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Traveling in grotesque, rickety cattle cars without food, water, or toilets, many Jews, Roma, and enemies of the Nazis arrived in the concentration camp of Auschwitz tired, hungry, and confused. As the massive cattle car doors opened to the blinding sunlight, the frightened people could hardly make out the silhouettes of the terrifying men in uniform who carried guns and shouted orders at them, while hastily pulling on the tired bodies standing in the car doors. The German Shepard dogs, at the end of SS guards’ leashes, barked furiously and angrily at the crowd of starving individuals. Amidst all the shouting, barking, and confusion, one figure stood distinctly before all, Josef Mengele.
Born on March 16, 1911, Josef was the first child born to Karl and Walburga Mengele following Walburga’s first tragic stillbirth. The Mengele family lived in the small, picturesque town of Gunzburg, located in the southern German state of Bavaria along the mighty Danube River. Previous to Josef’s birth, his father, Karl, ran a farm machinery factory along with a mechanic named, Andreas Eisenlauer. In 1907, the factory burnt to the ground, leaving Karl and Andreas ample funds from the insurance to rebuild the factory from scratch on a plot of land outside of town. After a few years, with only seven men on the payroll, Andreas left the partnership due to poor health, relinquishing all power to Karl. The business prospered quickly under Karl’s sole control; by the time Josef was born, his father had grown wealthy enough to purchase himself a Benz motorcar. Upon purchasing the expensive car, Karl arrived home to surprise his wife, but only received disapproval and disgust from his cold and callous wife. The ill-tempered woman was feared by many townspeople and factory workers; domineering Walburga was often considered a person incapable of love. Whether because of his cold-hearted and domineering wife or his craving to continue his successful pathway in the farm machinery business, Karl spent more and more time at the factory and on the road, traveling from farm to farm in his shiny Benz in order to impress farmers into purchasing his farm machinery.
Despite Karl’s frequent absence from home, the family expanded. Josef’s younger brother, Karl Jr., was born in 1912, leaving Josef even less of the already meager love and affection that his parents had to offer. As World War I unfolded, Alois, Josef’s youngest brother was welcomed into this world, and Karl Sr. soon after departed to fight in the war, granting all power of the business to Walburga, a ruthless, fearsome tyrant. Walburga commanded the factory in a disciplined and brutal fashion. Under Walburga’s control, the factory formed a profitable contract to manufacture special army equipment for the Kaiser. At home, Walburga disciplinarily raised her sons as strict Catholics and constantly demanded their obedience to the Church, as well as herself.
Referred to as “Beppo” by friends, family, and townspeople, Josef was considered an ambitious and bright young boy. Many regarded him as the model of obedience within the community. At the tender age of six, Josef nearly drowned after falling into a deep rainwater barrel that he had been playing around. Within the course of his childhood, he had another brush with death, when he suffered an atrocious case of blood poisoning. Throughout his childhood, Josef held a deep-rooted resentment towards his younger brothers, namely Karl, whom he always strived to outdo. With maturity came brotherly love and a close bond among the three, who were battling the deteriorating relationship between their unloving parents. Never at the top of the class, Josef did well in school. He often received compliments and good marks due to his good behavior and punctuality. As a teenager, he wrote a fairy tale play called “Travels to Liechtenstein,” which was performed for a children’s orphanage. At the age of 15, he was diagnosed with osteomyelitus, an infection in bone marrow due to a bacterial or fungal infection, which can produce enough pus to form an abscess that blocks the flow of blood to the marrow. Osteomyelitus in some cases has been known to cripple a person. Discouraged by his mother’s strict Catholic upbringing, Mengele grew cynical about the Church and strayed more from it, as he grew older. He remained involved in the good of the community, despite his contempt for the Church, joining both the Red Cross and a local patriotic youth group. Along with his punctuality and charisma, Mengele grew handsome as he matured into a young adult. He began to take pride in his appearance, adding his good looks to the other traits that portrayed him as suave and charming.
