The Angel of Death: 9 Facts About the Life of Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele

The Angel of Death: 9 Facts About the Life of Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele

Larry Holzwarth - October 12, 2017

The Angel of Death: 9 Facts About the Life of Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele
Post War Europe was in chaos, as indicated by this unguarded entry into the American zone in Berlin, 1945. Library of Prussian Culture

Finding help to flee from Europe

The Soviet Army arrived at Auschwitz in late January 1945. About three weeks later Mengele was on the move again, fleeing the Gross-Rosen camp where he had arrived after Auschwitz and traveling westward across Germany. Mengele adopted the guise of an officer of the Wehrmacht, (the German military, not yet associated with the atrocities being unveiled by the Russians) and after leaving his notes and other documents with a friend, made for the advancing American Army. He was captured by the Americans in June 1945, after Germany’s surrender.

Mengele took advantage of the immediate post-war confusion and the lack of coordination between the allies to avoid being placed on a suspected war criminals list. Most of the documents which incriminated him in the crimes at Auschwitz-Birkenau had not yet come to light, and he was regarded by the Americans as a simple prisoner of war. Released in 1945 he obtained false identity documents using the name Fritz Hollmann.

Under that name, he wandered across post-war Europe, never staying long in one place and always wary of being identified. By then the stories of his activities in the camps were becoming known. Mengele eventually fled to the Soviet zone, in part because of an attempt on his part to reclaim his personal records of his activities in Auschwitz.

Mengele eventually found work and temporary hiding at an isolated farm near Rosenheim, remaining in hiding there until the spring of 1949. As the international pursuit of Nazi war criminals intensified, Mengele contacted former members of the SS who had established underground escape routes out of Europe, used to reach Argentina. There a large German community was known to harbor former officers and officials of the Third Reich.

The Angel of Death: 9 Facts About the Life of Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele
Many Germans sought and found refuge in Nazi-sympathizing Argentina in the 1940s and 50s. Wikipedia

Sympathy and support in South America

Europe was a hotbed of intrigue and distrust between the former allies, and growing numbers of Germans (and others including the Vatican) assisted escaping former Nazis as part of resisting the domination of the Soviet Union on Eastern Europe. Many escape routes went through Italy, and Mengele used one of these, arriving in Genoa sometime in the summer of 1949. By August, he was on a ship to Argentina, traveling under an International Passport issued by the Red Cross as a war refugee, using the alias Helmut Gregor.

In Argentina Mengele found work as a salesman of farm implements and in that role traveled throughout the region, including frequent trips to Paraguay. He achieved access to family funds (his father had accumulated significant wealth) through Swiss banks and in the early 1950s invested in a carpentry company. At first, residing in a Buenos Aires apartment, Mengele later rented a house in Olivos, an affluent suburb, and evidence indicates that he soon resumed practicing medicine, in the form of performing illegal abortions.

By 1954 Mengele had obtained a West German passport with his real name and traveled to Switzerland for a ski vacation. Despite the efforts of West German police and the Israeli secret service, Mengele returned to live openly in Argentina, under his real name, protected from extradition by international law. He invested in a pharmaceutical company, purchased property, and according to evidence uncovered in the 1990s, resumed his experimental research on twins.

After moving to Paraguay, using the name Jose Mengele, the now remarried Mengele (his first wife had remained in Europe and divorced him) remained out in the open. During the Nuremberg Trials, his name and activities had been a common topic of testimony by accused Nazis and surviving prisoners, prompting legal action by the West Germans to extradite him to Europe to face a military tribunal. When Argentina was presented with extradition papers they rejected them out of hand, since Mengele was not a resident at the time the papers were prepared.

The Angel of Death: 9 Facts About the Life of Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele
Josef Mengele (left rear) dining with his wife and guests in Brazil, circa 1960. Wikipedia

Mengele hid in plain sight

Mengele had lived well in Argentina, with family money (thanks to his father’s investments in Argentine industry) at his disposal. He was well-received by Argentine society, including being an occasional guest of Argentine President Juan Peron. When Peron was ousted in the mid-1950s Mengele’s influence began to wane, and the Nazi hunters closing in on him led him to flee to Paraguay, near the Argentine border.

Likely the event which was the greatest stimulus for his relocation was the seizure of fellow Nazi Adolf Eichmann, captured by the Israeli’s off of the streets of Buenos Aires and rushed out of the country before legal obstacles could be imposed. Mengele then reconsidered living openly and went underground.

Mengele adopted different aliases and identities over the next several years, moving often between Paraguay and Brazil, with frequent sojourns into Uruguay and Argentina. While residing undercover in the largely German community of Colonias Unidas on the Brazil-Paraguay border, Mengele made repeated trips to the Brazilian farm town of Candido Godoi.

