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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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