In 1930, Josef graduated from the Gymnasium, with descent grades and the ambition to pursue his favorite subjects, anthropology and genetics. He believed that his family would be proud to have a scientist in the family, the first Mengele scientist. Unfortunately, his father had other plans for the eldest son of the family, plans of running the family business that had given them so much wealth. Leaving behind his confining parents and upbringing, Mengele moved to Munich, where his grades won him acceptance into the University of Munich to study philosophy and medicine. Munich at that time was transforming itself from the capitol of Bavaria into the capitol of Anti-Semitism. Adolf Hitler and his racist propaganda circulated throughout the city, creating an army of supporters, young and old. As Hitler spoke of the Jewish vermin and Aryan nationalism, Mengele listened, indifferent to the words he heard.
On September 14, 1930, as Mengele began his academic journey at the University of Munich, the National Socialist Party claimed 18 percent of the votes in the Reichstag election, making them the second largest party in the German parliament. The 6.4 million votes cast on the party’s behalf clinched 107 seats in the Reichstag, as compared to the 12 seats held the year before. Mengele grew ever more interested in eugenics, the study of genetic reasons for human deformities and imperfections. In 1931, Mengele became a member of the Steel Helmuts, a veteran servicemen organization who held many of the same beliefs of Hitler, however was not yet affiliated with the Nazi party. Despite Josef’s disinterest in the Nazi party, his father, Karl Sr., did take an interest, diabolically scheming to further his business. In Munich, Hitler began influencing many medical experts and academic scholars of the times through his passionate speeches about “unworthy lives,” and race purification. One such scholar, Dr. Ernst Rudin, lectured to Mengele on a regular basis at the University, planting the seed that would one day create a cold-blooded killer. Rudin outwardly supported Hitler, believing that “unworthy” individuals should not live and doctors hold the responsibility of “taking care” of those “unworthy” people. In fact, Rudin’s boisterous views were heard loud and clear by Hitler himself, and in 1933, Rudin was recruited to play an intricate part in creating the Law for the Protection of Hereditary Health. The law demanded the sterilization of individuals exemplifying unfit characteristics, like physical abnormalities, manic depression, epilepsy, schizophrenia, hereditary blindness, or Huntington’s disease. Surrounded by scientifically racial propaganda, Josef became increasingly interested in genetic abnormalities and diseases, and sought out, through his research, to prove his assertion. In years to come, it is this burning desire to prove his assertions about human genetics and abnormalities that would turn him into the cold-hearted monster of Auschwitz.
Soon after the Nazis gained complete power in 1933, the SA absorbed the Steel Helmuts organization, yet, ironically, Mengele, suffering from kidney trouble, had to resign from the organization exhausted and in poor health. The lack of commitment allowed more time for his research and the pursuit of his degree. With five years of hard work at the University of Munich under his belt, Mengele was awarded a Ph.D. by his long-time mentor, Professor T. Mollinson. Mollinson openly upheld Hitler’s ideals and even allowed it to taint his scientific work with racial prejudice and slander. Mengele, however, remained unbiased when it came to his research. His dissertation that earned him his degree, entitled “Racial Morphological Research on the Lower Jaw Section of Four Racial Groups” argued that there was a clear and concise difference between the groups, but lacked the explanation of inferiority and superiority that many of his colleagues included in their scientific research. In the summer of the following year, Josef passed his medical examinations and was quickly placed in a full-time paying position as a resident junior doctor at the University Medical Clinic in Leipzig. There he met the love of his life and first wife, Irene Schoenbein, the daughter of the University’s president, who was studying art in Florence.
After four months in the difficult resident junior doctor position, Mengele grew tired of hospital work and yearned desperately to perform the work that struck his passion, genetics. On New Year’s Day of 1937, through a recommendation by Professor Mollinson, Mengele was appointed to a research assistant position in the laboratory of Professor Otmar Freiherr von Vershuer at the Third Reich Institute for Hereditary, Biology, and Racial Purity at the University of Frankfurt. A distinguished geneticist in Europe, von Vershuer engaged in twin research, the very beast that would eventually consume Mengele’s work at Auschwitz.
