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Josef Mengele And the Doctors of Auschwitz

Book Essay on: Adrianna Pasquarella, :
( Corona: , 2010), pages.

by Adrianna Pasquarella
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
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About Adrianna Pasquarella

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Essay (back to top)

Auschwitz-Birkenau is the most notorious camp for the mere fact that it was both a concentration camp and a death camp. It was a place where moral rules were broken, which resulted in numerous opportunities for the doctors assigned there. Josef Mengele knew this was an opportunity and requested to be transferred to this terror and turmoil. He grew up in a very ordinary family to become an extraordinary Nazi. The doctors knew there were no boundaries at Auschwitz when it came to human guinea pigs. They used this to study various things that interested them and many times these experiments were looking for answers to help support Nazi ideology. They took anatomical measurements to compare different races, studied eye color and blood, and different methods of sterilization were explored. While some doctors were interested only in advancing the science at Auschwitz, Josef Mengele had multiple reasons for wanting to be at there, namely academic curiosity, torture, control, and opening up career opportunities. In the end, it is safe to say that the “Angel of Death” indulged his sadistic desires with his experimentations and selections at Auschwitz.

Dr. Josef Mengele was born on March 16, 1911 in a German town called Gunzburg. He had two younger brothers named Karl and Alois and his parents were Karl and Walburga (“Dr. Josef Mengele”). His father manufactured agricultural machinery and did not support the Nazi Party. Josef grew up in a Catholic family and had a deep interest in art and science (Gutman, 318). In 1931, Mengele joined the Stahlhelm (the Steel Helmets) and in October 1934 he left the Stahlhelm due to issues with his kidney (“Dr. Josef Mengele”). Josef studied philosophy at Munich University and was awarded his Ph. D. for his dissertation “Racial-Morphologicla Study of Lower Jaw in Four Racial Groups” (Gutman, 318). In May 1938, Mengele joined the SS and in July of that year he received his degree in medicine from the University of Frankfurt (Seidelman, 225). In October 1938 he started his three-month rifle training with the Wehrmacht (Dr Josef Mengele). He joined the SS in May of 1938 (Gutman, 318). In July 1939 he married Irene Schoenbein (Dr Josef Mengele). From August 1 to November 4 1940, Mengele was a part of the reserve battalion in the Waffen SS then worked at the Genealogical Section of the Race and Resettlement Office in Poland. In January 1942, Mengele became a medical officer of the Waffen SS Viking division and received the Iron Cross First Class for saving two soldiers from a burning tank, as well as the Black Badge for the Wounded and the Medal for the Care of the German People. After being declared unfit for battle following the fighting at the Don River in the summer of 1942, Mengele was transferred to Auschwitz on May 30, 1943 (Gutman, 319).

Before Auschwitz was constructed, the Poles considered this area of Poland as too inhospitable to live in, but the Germans thought it was perfect to build a camp. When Mengele arrived to Auschwitz, the first thing he noticed was the odor and large flames, which he knew was the burning of bodies (Posner, 19). Since Mengele was in a war, he came to Auschwitz as the most decorated doctor for war medals. Although many prisoners after the war had thought Mengele was the chief physician of the camp, it was in fact Dr. Eduard Wirths (Posner, 24). Dr. Wirths appointed him Chief Physician of the women’s section of the camp (Seidelman, 225). He also had an office in the Gypsy’s camp at Birkenau, which was established in February 1943 and Mengele’s authority reached all throughout Birkenau (Gutman, 319). Mengele was seen as an efficient doctor because he was a workaholic and took on numerous responsibilities and projects (Posner, 24).

Mengele did two things at the camp: experimentation and selection. Mengele received funding by his Professor Otmar von Verschuer, who in turn received this funding by the German Research Council (Seidelman, 226). The purpose of this funding was to study proteins in egg white and eye color (Koren, 91). In this time period, medicine believed that blood was the key to illnesses and genetic traits (Koren, 97). In order to learn more about genetics, Mengele studied the blood to try and determine what separates different races. Everything collected by Mengele was sent to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin-Dahlem, which was headed by von Verschuer (Seidelman, 226). Specimens would include eyes, skeletons, blood samples, and feces. In this time period, German law protected animals from laboratory experiments, but there were no limitations on what could be done to human beings (Koren, 90). With this in mind, Mengele found Auschwitz as the perfect place for experimentation. While there, he could perform any type of experiment and the information was sent back to the Professor von Verschuer in hopes that he could achieve his habilitation so that the university would appoint him to a job there. He found a place among all the other doctors and their experiments.

