On May 24, 1943, an SS-Hauptsturmführer (captain) formerly of the Waffen-SS and medically unfit for combat as the result of wounds received on the eastern front, received orders transferring him to the Auschwitz concentration camp complex. Josef Mengele, who held doctorates in anthropology and medicine, looked forward to his new duties as a medical officer at Auschwitz II (Birkenau). His mission was to conduct research on human genetics. His zeal in using camp inmates for his experiments would earn him the nickname Todesengel (Angel of Death).
“Zwillinge! Zwillinge!” (“Twins! Twins!”)
– SS guards addressing prisoners newly arrived to Auschwitz
Mengele was born in 1911, the oldest of three boys, to Karl and Walburga Mengele of Günzburg, Bavaria. The elder Mengele was the owner of a farm machinery factory and spent most of his time at work. Josef’s mother, according to accounts. was an unloving harridan with a violent temper. Despite what had to be an unhappy childhood, people who knew Josef as a child described him as being a bright, cheerful, and handsome boy affectionately nicknamed Beppo. Despite his father’s wishes that Josef continue in the family business, the younger Mengele wanted to escape the confines of Günzburg . He passed his college entrance exam and was accepted to the University of Munich in 1930.
Newly arrived to the home of the National Socialist Party, the formerly apolitical Mengele found himself seduced by the rabid Nazi philosophy. In 1935, Mengele received a Ph.D. for his thesis that postulated that it was possible to identify different racial groups through the study of their lower jawbone or shape of their nose. In 1937, he was appointed a research assistant in the Third Reich Institute for Hereditary, Biology, and Racial Purity at the University of Frankfurt, working for professor Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, a respected geneticist and ardent Nazi who became Mengele’s mentor. Later that year Mengele officially joined the Nazi Party. In 1938, the same year he was awarded his medical degree, he applied for membership and was accepted into the SS, becoming a member of its combat arm, the Waffen-SS, in 1940.
Mengele distinguished himself in combat on the eastern front, earning numerous decorations. As a lieutenant in the SS Viking Division in January 1942, he received the Iron Cross First Class for rescuing two German soldiers from a burning tank. Rendered unfit for combat from wounds suffered that year, he was posted to the Race and Resettlement Office in Berlin. There he renewed his relationship with von Verschuer, who now worked in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Genetics, and Eugenics in Berlin. In April 1943, he was promoted to captain. The following month, Mengele received orders posting him to Auschwitz.
One of approximately 30 physicians at Auschwitz, Mengele stood out as one of the few decorated combat veterans. One duty the doctors shared was the culling of arriving prisoners, immediately determining who would work in the camps, and who would go to the gas chambers. Some doctors so hated the duty they could only do it after becoming heavily intoxicated. Not Mengele. He relished this absolute power of life and death. Immaculate in his uniform with medals proudly displayed on his tunic, sometimes wearing a white coat, but always wearing white gloves, the “White Angel” as he also came to be known, would stand on a ramp overlooking the prisoners being discharged from railroad cattle cars. With a flick of his riding crop or gesture from his finger and the words links (left) or recht (right), individuals were condemned to death or slave labor. Mengele often attended even when it was not his turn. There was a reason for that. He was looking for twins.
Wanting to make a name for himself in science, fascinated by heredity, and having embraced the Nazi philosophy of Aryan racial purity, Mengele was convinced that twins held the racial purity genetic secrets he sought. Guards were instructed to go through the crowds searching for twins. Whenever they were found, if children, they were taken from their parents and separately processed. In rare cases with exceptionally young children, mothers were allowed to accompany them. The twins were housed in special barracks known as the “Zoo.” There everything was done to keep them in good health, not because they were humans, but because they were subjects he needed for his horrifying experiments that often ended in painful death for the victims.
Alex Dekel, a survivor of Mengele’s experiments, later said, “He professed to do what he did in the name of science, but it was a madness on his part.”
Listed as a war criminal as early as 1944, Mengele managed to elude authorities and live out his life in South America. An unrepentant Nazi to the end, he died in 1979, a fugitive, but still a free man.