungarian Jewish gynecologist, described the aftermath of one brutal killing by Mengele. "He took a piece of perfumed soap out of his bag and whistling gaily with a smile of deep satisfaction on his face, he began to wash his hands." Vera Alexander described brutal "scientific" experiments in which inmates were sewn back to back, wrist to wrist. And Dr. Miklos Nyiszli depicts the murder of 14 twins killed during one night.

When Mengele fled Auschwitz, according to Raul *Hilberg, he brought with him the records of his medical experiments, still believing that they might hold the key to his postwar prominence. According to one source, he also took these potentially incriminating records with him when he left for Argentina.

Until 1951 Mengele lived under his own name in various places in Bavaria, Germany. The name Mengele is proudly seen on farm equipment. It is a symbol of quality in Germany and elsewhere. Throughout the years the Mengele family funneled enough money to Josef to permit his survival, enough to elude capture but not quite enough to achieve comfort. Mengele was forced to move from Argentina to Paraguay and later to Brazil, where he lived his final years in seclusion, perhaps even in loneliness. He met his only biological son, Rolf Mengele, on two occasions after the war, once when he was introduced as "Uncle Fritz" and the second time when his son sought to understand his father, to comprehend his deeds, to come to terms with his motivations. Rolf had rejected his father and his politics.

Mengele was divorced from his first wife, Irene. They grew apart in the postwar separation. After his divorce he married his beautiful sister-in-law, Martha Mengele, the wife of his late brother, Karl, in what seemed like a merger to protect the family assets as well as a marriage. He raised his nephew Karl Heinz, the son of his brother, as his stepson and a surrogate son.

The search for him started only in 1953, after he escaped from Germany. It is known that in 1954 he was granted Argentinean citizenship. In Argentina he represented the Karl Mengele and Sons factory for agricultural machinery, a firm managed by his brother in Guenzburg. Mengele was traced by organizations of former Nazi victims, both Jewish and non-Jewish. His extradition was demanded by the government of West Germany, but Mengele escaped from Argentina. His disappearance was also, apparently, connected with the apprehension of *Eichmann. Various conflicting news items subsequently appeared in the world press concerning the whereabouts of Mengele. Mengele's name was often mentioned by witnesses at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and at numerous trials in West Germany, in particular at the *Auschwitz trials held in Frankfurt on the Main in 1963–65. He figures in Rolf Hochhut's play The Deputy (1963). He died in an apparent drowning in Brazil in 1978. Efforts were made to ascertain that indeed the corpse discovered was that of Mengele. Some suspected that the drowning was staged. But forensic evidence and dental records confirmed his death.


M. Nyiszli, Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account (1960); O. Kraus and E. Kulka, Death Factory (1966). add. bibliography: G. Perl, I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz (1988).

[Emmanuel Brand /

Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]