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Mengele's Medical Experiments

Before the war, Josef Mengele had received doctorates in anthropology and medicine, and began a career as a researcher. He joined the Nazi Party in 1937 and the SS in 1938. He was assigned as a battalion medical officer at the start of World War II, then transferred to the Nazi concentration camps service and assigned to Auschwitz in May 1943; there he saw the opportunity to conduct medical research on human subjects. His experiments focused primarily on twins, with little or no regard for the health or safety of the victims.

Josef Mengele

Josef Mengele

Josef Mengele frequently assumed an enthusiastic posture on the railroad platform at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp as trainloads of captives arrived from across German-occupied Europe. Pointing in one direction, the SS-physician sent the healthiest prisoners to factory work as slave laborers; pointing in the opposite direction, he sent countless women, children, the frail and the elderly to die in gas chambers and be cremated.

The entrance to Auschwitz, taken in 2014.

The entrance to Auschwitz, taken in 2014.

A third group, primarily twin children, who would serve as involuntary guinea pigs for his spurious and ghastly human experiments, were delivered to well-supplied barracks where Mengele conducted grisly and often fatal surgical experiments in a pseudoscientific quest to uncover the secrets of genetics. Mengele’s mocking smile and soft but deadly touch earned him the title “The Angel of Death”. Dr. Olga Lengyel, a prisoner at the concentration camp, revealed that Mengele supervised the birth of a child with meticulous care. Within an hour, mother and child were sent to the gas chamber. Dr. Gisela Perl, a Hungarian Jewish gynecologist, described the aftermath of one brutal killing by Mengele. “He took a piece of perfumed soap out of his bag and, whistling gaily with a smile of deep satisfaction on his face, he began to wash his hands”. One witness described how Josef Mengele ripped an infant from its mother`s womb, then hurled it into an oven because it wasn`t a twin as he had hoped. A third witness recounted how Mengele kept hundreds of human eyes pinned to his lab wall ''like a collection of butterflies”.

Mengele was fascinated with twins. He was interested in differences between identical and fraternal twins as well as how genetic diseases originated and affected them. His experiments also distinguished between genetic traits and those developed by the environment of the child. He operated on children to find genetic weaknesses in the makeup of Jewish or Gypsy people, thereby providing scientific evidence for the ideas of the Nazi party. Mengele hypothesized that his subjects were particularly vulnerable to certain diseases because of their race, and that they had degenerative blood and tissue.

Prisoners held at a Nazi concentration camp.

Young prisoners held at a Nazi concentration camp.

Mengele or one of his assistants subjected twins to weekly examinations and measurements of their physical attributes. He performed experiments such as unnecessary amputation of limbs. He intentionally infected a twin with typhus or another disease and transfused the blood of the infected twin into the other. Many of his subjects died while undergoing these procedures. After an experiment was complete, the twins were sometimes killed and their bodies dissected. Miklós Nyiszli, a prisoner doctor at Auschwitz, recalled one occasion where Mengele personally killed fourteen twins in one night through a chloroform injection to the heart. If one twin died of disease, Mengele killed the other so that comparative reports could be prepared after death.

He was known for experimenting with eyes. One of his studies regarded heterochromia iridum, a condition in which people's eyes are differently colored. After he killed heterochromatics, Mengele removed their eyes and sent them for study to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Hereditary Teaching and Genetics in Berlin under the helm of Dr. Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, an outspoken admirer of Adolf Hitler. Mengele also attempted to change eye color by injecting chemicals into the eyes of living subjects.

His experiments on dwarfs and people with physical abnormalities included taking physical measurements, drawing blood, extracting healthy teeth, and treatment with unnecessary drugs and X-rays. Many of the victims were sent to the gas chambers after about two weeks, and their skeletons were sent to Berlin for further study.

Mengele firmly endorsed Nazi racial theory and engaged in a wide spectrum of experiments aiming to illustrate the susceptibility among Jews or Gypsies to various diseases. He attempted to demonstrate the “degeneration” of Jewish and Gypsy blood through the documentation of physical oddities and the collection and harvesting of tissue samples and body parts. Many of his “test subjects” died as a result of the experimentation or were murdered in order to facilitate post-mortem examination. Witness Vera Alexander described how he sewed two Gypsy twins together back-to-back in an attempt to create conjoined twins. The children died of gangrene after several days of suffering.

