Josef Mengele was one of the most infamous men associated with the death camps and the Holocaust. Josef Mengele gained infamy for his experiments on twins while at Auschwitz-Birkenau – though he also worked at other camps during World War Two.
In 1937, Mengele joined the Nazi Party and one year later he joined the SS. Mengele fought in the Russian campaign but he was so badly wounded that he was considered unfit for frontline military service. After recovering from his wounded, Mengele volunteered to work in concentration camps. He was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Mengele was born on March 16th, 1911. His early years seemed normal – he was deemed to be an intelligent and popular person in his home town. After leaving school, Mengele went to Munich to study philosophy. After this, he studied medicine at Frankfurt University. By the time he had finished his medical studies, his beliefs were starting to show in a Nazi Germany where racism was rife. His dissertation was a study into the differences in the lower jaw between different racial groups.
It was Mengele who is principally associated with selecting those who were gassed on arrival and those who survived. Known as the “Angel of Death”, a flick of the wrist immediately condemned some to the gas chambers, while others were deemed able to work for a while before being murdered. In his 21 months at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Mengele was a regular figure on the platform when the trains came. Those who survived the camp, remember Mengele as being immaculately dressed as he indicated those who should go to the left (immediately to the gas chambers) of him, and those who should go to the right – to work.
Stories of Mengele’s cruelty abound. On one occasion, it is said that a blockhouse housing 750 women became infested with lice. Mengele ordered that all of the women in the hut should be gassed and then the blockhouse should be deloused. Another story states that he condemned a whole train load of Jews to be instantly gassed when a mother refused to be separated from her daughter and attacked a SS guard who tried to separate them.
However, it is his experiments on twins that have condemned Mengele to infamy. Mengele was fascinated by the study of genes and he wanted to find out if he could ‘change’ identical sets of twins by operating on them and performing experiments on them that had no scientific basis. There can be no doubting the known outcome of such experiments as Mengele built his laboratory next to one of the crematoriums at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Mengele experimented on three thousand sets of twins at the camp. Before they were experimented on, Mengele did all in his power to calm them. The children were given clean clothes and sweets. They were allowed to call him “Uncle”. They were driven to his laboratory in either his own staff car or in a truck with a red cross painted on the side. They were then subjected to appalling experiments – surgery without anesthetics, blood transfusions from one twin to the other, the deliberate injecting of lethal germs into the twins, sex change operations.
Mengele sent all his findings to his mentor Dr Verschuer at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. It took two trucks to carry all of his ‘findings’. Verschuer destroyed them – so the full extent of what Mengele did at Auschwitz will never be known. If Mengele himself kept any notes, they have never been found.
As the Russians advanced towards Poland, and it became clear that the Germans were losing the war on the Eastern Front, many records at Auschwitz-Birkenau were destroyed by the SS guards there. They then disguised themselves in a variety of ways. Mengele became a German infantry soldier as he moved west. As he moved west away from the Russians, he also did work at camps at Gross-Rosen and Matthausen. Mengele was captured as a German infantry soldier near Munich. The Allies released him as there seemed little point in keeping in custody an infantryman. Mengele had managed to disguise himself well. After the war, Mengele managed to avoid arrest by keeping a very low profile. However, by 1948, he decided that his future lay elsewhere and not Germany.
Mengele decided to go to Argentina. He was unwittingly helped in this by the International Committee of the Red Cross who provided travel papers for people as a humanitarian gesture. With a false name, identity and Italian residency papers, Mengele moved to Argentina in 1949. He moved from one South American country to another to avoid being captured like Adolf Eichmann. He also lived under a number of aliases.
In 1979, while swimming in the sea in Brazil, Mengele suffered a stoke and drowned. He was buried as ‘Wolfgang Gerhard’ at Embu. However, his family later admitted that they had sheltered him and that Wolgang Erhard was indeed Mengele. In 1992, DNA samples from the body matched those of his son and wife.