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.