In addition to being sites of slave labour and human annihilation, many Nazi concentration camps also functioned as medical experimentation centres throughout the Holocaust. Under the guise of researching new treatments or investigating racial eugenics, doctors conducted painful and often fatal experiments on thousands of prisoners without consent. The man most commonly associated with these pseudo-medical experiments is Dr Josef Mengele, whose notoriety among the inmates of Auschwitz earned him the nickname ‘the Angel of Death’.
Josef Mengele was born on 16 March 1911, the eldest of three brothers. He studied in both Munich and Frankfurt, specializing first in philosophy and then in medicine. He shared Hitler’s racial views, believing in the supremacy of the Aryan people, and joined the Nazi Party in 1937. Mengele served in the medical corps on the Eastern Front from 1940, but returned to Germany in early 1943 after sustaining an injury. No longer able to fight, he arrived at Auschwitz in the spring of 1943, where his cruel experiments on prisoners swiftly made him more infamous than any of the other camp physicians.
An Obsession with Twins
Auschwitz-Birkenau was both a concentration camp and an extermination centre, thus from the summer of 1942, whenever new convoys of Jewish deportees arrived at Auschwitz, there would be a selection to determine which people were fit to work and which would be killed. Mengele was regularly involved in these selections on the arrivals ramp, where in addition to deciding which of the incoming prisoners would perish immediately, he searched for twins and people with unusual physical conditions.
Mengele had a particular obsession with twins and conducted experiments on around 1,500 pairs of siblings during his time at Auschwitz, the majority of whom were young Jewish or Romani children. If one twin died, the other would also be killed so that he could perform a comparative autopsy. Mengele’s fascination with twins may have been linked to the Nazi desire for an increased Aryan birth rate.
Like many concentration camp doctors, he regularly drew blood from his ‘patients’ until they fainted and administered previously untested medications to monitor their effects, which often resulted in permanent debilitation or death. This man, who made such swift decisions about the fate of thousands of human beings, was bizarrely called ‘Onkel Mengele’ or ‘the good uncle’ by many of the children on whom he conducted experiments. He often brought them sweets or toys and is reported to have personally carried some infants to the gas chambers.
The Ovitz Family
The Ovitzes were a Jewish family from Romania, made up of seven brothers and sisters who all had a particular form of dwarfism. On their arrival at Auschwitz in 1944, Mengele personally prevented their immediate gassing, as he was intrigued by anyone who exhibited a physical abnormality. However, the tortures to which this family was subjected had, like most of Mengele’s experiments, little or no medical merit. He poured freezing and boiling water in their ears and extracted teeth, eyelashes and hair. Their suffering was acute and they anticipated their eventual murder but miraculously, all seven siblings survived. The youngest, Perla, later remarked on the dichotomy between Mengele’s sadistic acts and the polite manner he had often assumed towards her family.
Although Mengele became synonymous with the barbaric experiments carried out at Auschwitz, he was by no means the only physician to conduct tortuous and fatal medical trials on people deemed subhuman by the Nazi regime. Experiments also took place at Ravensbrück, Mauthausen and Dachau, where sterilization techniques were tested on both male and female prisoners, as were the effects of drinking seawater to see if could be made potable. Mengele’s reputation for brutality was not solely based on his Auschwitz laboratory activities, however. On one occasion he ordered that 750 women be sent to the gas chambers, purely to solve the issue of a lice infestation in their block.
In early 1945, Mengele fled Auschwitz as the Soviet Army advanced from the east. The camp was liberated on 27 January and among approximately 7,600 prisoners still alive in Auschwitz were several hundred children, whose survival was due entirely to the fact that they had been guinea pigs in the twisted experiments of Mengele and the other doctors.
Mengele spent a brief period in US custody after the war, during which time his captors failed to realize that he had been part of the SS and was a wanted man. He was mistakenly released and subsequently worked on a farm in Bavaria, maintaining a low profile. He escaped to South America in 1949 and evaded capture for the rest of his life, despite the efforts of Israeli agents and Nazi hunters to track down Auschwitz’s ‘Angel of Death’. His end came on 7 February 1979, when he suffered a stroke while swimming in Brazil and drowned. He was buried under a false name and it was not until 1992 that DNA evidence proved that the remains in the grave of ‘Wolfgang Gerhard’ were those of the infamous Josef Mengele.