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Josef Mengele

Mengele in uniform
Mengele in uniform.

Josef Mengele (March 16, 1911 - February 7, 1979), was a German SS officer and a physician in the German Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. He gained notoriety chiefly for being one of the SS physicians who supervised the selection of arriving transports of prisoners, determining who was to be killed and who was to become a forced laborer, and for performing human experiments on camp inmates, amongst whom Mengele was known as the Angel of Death.

After the war, he first hid in Germany under an assumed name, then escaped and lived in South America, first in Argentina (until 1959) and finally in Brazil, where he accidentally drowned. This was confirmed using DNA testing on his remains.

Early years and career

Mengele was born in Günzburg, Bavaria, eldest of three sons of Karl Mengele (1881-1959), a well-to-do industrialist, and his wife Walburga Hupfauer (d. 1946). He had two younger brothers, Karl (1912-1949) and Alois (1914-1974).

In 1930, Mengele left Günzburg gymnasium (high school). He studied medicine and anthropology at the University of Munich, earning a doctorate in Anthropology (Ph.D.), supervised by Prof. Theodor Mollison, in 1935 with a dissertation on racial differences in the structure of the lower jaw. He worked 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 and palate and Jaw." His belief in the Nazi racial ideology was already evident in his academic research. The Universities of Munich and Frankfurt revoked his degrees in 1964.

In 1931, at the age of 20, Mengele joined the Stahlhelm, a paramilitary organization, which was incorporated into the SA in 1933. He resigned shortly thereafter, alluding to health problems. He applied for Nazi party membership in 1937 and in 1938 joined the SS. In 1939, Mengele married his first wife, Irene Schönbein, with whom he had one child, a son named Rolf.

In 1940 he was placed in the reserve medical corps, following which he served with a Waffen-SS unit. In 1942 he was wounded at the Russian front and was pronounced medically unfit for combat, and promoted to the rank of SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain). During his service on the Eastern Front during 1941-1942, Mengele received the Iron Cross, both first class and second class, the Wound Badge in black, and the Eastern Front Medal.


In 1943 Mengele replaced another doctor who had fallen ill at the Nazi extermination camp Birkenau. On May 24, 1943, he became medical officer of Auschwitz-Birkenau's "Gypsy camp." In August 1944, this camp was liquidated and all its inmates gassed. Subsequently Mengele became Chief Medical Officer of the main infirmary camp at Birkenau. He was not, though, the Chief Medical Officer of Auschwitz - superior to him was SS-Standortarzt (garrison physician) Eduard Wirths.

It was during his 21-month stay at Auschwitz that Mengele achieved infamy, and it is for this period that he is referred to as the Angel of Death. Mengele took turns with the other SS physicians at Auschwitz in meeting incoming prisoners at the ramp, determining who would be retained for work and who would be sent to the gas chambers immediately.

Human experimentation

Jews being experimented on by Mengele.
Jews being experimented on by Mengele.

Mengele used Auschwitz as an opportunity to continue his research on heredity, using inmates for human experimentation. He was particularly interested in twins, who were selected and placed in special barracks. He also studied a disease called Noma, which particularly affected children from the Gypsy camp. While the cause of Noma remains relatively unknown, it is now known that it affects chiefly children suffering from malnutrition and a weak immune system, and many develop the disease shortly after having suffered another illness like measles or tuberculosis. Mengele tried to prove that Noma was caused by racial inferiority.

Mengele took an interest in physical abnormalities discovered among the arrivals at the concentration camp. This included dwarves, notably the Ovitz family, a Jewish Romanian artist's family, seven of whose ten members were dwarves. Prior to their deportation they toured in Eastern Europe as the Lilliput Troupe. He often called them "my dwarf family"; to him they seemed to be the perfect expression of "the abnorm."

Mengele's experiments were of dubious scientific value, including attempts to change eye colour by injecting chemicals into children's eyes, various amputations of limbs and other brutal surgeries. Rena Gelissen's account of her time in Auschwitz details certain experiments performed on female prisoners around October 1943. During roll calls Mengele would show up to perform a "special work detail" selection, which fooled some into thinking that this would be a relief from the otherwise hard labour they were performing. Mengele would experiment on the chosen girls, performing sterilization and shock treatments. Most of the victims died, either due to the experiments or later infections.

A Hungarian Jewish prisoner doctor, Miklos Nyiszli, who was an experienced pathologist and had studied in Germany, was chosen to work as Mengele's assistant, and wrote about his experiences. The subjects of Mengele's research were better fed and housed than ordinary prisoners and were for the time being safe from the gas chambers. To Mengele they were nevertheless not fellow human beings, but rather material on which to conduct his experiments. On several occasions he killed subjects simply to be able to dissect them afterwards.

