10 Facts About Josef Mengele | History Hit

10 Facts About Josef Mengele

Amy Irvine

04 Aug 2022
Mengele at Auschwitz in 1944 (left); Jewish twins kept alive in Auschwitz for use in Mengele's medical experiments (right)
Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons; History Hit

Dubbed the “Angel of Death” by its inmates and survivors, Nazi doctor Josef Mengele is infamous for his actions and cruel medical experiments as chief physician at the Auschwitz II (Birkenau) concentration camp that almost beggar belief.

Whilst other camp physicians carried out experiments, Mengele is known to have particularly revelled in the opportunities and power that Auschwitz presented him. His subsequent postwar escape, prolonged successful evasion from capture and ultimate elusion of justice have further reinforced his evil notoriety.

Here are 10 facts about Josef Mengele.

1. Mengele’s early work focused on cleft palates

After gaining a medical degree, Mengele trained as a physical anthropologist, and in 1933 worked in Munich under anthropologist Theodor Mollison. Following his subsequent PhD in anthropology, Mengele joined the Frankfurt Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene in 1937 – a research body closely aligned with Nazi ideology. Here he worked for Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, a German geneticist interested in researching twins.

Like his mentor, Mengele was vehemently racist and a devoted Nazi Party member. Mengele focused on the heritability and genetic factors that result in a cleft lip and palate. This curiosity about fixing genetic anomalies reinforced Nazi legislation requiring the sterilisation of Germans with genetic disorders, and Mengele was soon considered an expert consultant on racial types.

Max Eisen was only a child when he and his family were taken from their Hungarian home to the infamous Auschwitz Concentration Camp during the Second World War. All of his relatives were killed; only Max survived to see VE day and eventual liberation. 74 years on from being liberated, he talks about the unspeakable acts of barbarism he witnessed first hand and how he survived the death camp.
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2. He received the Iron Cross twice

When war broke-out, Mengele was a medical officer in the Waffen SS. In June 1941, he was posted to Ukraine and awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class. He then joined the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking as a battalion medical officer. After rescuing two German soldiers from a burning tank, he received the Iron Cross 1st Class, the Wound Badge in Black, and the Medal for the Care of the German People.

Seriously wounded in action, in 1942 Mengele was declared unfit for further active service. He resumed his association with von Verschauer, who encouraged him to transfer to the concentration camp service. In May 1943, Himmler posted Mengele to Auschwitz.

3. Mengele wasn’t the Chief Medical Officer of Auschwitz

Mengele worked under the jurisdiction of SS captain Dr Eduard Wirths – his actual rank was chief physician of the Romani family camp at Birkenau (Auschwitz II), a sub-camp located on the main Auschwitz complex.

It was only after 1944 when the remaining population of the Roma camp were sent to the gas chambers that Mengele was promoted to first physician of the entire Birkenau sub-camp.

Richard Baer, Josef Mengele, and Rudolf Höss in Auschwitz, 1944

Image Credit: Bernhard Walther or Ernst Hofmann or Karl-Friedrich Höcker, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

4. He conducted medical experiments on prisoners

Eager to advance his medical career by publishing ‘groundbreaking’ work, Mengele began experimenting on live prisoners, including exposing around 3,000 children at Auschwitz-Birkenau to disease, disfigurement and torture under the guise of medical ‘research’.

Mengele sometimes played psychological games with prisoners by ‘hiring’ them to assist him, injecting thousands of prisoners with many substances (including petrol, ink in the eyes, and chloroform to the heart) to study the effects, destroying women’s fallopian tubes with acid and experimenting on people with cleft palates.

Mengele even established his own research institute at Auschwitz, affiliated with the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. A grant was also provided by the German Research Foundation, at the request of von Verschuer, who received regular reports and shipments of specimens from Mengele.

