Please note: Parental discretion is advised, as this series of articles may be too disturbing or graphic for children.
In Part 18, it became clear that danger lurked at every turn in Auschwitz, but the biggest danger was the constant, terrifying “selection.”
Auschwitz was in operation from 1940 until January 27, 1944, when Russian troops liberated it. During that time, up to a million and a half prisoners were killed, of whom about 1.2 million were Jews. Accurate numbers are hard to obtain, because although the Nazis did maintain a semblance of record-keeping, it was sporadic and therefore insufficient. The Jews who worked in the gas chambers, the sonderkommandos, were liquidated every three months specifically to prevent the gathering of accurate records. The best tally is an educated guess.
Toward the end of the camp’s operation, from May 1944 until its liberation, hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were shipped there, overwhelming even the Nazis. Thousands arrived daily, with most selected to be gassed and cremated within a half-hour after arrival. There was no time or need to keep records. They simply disappeared. The well-known number is based on the amount of transports arriving daily, with the approximate number of Jews on each transport at about 12,000 per day. Imagine 12,000 men, women, and children—old, young, infants, toddlers—selected for death or labor by the swing of a man’s arm.
There were several Nazi SS officers who performed these selections. Dr. Josef Mengele was the most well-known and notorious amongst them.
Josef Mengele was born March 16, 1911, in Gunzburg near Ulm Germany. He was the oldest son of Karl Mengele, a wealthy farm-tool manufacturer. He had two siblings.
In 1935 he earned a Ph.D. in physical anthropology from University of Munich, adding to a doctorate in genetic medicine. Several years later he became an assistant to Dr. Otmar von Verschuer at the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene in Frankfurt. Verschuer had already earned recognition for his interest in research on twins.
Mengele joined the Nazi Party in 1937 and the SS in 1938, the same year he earned his medical degree. In 1940, the year Auschwitz opened, Mengele was drafted into the Waffen SS (Armed SS) as a doctor and saw frontline action on the Eastern front (Soviet Union). After being wounded in 1943, he was promoted to captain and transferred to Auschwitz, under the chief physician there, SS Captain Dr. Eduard Wirths. Encouraged by Vershuer, who saw the endless possibilities that Auschwitz offered, Mengele asked to be transferred there.
Arriving in Auschwitz in 1943, Mengele was assigned to the Gypsy camp in Birkenau (BIIe).
His fascination with twins extended to gypsies as well as Jews, subspecies of humans he deemed inferior. Shortly after taking over the medical duties with the Gypsies, an outbreak of Noma was detected. Noma is a gangrenous sore that spreads rapidly from the lips and mouth and is seen primarily amongst undernourished children who live in poverty. Mengele, as the medical officer, isolated the patients in a separate barrack and had several afflicted children killed so that their preserved heads and organs could be sent for study to the SS Medical Academy and other facilities.
Subsequently, he sent the rest of the children, over 1,000, followed by the adults, to the gas chambers. His superiors found his handling of this epidemic to be very efficient, and after the liquidation of the Gypsy camp, he was given a new assignment as the chief camp physician, still under the supervision of Dr. Wirths.
Sometime after being transferred to the women’s camp, he was faced with an outbreak of typhus. Working off his experience dealing with the Noma outbreak among the Gypsies, he took several barracks, over 600 women, had them gassed, and the outbreak was terminated.
Due to the rapid pace of the transports, the crematoria were becoming overwhelmed. With only four working, each one next to a gas chamber, the need arose to add additional sources of cremation. A huge pit was dug toward the back of Birkenau, in the wooded area of Brezinska, and a fire pit created. In one of the most horrific exterminations, Mengele and a group of other officers circled the pit before about 10 dump trucks filled with children arrived. The trucks backed up to the fire and Mengele and the other officers started throwing the children into the pit. The children screamed as they were burned alive, while others managed to crawl out of the pit. But the officers walked around with sticks and pushed those who managed to get out back into the fire.
Upwards of 30 Nazi doctors served at Auschwitz, many performing “selections” of prisoners. Although he was not the only one sending Jews to their death, by many prisoner accounts, Mengele seemed to enjoy this work more than the others. He often showed up on the arrival ramp smiling and whistling a tune. At times he showed up for selections he was not assigned to. Known as the “Angel of Death,” he was frequently seen searching for human specimens of interest, such as incoming twins or deformed Jews.
Vershuer, Mengele’s mentor, had begun doing legitimate research in the development of genetic diseases in the early 1930s. As a staunch Nazi from the earliest days, he began the work to “scientifically” prove the inherent superiority of the Aryan race. But now with Mengele’s posting to Auschwitz, where he could do whatever he wanted without any oversight, the research took a more sinister turn. Having the power to kill or maim his subjects, Mengele embarked on a program studying methods to genetically develop a race of Aryan supermen. It is believed that his motivation was trying to find genetic markers helpful in breeding a pure and superior German nation.