Von Vershuer became a mentor and father figure to Mengele, who in turn became von Vershuer’s favorite pupil. At the Institute, the two continued the Nazi ideal of “racial purification” and sterilization of unfit or unworthy individuals. The preservation and succession of the Nordic-rooted Aryan race was a profound theory and practice at the Institute. Aside from von Vershuer’s twin research, Mengele and his mentor carried out “racial purity” interviews at the Institute and handed down sentences of sterilization to many patients as a requirement before their release. Together, they also conducted interviews of possible felons who had violated the Nuremberg Race Law, determining whether a person was truly of Jewish descent. His work brought him closer to agreement with the Nazi ideals that he had once ignored. Within five months of his employment at the Institute, Josef joined the Nazi party, NSDAP member 5574974. A year after his membership, Mengele was accepted into the elite SS (Schutszshaffel), owing to his family’s racially pure and untainted history as well as his unquestionable devotion to the racial purity of the Aryan race. When admitted to this small army of Hitler’s racial guardians, Mengele opted to not have his blood type tattooed onto his arm; an act that would save his life in the years to come. In the same year, the Frankfurt Institute awarded Mengele his medical degree, an award that could have possibly been granted due to his party affiliation, connections with high reaching Nazi officials, and his Nazi friendly mentor, who adored Josef and his commitment to the party.
In July of 1939, Mengele finally married his long time love, Irene, after a tedious inspection of his fiancés family lineage of racial purity. After long debate over her legally inexistent Aryan great-grandfather, the marriage was allowed, however it was never considered a pure Aryan marriage, and his children would not be considered “pure.” He and his wife would never receive any presents from Himmler for each child produced. Weeks later, as war broke out, Josef became eager to defend Germany against the degenerate races. He left for the battlefield in 1940 as a member of the medical corp of the Waffan. Within weeks of his arrival on the Ukrainian front, he earned the Iron Cross Second class. A year later, Mengele heroically pulled two Germans from a burning tank behind enemy line, and earned himself the Iron Cross First Class. In addition, until sustaining wounds that permanently left him unable to serve in the German army, Josef earned the Black Badge for the Wounded and the Medal for the Care of the German People.
Towards the end of 1942, permanently banned from the battlefields of Father Germany’s war, Mengele joined his mentor, von Vershuer, in Berlin at the Race and Resettlement Office. Within five months of his posting at the Race and Resettlement Office, Mengele received another post, sending him off to Poland, to Auschwitz, where he was to serve as the women’s inmate doctor. His task as an inmate doctor involved choosing which of the new arrivals were sent to work in the concentration camp and which were sent immediately to the gas chamber, to be slowly murdered using Zyklon B gas. Mengele adjusted to the new surroundings and new job quickly and painlessly. He was pleased to have so many subjects at his disposal for twin and genetic research.
Lacking the squeamish dislike many assigned doctors held for the unbearable conditions and mistreatment at Auschwitz, Mengele seemed to enjoy the power he had as he stood immaculately on the ramp in his perfectly pressed uniform, shiny black boots, and white spotless gloves, riding crop in hand and a smile across his face. Most inmate doctors arrived intoxicated at the ramps, dampening their senses and emotions to the decisions they would have to make and the barbarity that took place before their very eyes. Even when not assigned to a selection process, Mengele would arrive at the ramp, sober and graceful in his tidy suit. One fellow inmate doctor, Dr. Olga Lengyel, recalls Mengele’s disturbingly joyful demeanor on the ramp during selection processes:
How we despised his detached, haughty air, his continual whistling, and his frigid cruelty. Day after day, he was at his post, watching the pitiful crowd of men and women and children go struggling past, all in the last stages of exhaustion from the inhuman journey in the cattle trucks. He would point with his (riding) crop at each person and direct them with one word: “right” or “left.” He seemed to enjoy his grisly task (Lynott).
Upon his first days at the women’s camp, Mengele sent an entire hospital ward of 600 sick women to the gas chamber. He often tormented the women he sent to death, forcing them to parade naked in front of him and other SS guards, while calling them “dirty whores” and stopping some to ask intimate details about their sexual experiences (Lynott).