5. He was obsessed with twins and physical abnormalities

Mengele wanted to continue the twin experiments he’d begun with von Verschuer. Abandoning medical ethics and research protocols, he started conducting horrific experiments on up to 1,500 sets of twins, many of them children.

At the time, identical twins were widely seen as the clue to understanding genetics. Mengele used one twin as a control and subjected the other to blood transfusions, forced insemination, injections with diseases, amputations, and murder. Those that died were dissected and studied; their surviving twins killed and subjected to the same scrutiny. Only 200 of the 3,000 twins subjected to medical experiments at Auschwitz survived.

Mengele based lots of experiments around subjects with physical abnormalities. He had a fascination with heterochromia (where someone’s irises are different colours). Mengele tried to change the eye colour of those in the camp with the condition by injecting their irises with chemicals. When that failed, he removed the eyeballs and sent them to eye-pigmentation expert Karin Magnussen.

‘Selection’ of Hungarian Jews on the ramp at Birkenau, May/June 1944

Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mengele was also fascinated by dwarves, particularly a Transylvanian family called the Ovtizes – whom seven of their ten children were dwarves. Allowed to keep their clothes and hair, they were placed under intense psychological scrutiny, their blood siphoned and their teeth removed. Miraculously, the entire Ovitz family survived.

6. He had a sinister calm

Unlike most other SS doctors who viewed selections as one of their most unpleasant duties, Mengele undertook this task easily. Mengele would often listen to music by Schumann and Schubert, and many Birkenau survivors recounted how he would whistle famous classical tunes while standing on the train platform, deciding who to send to the gas chambers with a flick of his glove. Of those selected to live, he conducted cruel, race-inspired medical experiments.

Mengele would often ‘play nice’ with the children of Auschwitz, giving them sweets, founding a kindergarten and playing them the violin to lull them into a false sense of security – before sending them to his medical laboratory.

7. Mengele became the most wanted Nazi

Mengele later transferred to Gross-Rosen camp. At the war’s end, he fled, disguised as a Wehrmacht officer.

In June 1945 Mengele was captured and held in US custody. As he had no SS blood group tattooed on his arm, and due to the chaos at the war’s end, US officials were unaware Mengele was on a list of major war criminals and released him. He obtained false papers and worked as a farmhand in Bavaria before escaping to South America in 1949.

Gross-Rosen concentration camp was a Nazi German network of Nazi concentration camps built and operated during World War 2.
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8. Fake identity

Mengele remarried under his own name in Uruguay in 1958, and became a citizen of Paraguay in 1959, as ‘José Mengele’. In 1961 he settled in Brazil, protected by a makeshift network of German and Austrian expats, including former Nazi party member, Wolfgang Gerhard.

In the 1970s, Gerhard offered Mengele his ID card, which Mengele used from then on as his fake identity, sharing a coffee-and-cattle operation in Brazil with a Hungarian couple who kept his secret and housed him.

Rumours that Mengele’s son Rolf knew his father’s whereabouts proved correct when in a 1985 interview, Rolf revealed he had been in contact with his father (whom he initially knew as ‘Uncle Fritz’).

9. He never accepted guilt for his crimes

Rolf secretly visited his father in Sao Paulo in 1977, where Mengele told him that he “personally had never harmed anyone in his life”, declaring that he hadn’t invented Auschwitz – highlighting the extent of his delusions about his sadistic crimes.

Photograph from Mengele’s Argentine identification document (1956)

Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the postwar years Mengele expressed no remorse, remaining oblivious or rationalising the enormity of his crimes, justifying his actions as doing his duty and carrying out orders as the Jews were already ‘dead upon arrival’.

10. He died of a stroke while swimming in Brazil

Mengele died on 7 Feburary 1979 while swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. His friends buried him under his assumed name. Later, pressured by the West German and Brazilian police, they revealed his grave’s location.

In 1985, a multinational team of forensic experts travelled to Brazil, and determined through dental records that Mengele had indeed taken Gerhard’s identity and was dead.

Amy Irvine