He focused on Gypsy and Jewish twins, mostly children. Obsessed in proving the inferiority of the Jewish and Gypsy race, he showed an interest in studying every dwarf or other deformed Jew or Gypsy. After obtaining anthropological measurements, he had the subject killed and autopsied, sending the results with the skeletons back to Germany. By supplying the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI), his former employers, with tissue samples, entire skeletons, and body parts, he sought to impress them of his scientific expertise.
An additional interest of Mengele was a condition called heterochromia, where the irises of eyes take on different colors. Mengele would inject the children with a dye to change their eye color, a painful procedure, after which they would be killed. Immediately after the death of the child, he would have the other twin killed and dissected for any differences. Where else other than in Auschwitz could he obtain samples of twins who died at the same time?
During his tenure at Auschwitz, Mengele collected hundreds of victims’ eyes and sent them to his colleagues at the KWI. Much of his work came to light after the end of the war, with the publication of Dr. Miklos Nyiszli’s book in 1946. Nyiszli, a Hungarian prisoner-doctor, was forced to work in the sonderkommando with Mengele, from 1944 until liberation in 1945.
Mengele became infamous as a result of the numerous stories of survivors, including Olga, who arrived at Auschwitz and witnessed his activities. Every Auschwitz survivor was impacted by the cruelty and viciousness of Mengele, and no account of their suffering in Auschwitz is complete without mentioning him.
In addition to his selection duties at the intake ramp, Mengele was known to suddenly appear in the barracks and examine the women, looking for less-fit inmates as ideal candidates for gassing. Naturally, the appearance of Mengele doing such extra selections sent waves of terror through all the women, even the blockaltestes.
Mengele, as the camp doctor, was in charge of the infirmary. His treatments included routinely injecting sick patients with phenol into the heart, causing instant death. He supervised the inmate physicians such as Dr. Nyiszli and Dr. Lengyel, whose daily challenge included shielding the weak, sick, and infirm Jews from his attention.
For all of his methodical work habits, Mengele could be impulsive. During one selection—between work and death—on the arrival platform, a middle-aged woman who had been selected for work refused to be separated from her 14-year-old daughter, who had been assigned death.
A guard who tried to pry them apart got a nasty scratch on the face and had to fall back. Mengele stepped in to resolve the matter by shooting both the girl and her mother, and then he cut short the selection and sent everybody to the gas chamber.
Dr. Nyiszli, who worked with him closely for a year, describes the horrifically evil deeds of Mengele. He performed surgery without any anesthetic, at times allowing the wounds to fester and become gangrenous, he also took two Gypsy children, cut them open, and sewed them together, back to back, to mimic Siamese twins. All this was performed without anesthesia or a sterile environment. Naturally, the children died an agonizingly painful death.
Most of his work was pseudoscience, or junk science, that had only one purpose: to torture and kill Jews.
Rabb Erzsebet describes her impressions of Mengele:
Yes, this handsome man, this elegant German officer, is Mengele.
I can’t believe all the bad things they say about him. How can a handsome young officer with such dreamy eyes have so much evil in him?
His personal appearance was described by all as meticulous. Shiny boots up to his knees, uniform impeccably clean and pressed, his hat placed just so on his head. Humming or whistling a tune from Wagner, he was pleased with himself as he dispatched innocent people to their death. Mengele loved his work in Auschwitz. There was no method in what he did, though. At times he would make a lengthy selection, dividing the group of women into two. When finished, he would arbitrarily send either the left or the right group to their deaths.
Joseph Mengele was a cold-hearted, savage butcher who wore stylish clothing and had an engaging smile. At the end of the day, he was just another murderer with a medical license.
Toward the war’s end, Mengele transferred to Gross-Rosen concentration camp. He fled Gross-Rosen on February 18, shortly before the camp was liberated by the Soviets. He was taken prisoner by the Americans, but due to disorganization after the war, they did not realize whom they had in their hands. Mengele was never tattooed with the telltale SS sign and he went undetected.
He obtained a job as a farmhand. Worried that if captured he would be executed, he obtained a passport under the name Fritz Ullman and fled to Argentina.
Although he was the most wanted war criminal, sought by the Israelis as well as Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter, he was never captured. Suffering ill health from high blood pressure, he also had several strokes. In 1979, he suffered a stroke while swimming and drowned.
He was buried in Argentina under the name Wolfgang Gerhard. Because of a tip, his body was exhumed in 1985, and after extensive forensic examinations it was confirmed that indeed it was the infamous Mengele. His son Rolf confirmed his death.
Mengele’s son Rolf said his father showed no remorse for his wartime activities.
Dr. Alex Sternberg authored the forthcoming book “Recipes from Auschwitz–My Parents’ Story of the Murder of Hungarian Jewry.” He is a lifelong student of Jewish history, focusing on development of Zionism and the Holocaust. He is presently teaching graduate studies and is active in several pro-Israel organizations. He is a retired research doctor in children’s pulmonary health and a master karate instructor. Read more of Dr. Sternberg’s articles here.