Visual by: Kunal Kaustav Duwarah
“I can’t remember his face, just his polished boots,” Maksymowicz said. “When I heard his footsteps, I crawled under the pallet, ducked and closed my eyes. I thought he would not find me” says Lidia Maksymowicz, who was 3 years old when she and her family arrived at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp deported by Nazi Germany.
If anyone embodies the archetype of the evil that was Auschwitz, it is surely Josef Mengele.
Dubbed by the inmates and survivors of the camp the “Angel of Death,” the immaculate doctor — with a slight flick of the finger — would casually select those permitted to live and work and those destined to die in the gas chambers.
Among those he selected to live were the subjects upon whom he conducted his infamous race-inspired medical experiments.
Early life and education
Mengele — the eldest son of Karl and Walburga Mengele, who ran a farm machinery company in the town of Günzburg in the southern German state of Bavaria — studied medicine and anthropology.
After receiving two doctorates, he turned to research at the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene in Frankfurt.
Joining the Nazi Army
He enlisted in the Sturmabteilung (SA; “Assault Division”) in 1933. An ardent Nazi, he joined the research staff of a newly founded Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene in 1934.
During World War II he served as a medical officer with the Waffen-SS (the “armed” component of the Nazi paramilitary corps) in France and Russia. He ultimately landed at the Frankfurt Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene, a research body closely aligned with official Nazi ideology.
It was through this institute’s director and Mengele’s doctoral adviser, Otmar von Verschauer, that — after serving as a decorated medical officer in the Waffen SS Viking Division — Mengele was posted to Auschwitz in May 1943.
Becoming the ‘Angel of Death’
In 1943 he was appointed by Heinrich Himmler to be chief doctor at Birkenau, the supplementary extermination camp at Auschwitz, where he and his staff selected incoming Jews for labour or extermination and where he supervised medical experiments on inmates to discover means of increasing fertility (to increase the German “race”).
His chief interest, however, was research on twins. Mengele’s experiments often resulted in the death of the subject.
Mengele tested whether injecting dyes could change the color of a person’s eyes. He would operate on children without anesthetics, infect twins with tuberculosis and spotted fever. Many children died during these experiments; others were deliberately killed.
For physicians at Auschwitz, the informing biomedical Nazi vision that combined combating and destroying enemies of the Aryan race (above all, Jews), with positive steps to preserve and improve the German racial community, seamlessly encouraged the corruption of medical ethics, the denial of basic humanity and the practice of ruthless experimentation and medicalized killings.
What particularly distinguished Mengele from other physicians was that he reveled in the culture that had been created in Auschwitz, in the opportunities and power it gave him.
He saw himself as engaged in a putatively “cutting edge” scientific endeavor. He was quite correct when, in a remarkable letter to his son, he declared that he had not invented Auschwitz, it already existed.
But it was in its unparalleled enabling culture that Mengele “realized” himself and, as the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton put it, “his actions so well articulated the camp’s essence.”
Throughout the postwar years, after the end of Nazi regime, he expressed no remorse and either remained oblivious to, or rationalized, the enormity of his crimes.
He remained a convinced Nazi and when pushed, he resorted to the timeworn justification that he had to do his duty and carry out orders. He had never harmed anyone personally.
In any case, as Rolf Mengele, son of Josef Mengele summarized his father’s words: “He couldn’t help anyone. On the platform for instance. What was he to do, when the half-dead and infected people arrived? … His job was to clarify only: ‘able to work’ and ‘unable to work.’ … He thinks he saved the lives of thousands of people in that way. He hasn’t ordered the extermination and he is not responsible. Also, the twins owe their lives to him.”
Escape to South America and death
After the war, Mengele escaped internment and went underground, serving for four years as a farm stableman near Rosenheim in Bavaria. Then he reportedly escaped, via Genoa, Italy, to South America in 1949.
He married (for a second time) under his own name in Uruguay in 1958 and, as “José Mengele,” received citizenship in Paraguay in 1959. In 1961 he apparently moved to Brazil, reportedly becoming friends with an old-time Nazi, Wolfgang Gerhard, and living in a succession of houses owned by a Hungarian couple.
In 1985 a team of Brazilian, West German, and American forensic experts determined that Mengele had taken Gerhard’s identity, died in 1979 of a stroke while swimming, and was buried under Gerhard’s name.
Dental records later confirmed the forensic conclusion.