Block 10, which had a greater life expectancy for the prisoners, was known as “Clauberg’s block” and is where experimentation was conducted to research mass sterilization (Gutman, 304). In 1940, Clauberg told Himmler about his desire to research the causes and treatment of infertility so that he could design a non-surgical method of sterilization of the prisoners (Gutman, 306). He used prisoners that were mothers so that he knew they could have children and he would inject 10 mL of a caustic substance into the women’s cervixes (International Auschwitz Committee, 83). Afterward he would take an x-ray of them and then inject the substance into their cervix again after several weeks (International Auschwitz Committee, 84). He hoped that the substance would create adhesions to obstruct the fallopian tubes and it is thought that he used formalin to accomplish this. When he was finally able to test the subjects for impregnation, Dr. Clauberg had to flee because of the war (Gutman, 307). While a prisoner named Dr. Dorota Lorska was there, she never saw any deaths from this experiment (International Auschwitz Committee, 84). Also, Dr. Clauberg had another experiment in Block 10 that tested the relationship between dental infections and physical symptoms. This was one of the best places for the prisoners because the prisoners that worked there could easily fake someone’s death and free them from Auschwitz (Gutman, 309). Himmler pictured prisoners filling out paperwork and being sterilized unknowingly and Horst Schumann work on this project (Gutman, 307).

Dr. Schumann worked on this in Block 30 in Birkenau. Women had plates put on their abdomen and lower back and men had plates put on their penis and scrotum and they were x-rayed for several minutes, which would cause burns, infections and inflammation of the peritoneum. After Dr. Schumann was done, he would have Dr. Wladislaw Dering castrate some of the men and women surgically so that he could further examine the damage he had done (Gutman, 308). Dr. Lorska witnessed one death to this process due to hemorrhaging (International Auschwitz Committee, 85). They also needed to collect sperm and would do this by putting a wooden stick in the anus and roughly messaging the prostate. Dr. Schumann tried x-rays for other things. Some prisoners had a fungal condition of the face and he tried to cure it with x-rays. This just caused severe skin eruptions, infections, problems with the tear and salivary ducts, and sometimes facial paralysis, which caused these prisoners to be sent to the gas chamber (Gutman, 308).

These doctors did terrible things to prisoners to try and answer their questions. Dr. Johann Paul Kremer was an SS doctor who had previously worked at a university and he would kill starving prisoners by injecting their hearts with phenol so that he could study the effects on their bodies/organs (Gutman, 310). Dr. Bruno Weber transferred blood from one patient to another to study blood agglutination (International Auschwitz Committee, 86). Dr. Wirths along with other doctors would inject prisoners with typhus to try and find a cure. Many prisoners described Wirths as decent, but he was the one that designed the selection system of Auschwitz and the medicalized killing, both of which he would supervise for two years (Gutman, 310). Dr. Wirths personal interest was pre-cancerous cells of the cervix. He would use a new tool called a colposcope to view women’s cervixes before doing anything to them. Then he would apply a substance to the cervix, which was usually an acetic acid and an ionized compound (Gutman, 311). When something abnormal occurred, instead of performing a biopsy, Dr. Wirths would cut the cervix out and send it off to his brother’s lab in Hamburg-Altona, which was often fatal to the women due to bleeding (International Auschwitz Committee, 85).

Another doctor named Sigmund Rascher performed experiments at Dauchau, but some of them were transferred over to Auschwitz because the screaming was too loud. These prisoners were frozen until they were unconscious before the doctors tried to revive them through re-warming. These experiments were defined as terminal because it was known that the prisoners were most likely to die. Dr. Leo Alexander compiled the details of this experiment, which was published by the United States Department of Commerce so that the US could benefit from it (Seidelman, 227).

