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THE ANGEL OF DEATH

Some of the most enduring images of Auschwitz are the terrible scenes of the

arrival of a transport of Jews to that concentration camp. Amid the chaos and

despair stood a lone figure in immaculate uniform and spotless white gloves

inspecting the inmates and waving each in turn to one side or the other with his

riding crop. To one side lay starvation, brutality, and deprivation but a chance

for survival. To the other side, instant death in the gas chambers. The frightening

figure making this decision was, frequently, Josef Mengele, one of the doctors

assigned to Auschwitz. He has come to symbolize the manner in which medicine

became a tool for genocide.

Mengele was born in Bavaria shortly before World War I to an upper middle

class family, which ran a machine, tools business. A promising student, he was

sent to Munich in the 1920’s where he was attracted to the racial theories of

Alfred Rosenberg, the “philosopher” of National Socialism. As Mengele

became an adherent of National Socialist ideology, he moved to

Frankfurt-am-Main where he received his medical degree studying under Otmar

von Verschuer, the director of the Institute for Racial Hygiene at the University

of Frankfurt. The main emphasis of his research was the importance of heredity

within the context of Nazi “race science.” By the time his education had finished

Mengele was a member of both the National Socialist Party and the SS. He

was a fanatic anti-Semite and hated the Roma and Sinta (Gypsies) even more

than he hated Jews.

At the beginning of World War II, Mengele was activated for service with the

Waffen-SS. He served as a medical officer with several units in the invasion of

the Soviet Union, receiving four medals for his action. After being wounded and

declared unfit for active service, Mengele was appointed to serve as a physician

at Auschwitz in May, 1943. Mengele was not the chief physician at Auschwitz -

that was Eduard Wirths – but Mengele had his own laboratory block,

independent financing and a staff of inmate physicians whom he supervised.

More than any other SS doctor assigned to Auschwitz, Mengele seemed

comfortable with the harsh regime and murderous proceeding at the camp.

Mengele was assigned – as were other doctors at Auschwitz – to supervise the

“selections” of incoming transports. These selections determined which would

be sent immediately to the gas chamber, and which would become prisoners in

the camp. Unlike several of the other physicians, however, he seemed to glory

in the power it gave him. Mengele carried a riding crop with which he indicated

life or death to the arriving prisoners. He often used the crop on the prisoners

and there are reports of his using his pistol to kill recalcitrant prisoners. Unlike

the other physicians, Mengele was often present at the arrival ramps when he

was not scheduled be there to make sure that his orders that twins be sent to his

“laboratory” were carried out.

Mengele, according to other doctors who served at Auschwitz, was in total

agreement with the brutal administration of Auschwitz. He clearly believed that

the prisoners were less than human and acted upon that belief. There are several

known cases where Mengele personally murdered inmates either with his pistol

or with fatal injections of phenol. The extent to which he deviated from the

ethical standards of medicine is illustrated by his treatment of the 600 sick

women he found in the “hospital” on his arrival at Auschwitz. He ordered all of

them immediately sent to the gas chambers. But it was not just his administration

of the medical department of Auschwitz that merited his inclusion as one of the

worst criminals at Auschwitz. It was the experiments that he performed on

helpless, hapless inmates.

The passion which drew Mengele to the arrival ramps was his “collection” of

twins. Like his mentor, Dr. Verschuer, Mengele believed that if sets of twins

without hereditary defects were carefully analyzed a researcher could synthesize

a complete and reliable determination of heredity and the relation “between

disease, racial types, and miscegenation.” This research was enthusiastically

supported by Dr. Verschuer who arranged for Mengele to receive financial aid

for his work. Mengele continued his careful measurement of twins even after the

other experiments at Auschwitz had been discontinued.

Mengele’s collection of twins was housed in a special block where he and the

prison doctors who assisted him – which included a radiologist, an

anthropologist, and a pathologist – carefully measured and examined the twins.

The files were carefully arranged and the last document, the report of the

dissection of the victim, always on top. Principally because Mengele considered

his “data base”of great scientific value, the twins were often better treated than

other prisoners at Auschwitz. Mengele protected them from the harsh labor

assignments and made sure that they had adequate rations, but no matter how

well they were treated, Mengele never thought of them as people. They were

always just subjects of his research. And the final step of that research was

always a post-mortem examination. Mengele had no compunction whatsoever

about personally killing twins as the final step of his research. He is known to

have killed twins just to settle an argument over diagnosis with another doctor.

Mengele’s experimental interest was not limited to twins. In addition to his

research on twins, Mengele maintained a “collection” of dwarves and people

(especially Jews) with genetic abnormalities that he found on the arrival ramps.

He was especially interested in a condition called “noma” which is a gangrenous

condition of the face and mouth due to extreme debilitation. While it is clear that

this rare disease was caused, in Auschwitz, by the conditions of the camp,

Mengele attempted to find racial and genetic causes for the condition.

A final area of experimentation in which Mengele engaged were his attempts to

change the color of eyes. These experiments were entirely racial in nature.

Starting with an interest in prisoners wth eyes of different color and prisoners

with blonde hair and brown eyes, Mengele began to inject various chemicals

into the eyes of his experimental subjects. Scientifically, of course, there is no

way that injections of methylene blue can alter the color of eyes. The only result

was pain and infections. Many of the children eventually recovered from the

injections but they led to death in one case and, blindness in another.

In addition to his experiments, Mengele assiduously collected “specimens” for

Dr. Verschuer. Seven sets of twins with different colored eyes, for example,

were killed with phenol injections and, after dissection, the eyes sent to his

mentor. In 1944, Verschuer, then at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for

Anthropology wrote a proposal for new research in which he stated:

My asssistant Dr. Mengele has joined me in this branch of

research. He is presently employed as Hauptsturmf hrer and

concentration camp physician in the concentration camp at

Auschwitz. Anthropological investigations on the most diverse

racial groups of this concentration camp are being carried out with

permission of the SS Reichsf hrer [Himmler]; the blood samples

are being sent to my laboratory for analysis.

In fact, there was a steady stream of such specimens as the eyes mentioned

above went to Dr. Verschuer.

With the end of the war Mengele became a fugitive. He never worked as a

physician again. He eventually escaped to South America – probably with the

help of his family – where he lived as a hunted man. In 1979, while in Brazil, he suffered a stroke while swimming and drowned. His work, as with the other

“experiments” carried out by other doctors at Auschwitz, died with him. His

notes and files on the twins have never been found and what is known is

scientifically and medically useless.


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