After Auschwitz

When the SS abandoned the Auschwitz Death Camp on January 17, 1945, Mengele came to Gross Rosen camp in lower Silesia, again working as camp physician. Gross Rosen was dissolved in the end of February, when the Red Army was already very near. Mengele worked in other camps for a short time, and, on May 2, joined a Wehrmacht medical unit led by his former colleague at the Institute of Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene, Dr. Hans Otto Kahler, in Bohemia. The unit hurried west to avoid being captured by the Soviets and were taken as POWs by the Americans. Mengele, initially registered under his own name, was released in June 1945 with papers giving his name as "Fritz Hollmann." From July 1945 until May 1949, he worked as a farmhand in a small village near Rosenheim, Bavaria, staying in contact with his wife and his old friend Hans Sedlmeier. It was Sedlmeier who arranged Mengele's escape to Argentina via Innsbruck, Sterzing, Merano and Genova. Mengele may have been assisted by the ODESSA network.

Mengele in South America

Profile of Nazi Mengele.
Profile of Nazi Mengele.

In Buenos Aires, Mengele at first worked as a construction worker, but came in contact with influential Germans soon, which allowed him an affluent lifestyle for the next years. He also got money from his family and from Sedlmeier. In Buenos Aires, he got to know other notorious Nazis such as Hans-Ulrich Rudel and Adolf Eichmann. In 1955, he bought a fifty per cent share of a pharmaceutical company, the same year he divorced from his wife, Irene. Three years later he married Martha Mengele, the widow of his younger brother Karl Jr.; she then came to Argentina with her then fourteen-year-old son, Dieter.

Although he was doing well in South America, Mengele feared being captured so he left Argentina in 1959 and moved to Paraguay after managing to get a Paraguayan passport on the name "Mengele José". Mengele hoped that Paraguay would be safer for him, as dictator Alfredo Stroessner was of German descent. Among other locations in Paraguay, he lived on the outskirts of Hohenau, a German colony in the department of Itapúa. His anxiety, however, haunted him, especially after he heard of the Mossad's abduction of Eichmann and the trial and execution in Israel. Using the identity of "Peter Hochbichler", he crossed the border to Brazil in 1960 and lived in São Paulo with the Austrian-born Neo-Nazi Wolfgang Gerhard, who was a member of Hans-Ulrich Rudel's "Kameradenwerk."

The same year, Mengele moved to Nova Europa, about three hundred kilometres (186 miles) outside São Paulo, where he lived with the Hungarian refugees Geza and Gitta Stammer, working as manager of their farm. In the seclusion of his Brazilian hideaway, Mengele became depressed, egomaniacal and aggressive, always fearing being captured. In 1974, when his relationship with the Stammer family was coming to an end, Rudel and Gerhard discussed relocating Mengele to Bolivia where he could spend time with Klaus Barbie, but Mengele rejected this proposal. Instead, he lived in a bungalow in a suburb of São Paulo for the last years of his life. In 1977, his only son Rolf, never having known his father before, visited him there and found an unrepentant Nazi who claimed he "had never personally harmed anyone in his whole life."

Mengele, whose health had deteriorated for years, died on February 7, 1979, in Santos, Brazil, when he suffered a stroke while swimming in the sea. He was buried in Embu under the name "Wolfgang Gerhard," whose ID-card he had used since 1976.

The manhunt for Mengele

Mengele was listed on the Allies' list of war criminals as early as 1944, his name was mentioned in the Nuremberg trials several times, but Allied forces were convinced that Mengele was dead, which was also claimed by Irene and the family in Günzburg. In 1959, after suspicions had grown that he was still alive, given his divorce from Irene in 1955 and his marriage to Martha in 1958, a warrant of arrest was issued by the German authorities. Subsequently, German attorneys, such as Fritz Bauer, Israel's Mossad, and private investigators like Simon Wiesenthal and Beate Klarsfeld followed the trail of the "Angel of Death." The last confirmed sightings of Mengele placed him in Paraguay, and it was believed that he was still hiding there, protected by Hans-Ulrich Rudel and dictator Alfredo Stroessner. Sightings of Mengele were reported all over the world, but they turned out to be false clues.

In 1985, the German police raided the house of Hans Sedlmeier in Günzburg and seized address books, letters and papers hinting at the grave in Embu. Mengele was exhumed in May 1985 and identified by forensic experts. Rolf Mengele issued a statement saying that he "had no doubt it was the remains of his father". Everything was kept quiet "to protect those who knew him in South America", Rolf said. In 1992, a DNA test confirmed Mengele's identity. He had evaded capture for 34 years and was the subject of Ira Levin's best-selling novel and later film adaptation, The Boys from Brazil.

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