Only Mengele and Dr. Fritz Klein enjoyed the selections, while some other doctors, like Hans Konig had to get drunk before being able to go to the train platforms. Klein hated Jews because in undergraduate school, a Jewish man seduced his fiancée. Mengele on the other hand, thought that Germans and Jews were the only two gifted races in the world and that it was now a race to see which side would win, and so he believed the Germans had to destroy the Jews to prove they are superior (Posner, 27). He used the selection lines to show his power and to exercise his control. Since he saw the Jews as an equally great race, it seems he enjoyed exerting his power of life and death on them.

Mengele’s colleagues said that Mengele never spoke of his personal life and he always seemed to be emotionless. On March 11, 1944 his son Rolf was born (Dr Josef Mengele). None of his colleagues heard him speak about it that whole year (Posner, 29). He would have an expression that prisoners called a death mask that would only give away to excitement when he found twins and agitation when none could be found (“Josef Mengele,” 9). Mengele did not take pleasure in inflicting pain, but instead took pleasure in the ability to determine life or death for the prisoners (Posner, 45). When he was in his normal mood he would do cruel things to those in line. One time a woman would not separate from her baby and so he came over and shot both of them on the spot and as an even crueler punishment had everyone from her cattle car sent to the gas chambers, even those that were healthy (“Josef Mengele”, 8). He did things like this to exercise his power and to torture others. On the days he was in a good mood, he would be exquisitely nice to those getting of the train and would say things like “Madam, you are ill and tired after a long journey; give your child to this lady and you will find it later in the children’s nursery” (Posner, 30). On most days he was mean though and one time sent a man and a child to the gas chambers even though the man was perfectly fit; his crime that day was that he was holding the 18-month-old baby (Gutman, 327).

Mengele would gather doctors that were prisoners when they came out of the train and ask if they could do a certain job. He told them to beware because he would ask them questions and would test them after they stepped forward. Dr. Miklos Nyiszli stepped forward on May 29, 1944 and was questioned to see if he was a fit doctor (Posner, 33). After this he had to dissect a body and note any abnormalities on the organs in front of SS and prison doctors, which he passed (Posner, 34). Prisoners that were doctors lived in better conditions, were exempt from selections, and were able to study medical problems in their specialty (Gutman, 309). Mengele would also never examine sick prisoners and would instead have doctors that were prisoners do it themselves because he only cared about the formal aspect of medical care (Gutman, 327). These prison doctors had to determine how much rest the sick prisoners needed, and if they needed four weeks, it was absolutely certain that they would be sent to the gas chambers. So, instead they would try and lie that the prisoner only needed two weeks. There were two risks to these: that the prisoner would be released too soon and die in the camp and that Mengele would review the case, catch their mistake, and then interrogate the prison doctors asking them if they knew anything about medicine (Posner, 28). After Mengele died, his son Rolf came forward and said that his dad told him that he had tried to save as many people in the selection lines as possible and that he was never involved in harming or killing a twin (Gutman, 332).

Twins in the women’s camp received milky soup in the morning, white bread and jam and sometimes a small piece of sausage on Sundays or holidays in addition to not having to work (Gutman, 323). They received black bread, margarine, and coffee for dinner and soup for lunch. Also they had regular bunks without sheets or pillows, but there were fewer prisoners to a bunk when it came to Mengele’s subjects (Gutman, 322). The twins in the kindergarten barrack in the Gypsy camp also received better food and were used in this barrack for Nazi propaganda (Gutman, 321). Mengele would give these children food, toys, and sweets that were taken from incoming prisoners. The walls of the kindergarten had paintings of fairy tales and in the backyard there was a playground with a sand-box, merry-go-round, swings, and exercise equipment, which allowed the children to trust the “good uncle” (Gutman, 320). This barrack had pictures taken of it and Nazi officials visited, but ultimately these children were only Mengele’s guinea pigs. It is unknown how many twins were seen by Mengele in the Gypsy camp, but on August 2, 1944, the day of the final Gypsy liquidation, only twelve pairs of twins survived (Gutman, 321).

