Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Josef Mengele, the 'Angel of Death'

Mengele's Research

Prior to his association with Mengele, Professor von Verschuer had concentrated his research on the subject of twins. His work had been limited to observing the behavior of twin subjects; he was prohibited from experimenting on living subjects by the ethical norms which had prevailed prior to the Nazi era. The Nazis swept away such norms and in Auschwitz, von Verschuer saw unlimited possibilities for his protégé, Josef Mengele, to conduct the types of in vivo experiments he had longed to conduct for so long. Mengele, ever anxious to please his mentor, arrived at Auschwitz with a mission to plumb the depths of the human mystery, and to extract the secrets of human genetics from the living twin specimens at his disposal.

Eva and Miriam Mozes
Eva and Miriam Mozes

Mengele ordered the SS guards who assisted him in the selection process to scour the lines of prisoners for twins. "Zwillinge, zwillinge," "Twins, twins," the guards would bark harshly as they marched up and down the ramp as trains transporting new prisoners arrived. Surviving twins, such as Eva Mozes of Hungary, remember the moment when they were removed from the line of the condemned and delivered to Dr. Mengele:

When the doors to our cattle car opened, I heard SS soldiers yelling, "Schnell! Schnell!" ("Faster! Faster!"), and ordering everybody out. My mother grabbed Miriam and me by the hand. She was always trying to protect us because we were the youngest. Everything was moving very fast, and as I looked around, I noticed my father and my two older sisters were gone. As I clutched my mother's hand, an SS man hurried by shouting, "Twins! Twins!" He stopped to look at us. Miriam and I looked very much alike. "Are they twins?" he asked my mother. "Is that good?" she replied. He nodded yes. "They are twins," she said.

While the twins were spared from outright execution, they were delivered to a decidedly crueler fate. Mengele reserved a special barracks for his twin subjects, as well as for dwarfs, cripples and other "exotic specimens." The barracks was nicknamed the Zoo, Mengele's holding pen. The twins were his favorite subjects, and they were afforded special treatment, such as being able to keep their own hair and clothing, and receiving extra food rations. The guards were under strict orders not to abuse the children, and were to look after their well being lest one should fall ill and die. Mengele became explosively irate if one of his beloved specimens should happen to die. These twins were referred to as "Mengele's Children." It was here in the Zoo that the twins were to learn of their parents' true fate in the gas chambers, where Mengele simultaneously became to them a figure of death and of life, the man who had condemned their parents and family members to annihilation, while at the same time sparing their own lives.

Ruins of the Infirmary at Auschwitz
Ruins of the Infirmary at Auschwitz

Mengele's children were also spared from beatings, forced labor and random selections in order to maintain their good health. However, Mengele was not motivated by humanitarian urges, but by his desire to keep his specimens healthy for experimentation. Ironically, it was his very experiments that extracted the heaviest physical toll on the children upon whom he lavished such care and affection, and hundreds ended up dying as a result of his gruesome deeds. As with other inmates at Auschwitz, Mengele's imagination knew no bounds when it came to devising physical torments for his victims. Preliminary examinations of the twins were routine enough. The children filled out a questionnaire, were weighed and measured. However, a more gruesome fate awaited them at Mengele's hands. He took daily blood samples from his children, and sent these to Professor von Verschuer in Berlin. He injected blood samples from one twin into another twin of a different blood type and recorded the reaction. This was invariably a searingly painful headache and high fever that lasted for several days. In order to determine if eye color could be genetically altered, Mengele had dye injected into the eyes of several twin subjects. This always resulted in painful infections, and sometimes even blindness. If such twins died, Mengele would harvest their eyes and pin them to the wall of his office, much like a biologist pins insect samples to styrofoam. Young children were placed in isolation cages, and subjected to a variety of stimuli to see how they would react. Several twins were castrated or sterilized. Many twins had limbs and organs removed in macabre surgical procedures that Mengele performed without using an anesthetic. Other twins were injected with infectious agents to see how long it would take for them to succumb to various diseases.

It is clear that, despite the stated purpose for which he was sent to Auschwitz, Mengele's experimentation had absolutely nothing to do with true scientific research, and was instead the result of one man's ambitious and zealous adherence to the Nazi vision of Aryan supremacy. As surviving Mengele subject Alex Dekel states:

I have never accepted the fact that Mengele himself believed he was doing serious work — not from the slipshod way he went about it. He was only exercising his power. Mengele ran a butcher shop — major surgeries were performed without anesthesia. Once, I witnessed a stomach operation — Mengele was removing pieces from the stomach, but without any anesthetic. Another time, it was a heart that was removed, again, without anesthesia. It was horrifying. Mengele was a doctor who became mad because of the power he was given. Nobody ever questioned him — why did this one die? Why did that one perish? The patients did not count. He professed to do what he did in the name of science, but it was a madness on his part.

Madness, indeed, on the part of a man who showered love and attention on the very children he would sooner or later subject to his cruel experiments, whom he would more likely than not murder in pursuit of genetic information that did not exist except in the imagination of an indoctrinated Nazi ideologue. Madness on the part of a man whom more than one surviving twin would remember as a gentle man who loved children! Whence does such madness spring, how is it possible for two separate and diametrically opposed personages manifest themselves within the same individual?