The Brazilian town sheltered another large community of German refugees. Under the guise of working as a veterinarian, Mengele examined and treated cattle herds for various ailments. He also returned to attending pregnant women and began to inform the residents that he was capable of artificially inseminating cattle and humans, producing male twins as a result.

In subsequent interviews with those who remembered Mengele’s frequent visits, he was described as appearing to be an old-fashioned country doctor. He visited the patients, rather than the other way around. He treated livestock, family pets, and performed dental services, in addition to medical examinations and treatments, for the residents. Frequently his only compensation was an invitation to dinner.

The Angel of Death: 9 Facts About the Life of Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele
Josef Mengele as he appeared at the time of Auschwitz (left) and two sets of Brazilian twins from a town where he worked as a country doctor in Brazil. DailyStar (UK)

A Brazilian boom of twins in Mengele’s wake

The Boys From Brazil is a 1978 film which describes a fictional Nazi conspiracy in South America. The film presents unusual male children who bare physical resemblances to a youthful Adolf Hitler, and although there are several different Boys the similarities between them and Hitler – and each other – are unnerving. In the film, a total of 94 boys, all of whom are clones of Adolf Hitler, are produced.

The children are then sent to various locations around the world to be raised in a manner similar to Hitler’s childhood, in the hope that one will grow into a living replica. The project is masterminded by a fictionalized Josef Mengele operating out of Paraguay.

Beginning in 1963 and continuing into the 21st century a small town in Brazil experienced birth rates of twins of about one in five pregnancies, vastly exceeding the normal rate. The overwhelming majority of these births have been blue-eyed, with blond hair. An unusually large number have been boys. The town is Candido Godoi, which welcomed the disguised Mengele in the 1960s. Residents of the town have discussed the circumstances of Mengele’s visits. Many recalled that Mengele openly discussed artificial insemination of women to increase the odds of successful pregnancy.

In 1969 Mengele, still living under various identities and assumed names, purchased half interest in a farm in Brazil near Sao Paulo. In the early 1970s, he acquired the identity and papers of Wolfgang Gerhard and took up residence in a small house in the Eldorado section of Sao Paulo.

His son Rolf visited him there in 1977 and later reported his father to have no regrets over his career and his activities, other than the loss of much of his work. Mengele still feared pursuit by both the West Germans and the Israelis, although subsequent to his death it became known that the Israelis suspended attempts to capture the fugitive in 1962.

The Angel of Death: 9 Facts About the Life of Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele
Josef Mengele as he appeared around the time of his death in South America. He escaped justice for 34 years. Quora

Even his death escaped detection – for a while

By the mid-70s Mengele’s health was in decline and he suffered from high blood pressure, leading to at least one stroke while in residence in Eldorado. In 1977 he visited friends in the Brazilian resort town of Bertioga.

While swimming in February 1979, Mengele suffered a stroke which caused immediate paralysis, leading to his death by drowning. Still using the identity of Wolfgang Gerhard, he was buried under that name.

Privately funded efforts such as those conducted by Simon Wiesenthal continued to search for the fugitive and supposed “sightings” of the living Mengele were reported all over the world. A reward of $100,000 for Mengele’s capture was offered in 1982, and the Israeli’s staged a mock trial of the Nazi doctor in 1985, which made his crimes again international news. In 1985, after research by the United States, Israeli, and West German experts and the help of uncounted private investigators, Mengele’s burial place, and false identity were revealed. Not until 1992 would DNA testing confirm the identity of Auschwitz’s Angel of Death.

Josef Mengele eluded pursuit for 34 years. To read of his unspeakable crimes, for which he never showed regret or remorse, is to realize the depths of depravity to which one man can sink. As one of history’s ironies, Mengele’s skeletal remains are in the possession of the medical school of the University of Sao Paulo, where they are used for medical training. They are deemed particularly useful in matching skeletal remains to the existing medical record for a given individual in forensic science courses.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Holocaust Survivor 91, Meets Nephew of Doctor Who Saved His Life 4 Times at Auschwitz – Pix11

Auschwitz: How Death Camp Became Centre of Nazi Holocaust – BBC Channel

German Doctors and The Final Solution – The New York Time Magazine

Mengele letters reveal life ended in pain and poverty – The Guardian

What Made This Man? Mengele – The New York Time Magazine

The Mengele Twins and Human Experimentation – CHCUK dot CO

A History of Mengele’s Gruesome Experiments on Twins – ThoughtCo

Dr. Mengele’s Twins – The Daily Beast

Evil Doctors and Scientists From World War II – History Collection

Did the Nazis’ ‘Angel of Death’ Leave a Lasting Legacy in Brazil? – History Net

Nazi Angel of Death Josef Mengele ‘Created Twin Town In Brazil’ – The Telegraph

Why Did Israel Let Mengele Go? – NY Times