Twins had four types of experimentation done to them: anthropometric, morphological, x-ray, and psychiatric evaluation. In the anthropometric experiments, body parts were studied and measured and descriptions of the mouth, nose, eye color, skin etc. and even casts of the jaw were taken. These measurements, that lasted hours, were held in unheated rooms while the subjects stood naked (Gutman, 323). Often Mengele would do this to them twice a week for five months at a time, while also taking blood from them each time, which would be sent to Frankfurt for further examination. Mengele was trying to find the mechanism of heredity through these twins. Often their prison numbers would have a ZW added to it to signal they were twins and would be allowed to keep their clothing and hair; the hair which would also be studied by Mengele. To keep them more calm, sometimes Mengele would let the twins mother stay in the barrack with them, but she could be gassed at a moment’s notice (Gutman, 312). Even though these were Mengele’s special twins who were treated much better than the average prisoner, he still did not care about them. One time Mengele had a dispute with other doctors about a diagnosis and Mengele killed the patient to find out if he was right, which he was not (Gutman, 313). After these patients were measured and studied, they would go to the in vivo stage where they were experimented on alive (Posner, 35). Mengele did this to the twins partly out of academic curiosity about the means of genetic inheritance, but also because he wanted to secure a job at the University of Frankfurt.

Mengele amputated, performed lumbar punctures, injected typhus, and infected wounds to compare how each twin would react and most of the time one twin was used as a control. Mengele would take 350cc of blood from one set of twins and put it in another without cross matching, which resulted in a high fever and severe headache. It seemed Josef Mengele was trying to also unlock the key of producing more twins to repopulate Germany with and so he forced two sets of twins to have intercourse. When one said, “No, this is impermissible,” Mengele replied that she had no say in the matter (Posner, 37). It appears that he was trying to make sure the reproduction of twins was genetic by having twins reproduce twins. Blood, urine, stool, and saliva was collected from the twins and sent off to von Verschuer to be studied and analyzed. Anemia was the biggest problem when it came to drawing blood and more than once, Mengele took too much blood, resulting in death. One time he sewed two twins together on their back and wrist along with their veins. A major infection was setting in and so the mother got a hold of morphine and killed her children to end their sufferring. Before the surgery he would tell the children not to worry, that nothing was going to happen to them and then would do things like spinal surgery, incisions to testicles, and inject chemicals. Mengele inserted pins into Tibi’s and Moshe’s heads, and in the end Moshe died in Tibi’s arms from the experiments (Gutman, 324). After he was done with the twins he would kill them to study their body and one time killed 14 sets of twins in one night by the injection of phenol so they could be studied (“Josef Mengele”, 10).

Mengele tortured prisoners with random experiments and cruel acts. Because testing animals was not allowed, women were shot and had their thigh muscle removed so that it could be used for culturing. Mengele had a mother cover her breasts with tape to see how long it would take for her child to die of hunger (Posner, 44). Mengele would also perform electrical experiments on prisoners so that he could test their endurance and often they died (Posner, 43). He dissected a one year old alive and would stand on pregnant women’s stomachs to see how long it would take to cause and abortion (Posner, 44). Mengele would draw a line on a wall and send everyone who could not reach that line to the gas chambers (Posner, 50). During selections, Mengele saw a hunchbacked father and a son with a deformed foot. He gave them their last dinner, had them shot, and then boiled their bodies so that he could study their bones (Posner, 41). Mengele studied eye color and would inject dye into the eyes and try to change the color, one prisoner said she saw many eyeballs pinned against the wall and floating in jars when she entered an office of Mengele (Posner, 34). It was also witnessed that Mengele oversaw the burning of three hundred children alive (Posner, 45). Mengele also paraded a family of dwarfs in front of 2000 SS men and had them videotaped (Posner, 54). To cure the camp of typhus he killed all the women in the first barrack and disinfected the barrack. Then he disinfected women from another barrack, gave them new clothes, and moved them to the newly disinfected barrack, which cleared the camp of typhus; for this he received the War service Medal in 1944 (Posner, 25). When the Gypsies had an outbreak of noma, which were ulcers in the mouth that cause it to decay, Mengele experimented on them to find a cure. The prisoners thought it was to help ease their pain, but when he found the cure he sent them to the gas chamber (Posner, 49). This just shows he wanted to find the cure for academic curiosity and liked to use his power to torture these kids by making them think he wanted to help them, only to send them to the gas chambers. All these things promoted Mengele’s vicious reputation, and when Dr. Nyiszli was hassled by an SS man for going to another area of a camp, he replied that he worked for Mengele and the SS man immediately left him alone for fear of Mengele’s reputation (Posner, 53).

