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Dr. Josef Mengele (March 16, 1911–February 7, 1979) was a Nazi physician who performed experiments that were condemned as murderously sadistic on prisoners in Auschwitz. He personally selected over 400,000 prisoners to die in gas chambers in Auschwitz.
Mengele's nickname was Beppo; he was called the Angel of Death by camp inmates.
Mengele was born in Günzburg, Bavaria, eldest of three sons of Karl Mengele (1881–1959) and his wife Walburga (d.1946), well-to-do industrialists. His younger brothers were Karl Mengele (1912–1949) and Alois Mengele (1914–1974). In 1926, Josef Mengele was diagnosed with osteomyelitis. Osteomyelitis is a bacterial infection of bone and bone marrow which causes inflammation and can lead to a reduction of blood supply to the bone. Josef 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 with a dissertation on "Clan examinations at lip-jaw-palate-cleft."
In 1932, at the age of 21, Mengele joined the Stahlhelm, Bund der Frontsoldaten (Steel Helmet, League of Front Soldiers); this organization was incorporated into the SA in 1933, but Mengele resigned shortly thereafter, alluding to health problems. He applied for Nazi party membership in 1937 and in 1938 he joined the SS. In 1939, Mengele married his first wife, Irene Schoenbein. From 1938 to 1939 he served for six months with a specially trained mountain light infantry regiment. 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). His next assignment was at Auschwitz, where he replaced another doctor who had fallen ill. On May 24, 1943 he became medical officer of Auschwitz-Birkenau's so-called 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 Dr. Mengele achieved infamy, and it is for this period that he was later referred to as the "Angel of Death". Mengele was usually part of the medical delegation which met incoming prisoners, determining which would be retained for work and experimentation, and which would be sent immediately to the gas chambers.
Of particular interest to Mengele were twins; beginning in 1943, twins were selected and placed in special barracks. Almost all of Mengele's experiments were of dubious scientific value, ignoring the lack of ethics involved, including attempts to change eye color by injecting chemicals into children's eyes, various amputations and other brutal surgeries, and in at least one case attempting to create an artificial "Siamese twin" by sewing the vein in two twins together; this operation was not successful and only caused the hands of the children to become badly infected. Subjects of Mengele's experiments were almost always murdered afterward for dissection, assuming they survived the experiment itself.
Josef Mengele left Auschwitz and went to Gross-Rosen concentration camp. In April 1945, he fled westward disguised as a member of the regular German infantry. He was captured as a POW and held near Nuremberg. He was released by the Allies, who had no idea that he was in their midst. After hiding as a farm laborer in Upper Bavaria, Mengele departed for Argentina in 1949, where many other fleeing Nazi officials had also sought refuge. Mengele divorced his wife Irene, and in 1958 married his brother Karl's widow, Martha. She and her son moved to Argentina to join Mengele for a time, although both returned to Europe only a few years later.
His family at home backed him financially and he prospered in the 1950s, first operating a toy-workshop and later was an associate in a small pharmaceutical enterprise. After this short period, however, Mengele lived rather poorly. In 1959 he went to Paraguay, and from 1960 he lived in Brazil until his death in 1979, when he suffered a stroke while swimming in the ocean and drowned.
Despite international efforts to track him down, he was never apprehended and lived for 35 years hiding under various aliases. Adolf Eichmann's capture and trial by Israel prompted Mengele's fears and frequent movements, and the Mossad tracked him for a time, but Israel's efforts were directed towards normalizing relations with Paraguay and fighting enemies closer to home. He was not tracked down by Nazi hunters until 1985, when his body was found and identified after a combined effort of American, German and South American authorities. In 1992, DNA tests confirmed his identity.
Mengele has also been used as a fictionalized literary and movie character, featured prominently in The Boys from Brazil and as part of an amalgam of Nazi doctors in Marathon Man. He was the subject matter of the song Angel of Death, the opening track on Slayer's 1986 album, Reign in Blood.
- A detailed profile in the Crime Library
- A timeline of his life
- Chicago Tribune Magazine: "How Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele cheated justice for 34 years" by Gerald Posner and John Ware
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