Along with his cruel and cold-hearted manner, Mengele possessed a temper that raged like the ocean, often times abruptly and unexpectedly. Another fellow inmate doctor, Gisella Perl, recalls an episode of Mengele’s rage that lashed out at a female prisoner who had attempted for the sixth time to escape while being transported with other prisoners to the gas chamber:
He grabbed her by the neck and proceeded to beat her head to a bloody pulp. He hit her, slapped her, boxed her, always her head — screaming at the top of his voice, “You want to escape, don’t you. You can’t escape now. You are going to burn like the others, you are going to croak, you dirty Jew.” As I watched, I saw her two beautiful, intelligent eyes disappear under a layer of blood. And in a few seconds, her straight, pointed nose was a flat, broken, bleeding mass. Half an hour later, Dr. Mengele returned to the hospital. He took a piece of perfumed soap out of his bag and, whistling gaily with a smile of deep satisfaction on his face, he began to wash his hands (Lynott).
Still passionate about his genetic research, Mengele ran a laboratory at Auschwitz where he studied twins, dwarfs, and any other deformed beings he came across on the ramp. He provided larger food rations for his subjects, as well as better sleeping arrangements. He clothed most in more than the rags that many prisoners outside the laboratory wore and allowed his subjects to keep their hair, unlike the camp’s workers, whose hair was shaved off upon arrival. Although Mengele allowed his subjects better living conditions than the camp allowed the prisoners, he thought no better of them than he thought of the prisoners. He believed that Jews and Roma were vermin who threatened the vitality of the German super-race. As taught from his early years in higher education at the University of Munich, Mengele supported the Nuremberg Race Law and was more than willing to put the lives of “unworthies” to a better use, his research.
On the ramp, he and his assistants would swarm the crowd of filthy prisoners in search of twin children. As the men shouted out, “Twins, twins,” mothers held onto their twin babies tightly, unsure of whether giving them up would give them a chance of freedom or send them straight to the gas chamber. The twins that were found and taken to the Mengele laboratory suffered horribly at the hands of the bloodthirsty madman. He often bled the children and transferred a pair of twins’ blood into another set of twins, causing the children to suffer from an unbearable headache and a high fever that lasted for days. Once he bled a child to death. Mengele enjoyed using one twin as the control and the other as the experiment. He subjected children to solitude in cages, various painful stimuli to test reactions, surgery to remove organs or limbs without anesthetic, and infectious agents, in order to test the duration the twin could last infected with a fatal disease. Mengele embarked on the “noma” deformity, which particularly struck his interest. Caused by the filthy and brutal conditions of Auschwitz, nomas are instances of gangrene in the face and mouth. Mengele frantically searched during his time at Auschwitz for a genetic or racial purpose behind the noma. The noma is simply caused by a bacterial infection. Another favorite experiment of his was his work with eye color. Mengele experimented on sets of twins, injecting methylene blue into subjects’ eyes in an attempt to permanently change the eye to an Aryan shade of blue. He especially liked to study patients who had two different colored eyes, a condition called heterochemia. Once done with a subject, Mengele preferred to inject chloroform into the heart and immediately dissect the entire body. Often times, he sent off specimens of eyeballs and other organs to his mentor, von Vershuer, for no apparent reason except false data supporting his fairy tale theories. The research performed at Auschwitz had nothing to do with real science; it was based on Mengele imaginary theories and hypotheses about racial science that had been implanted through the influence of the jaded medical experts and scholars, as well as the Nazi party. A small part of it also included Mengele’s cold and callous attitude toward the value of life that could possibly be traced back to the unloved child he once was.
While many of his victims seldom left the lab alive, Josef Mengele escaped from Auschwitz moments before the camp’s liberation. He found refuge at other camps, including Gross-Rosen and Mauthausen, escaping before they too were liberated. Eventually captured as a POW, Mengele was released solely on the basis that he did not appear as the enemy, due to the lack of blood type tattoo on his arm like most members of the SS. Due to the Allies’ confusion, Mengele was able to escape to South America, where he took on various aliases and remarried his brother Karl’s widow, Martha in 1959. In 1964, the University of Munich withdrew his degree and the Universtiy of Frankfurt withdrew his medical degree. He is believed to have died on February 7, 1979 by drowning due to a stroke he suffered while swimming that prevented him from returning safely to the shore. In the summer of 1985, the body of Wolfgang Gerhard was exhumed and positively identified as Josef Mengele. With Mengele buried in the ground, the Auschwitz monster, his experiments, and victims can also be put to rest.
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