Mengele was also interested in the etiology and treatment of noma (a form of gangrene affecting the face, usually caused by a bacterial infection and typically occurring in young children suffering from malnutrition or other disease). This latter disease, widespread in Mengele’s “Gypsy Family Camp”, had been previously almost unknown in Europe. Mengele’s first experimental subjects were Gypsy children.

On Mengele's orders, children suffering from noma were put to death in order for pathology investigations to be carried out. Organs and even complete heads of children were preserved and sent in jars to institutions including the Medical Academy in Graz, Austria.

In the first phase of his experiments, Mengele subjected pairs of twins and people with physical handicaps to special medical examinations that could be carried out on the living organism. Usually painful and exhausting, these examinations lasted for hours and were a difficult experience for starved, terrified children (for such were the majority of the twins). The subjects were photographed, plaster casts were made of their teeth and jaws, and their fingerprints and toe prints were taken. As soon as the examinations of a given pair of twins or dwarf were finished, Mengele ordered them killed by phenol injection so that he could go on to the next phase of his experiments, the comparative analysis of internal organs at autopsy.

Although gynecology was not his specialty, Mengele conducted experiments on pregnant women. He had them infected with typhoid in order to determine whether their children would be born with the infection too.

Ruth Elias was pregnant when she was transferred from Theresienstadt (Nazi ghetto located in Czechoslovakia) to Auschwitz. She said, “I delivered a beautiful big blonde girl, but Mengele ordered that my breast be bound so that, as he said, “We can see how long a newborn baby can survive without food”. After watching her baby suffer for several days, a female Czech doctor gave Elias a syringe with an overdose of morphine to end the child’s agony.

Forced sterilization experiments by means of X-ray, surgery and various drugs were also conducted at Auschwitz. The targets for sterilization included Jewish and Gypsy prisoners. The purpose of these experiments was to develop a method of sterilization, which would be suitable for sterilizing millions of people with a minimum of time and effort.

On the night of January 17, 1945, as the Soviet army approached Poland from the east, Mengele left Auschwitz, salvaging what records he could from his experiments on twins, cripples and dwarfs. From that night, he never stopped running. He fled westward, where he joined a retreating unit of Wehrmacht soldiers, exchanging his SS uniform for a Wehrmacht officer’s. American soldiers arrested him in Weiden, Germany, more than 400 miles west of Auschwitz, and held him for two months in two prisoner camps. But the Americans released Mengele when they failed to identify him as the same Josef Mengele listed on “wanted for mass murder and other crimes” circulars compiled by the United Nations War Crimes Commission and the Allied High Commission in Paris. For that, he had his vanity to thank. It was Mengele’s decision not to have his blood group tattooed on his chest or arm when he joined the SS in 1938 that clinched his freedom.

Josef Menegels skull, used to identify his body.

Josef Mengele's skull, used to identify his body.

With luck, assistance from his prosperous family and a network of friends, he evaded recapture and fled to South America (Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil). In February 1979, aged 67, Mengele suffered a stroke and drowned while swimming near Bertioga, Brazil. He was buried in Embu on the outskirts of São Paulo under the fictive name of Wolfgang Gerhard. His body was exhumed in 1985. An American scientist, Lowell Levine, a forensic scientologist brought to Brazil to work on the skull – one of dozens of experts assembled for the task – declared, “There is absolutely no doubt at all that this is Josef Mengele.”

Josef Mengele was dead. Four decades after World War II ended, there was still a clear message in 1985: The horrors inflicted by the Nazis SS Hauptsturmführer doctor had not been forgotten nor dismissed as acceptable wartime behavior.

Erwin W. Rugendorff, MD, PhD


Olga Lengyel: Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor's True Story of Auschwitz. Chicago Review Press, Incorporated,2005
John Martin: In Evil Footsteps. World War II, October 2019, PP 26 – 37
David G. Marvel: Mengele – Unmasking the “Angel of Death”. W.W. Norton & Company, 2020
Eva Moses Kor and Lisa Rojany Buccieri: Surviving the Angel of Death. Tanglewood. Terre Haute. IN, 2009
Miklós Nyiszli: I Was Doctor Mengele’s Assistant. Translated from Polish by Witold Zbirohowski-Koṥcia, 2010
Gerald L. Posner and John Ware: Mengele: The Complete Story. Cooer Square Press, 2000
Wikipedia: Josef Mengele