When the war was coming to an end, Irene thought Mengele was depressed because he was dissatisfied with his work but was torn between this and his obedience to his country. His colleagues believed that he was depressed because Germany was losing the war and Mengele knew he would not be a free man forever (Posner, 55). On January 17, 1945 Mengele fled Auschwitz with his paperwork on the camp (Posner, 57). On February 7, 1979 Josef Mengele died of a stroke swimming in the ocean in Brazil (Dr Josef Mengele).

It is apparent that both Dr. Rascher’s and Mengele’s information was used and seen as value after the war. Dr. von Verschuer to this day is seen as someone who has helped further research on twins. Dr. von Verschuer and therefore Mengele, helped lay the base layer for mapping the human gene (Seidelman, 229). It is clear that Mengele went to Auschwitz as a student wanting to learn and therefore get a job opportunity. In the process he was able to demean and torture prisoners because he loved the feeling of power and wanted to defeat what he saw as the only other superior race on the planet. Many people debate whether or not his information, or any of the other doctors’ information, like Rascher’s, should be used because they feel the information was obtained immorally. Others feel it should be used to show that these prisoners did not die for nothing.

Altogether, the doctors of Auschwitz appear to have done more harm than good. Their experiments were cruel and unusual punishment to the prisoners. Josef Mengele performed most of his experiments to further his career and the University of Frankfurt, but he also did some experiments out of sadistic curiosity (like sewing twins together). After his habilitation, the University of Frankfurt was going to offer him a job if the war had not turned sour. Mengele’s main interest at Auschwtiz was discovering more about genetic heritance through the study of twins. It was his hope that he could unlock this secret to help populate Germany. Thus it is true that Mengele was at Auschwitz to help his career, to satisfy his academic interests, to torture prisoners, and to control those that he thought needed to be crushed.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/10)

Book Reviews

  • , Dr Josef Mengele. Lenin Imports UK

    This website is a list of dates and events of Josef Mengele's life. I used it to help write a biography of his early life and checked it with other sources to make sure it was correct, which it was.

  • , Josef Mengele

    This website has a short biography of Josef Mengele and mainly has information on his behavior and experimentation at Auschwitz. There is also a description of Auschwitz and a few testimonials by twins and a prisoner doctor named Miklos Nyiszli. I used this website to get information about Josef Mengele's behavior and some of the cruel things he did.

  • Yisrael Gutman , Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.

    This book covers all areas of the camp. Essays by scholars from Europe, Israel, and the United States contributed to this writing. It is more of a resource book than one that can be leisurely read. It had a chapter on Josef Mengele himself and another chapter describing the different experiments of other doctors at Auschwitz.

  • International Auschwitz Committee. , Nazi Medicine: Doctors, Victims, and Medicine in Auschwitz. New York: Howard Fertig, 1986.

    This book is the accumulation of thirty different stories by different people that were prisoners of Auschwitz.Each story focuses on a different aspect of the camp i.e. liberation, phenol, x-rays, block 10 etc. I used the story of Dr. Dorota Lorska who spoke about block 10 and various doctors of the camp.

  • Yehuda Koren, . In Our Hearts We Were Giants New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2004

    This book is about the Lilliput Troupe and how Shimshon Eizik Ovitz was known as having the largest dwarf family in the world. He describes how his whole family made it through Auscwitz because they appealed to Josef Mengele. I used this book for references on Josef Mengele and did not concentrate on their story.

Books and Articles

  • Gerald Posner, Mengele The Complete Story New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1986

    The writers did five years of research and had exclusive access to the family's papers to write this book. This book gives a full account of Mengele's life and tries to separate fact from fiction. Inserted in the book is thoughts from various people that knew Mengele at different times in his lifetime. I used this book to get facts about Mengele's schooling and what he did while at Auschwitz.

  • William Seidelman, Mengele Medicus: Medicine's Nazi Heritage The Milbank Quarterly 66.2 (1988): 221-239. JSTOR. Web. 15 Mar. 2010.

    This scholarly journal pulls numerous references together to write this short paper. These references include books, journals, and primary sources. The writer discusses some important doctors and their experiments, how these experiments are of value today, and the moral dilemma of using this information. I referenced this article for the information on Josef Mengele's and Sigmund Rascher's experiments.

Relevant Websites

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Adrianna Pasquarella on 3/23/10; last updated: 3/23/10
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