The holocaust is most likely the worst crime against humanity of modern history; Auschwitz the worst place where the crime got consumed; Birkenau the horror within the horror of Auschwitz; Josef Mengele the death angel who contributed to this whole insanity.

In 1985 the study of Brazilian, American and German forensic experts revealed that the man buried in a small village in São Paulo, Brazil, with the name of  Wolfgang Gerhard was in reality Josef Mengele. Genetic tests carried out in 1992 absolutely confirmed it with a rate of 99,69% of chances.

Who was this man and how did he end up becoming the main character of the most horrendous nightmare of modern history?

The study

Josef Mengele did not have any tragic violence history in his childhood, or anything which could, if not justify, at least explain any hidden motivation behind his crimes. In reality his was a wealthy family and, although authoritative, they let him study all the way to his degree in anthropology, obtained in 1935.

After the degree, Mengele worked in Frankfurt with doctor Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, ardent eugenicist Nazi. The national-socialism was affirming that an individual is nothing but the result of its own legacy and von Verschuer was one of those Nazi scientists whose work seemed to validate such a belief.

The research of von Verschuer were revolving around the genetic influences on congenital flaws such as palatoschisis. Mengele, enthusiastic assistant of the doctor, left his laboratory in 1938 with an entrustment and a degree in medicine.

Membership to Nazism

Mengele joined the Nazi party in 1937 at the age of 26 while he was still working in Frankfurt with his mentor. In 1938 he became part of the SS and in 1940 he took part as a volunteer in the Waffen SS to fight to the front during WW2.

In 1941, his unit was sent to Ukraine and Josef Mengele, the rich funny and good student, stood out once again for his courage leaning towards heroism: he saved two soldiers who were about to die inside a burning tank. For this episode he gained the Iron Cross.


In 1942, after being wounded in battle, he was dismissed from the first line service and moved to Auschwitz, where he came on May 1943. In the meantime he had re-established the contacts with his old mentor, von Verschuer, who made him part of his research occurred during his presence in the camp.

Mengele arrived in Auschwitz in a moment of transition: in until the winter of the 1942-43 the camp was mainly place of imprisonment and forced labour, after that period it turned into the extermination base, especially Birkenau, where Mengele had been appointed as medical officer.

When the Nazi found themselves forced to speed things up to arrive to the famous “final solution”, Auschwitz became the death factory. Some tales from the survivors as well as the Nazi guards, describe Mengele as an enthusiast, who often offered himself to work extra time on tasks which were beyond his expertise. He was completely at ease in the camp, with the uniform always flawless, a faint smile always on his face.

Every medical officer had, in the specific area where he was allocated, to select the new entries, to send them either to the working camp or straight to the gas chamber. Many colleagues of Mengele were finding this job depressing while he used to like it very much and for this he was always happy to take over when a doctor did not want to do it.

During his stay in Auschwitz, he dealt with the executions of the patients in infirmary, to look after the the German doctor in their work, to supervise the behaviour of the detained doctors and to conduct experiments on human test subjects. He would select the subjects himself, for that experimentation program started and manged by him.

 Experimentations on human test subjects

Mengele experimentation was extremely cruel. By exploiting his unlimited supply of human test subjects, he carried on his work started in Frankfurt on the “biological fundamental of the social environment, the transmission of characters and racial types”. The monozygotic twins were useful for this type of genetic research as their genes were identical. The potential differences between them were therefore supposed to be result of environmental factors.

Mengele studied hundreds of couples of twins, to whom he would inject mysterious substances, for then monitoring the disease which would follow or would cause gangrene to their limbs. When one of the two was then dying, the other would be killed straight away so that they could cut them open and analyse their inside. Subsequently, one of his assistants said that the doctor, just in one night, and managed to kill 14 twins of gypsies.

In 1944, Mengele enthusiasm gave him a promotion as responsible of the public sanity of the camp, and even here he stood out for his efficiency: an epidemic of typhus spread in a shack where many women were kept, and the doctor sent the 600 people of the whole block to the gas chamber.

At the end of 1944, with the advancing of the Red Army, the camp was almost completely destroyed in the attempt to destroy the proof of the genocide: one million and 100,000 estimated people lost their life in the death factory. Of those 960,000 were Jews.

Escape and run

Josef Mengele packed all his precious research and gave it to a loyal friend, then he moved West to avoid the Red Army.

The doctor managed to escape the arrest up until June 1945, when he was intercepted by an American patrol. At that time Mengele still had his real name but the list of Nazi wanted criminals was not complete so he was left to go. The ex Angel of the death worked for some time as a day labourer but  in 1949 decided to leave the country.

The Nazi criminal managed to leave Europe from Genoa, thanks to fake IDs obtained in Terment, in Italy, where someone else had got his own ones, the lieutenant colonel Adolf Eichmann.

By using different pseudonyms and in some periods his real name too (in Paraguay), Mengele succeeded to avoid the capture for decades, helped even by the complaisance of the governments of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay which were supportive with the Nazis that had sought refugee in Latin America.

Even during the exile, with everything to lose if he had been spotted, Mengele found a way to break the rule: in 1950, without the right authorisations, he opened up a clinic where, amongst other things,he would perform illegal abortion. When one of his patients died, he was arrested but then released thanks to an abundant bribe to the judge appointed to the case.

The effort of the Israeli secret services to capture him were not successful and the doctor started getting worried only after the capture of Eichmann. He changed several identities and address up until he settled down in Brazil, where he lived for 25 years. In 1979 then he died of natural death while swimming in the ocean, hit by a heart attack which made him drown.

In March 2016, a Brazilian courthouse gave the rest of Mengele to the department of the Medicine  of the University in São Paulo. Maybe it would be a too indulgent nemesis that what remains of the Angel of the Death will be used by professors and students for medical research

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