Of all the SS men associated with the Holocaust, Dr. Josef Mengele is by far the most famous, or infamous, depending on your point of view. The title of my blog post today comes from a Crystal Gayle song which you can hear on YouTube.
Allegedly, Dr. Mengele tried to make brown eyes blue. But why would he do that? As a medical doctor and a specialist in genetics, Dr. Mengele would have known that changing the color of a person’s eyes would not have allowed the new eye color to be passed on to future generations. In his day, most people in Germany had blue eyes, so why waste time on trying to make brown eyes blue?
Dr. Mengele had a Ph.D. in Anthropology as well as a degree in medicine, which he received in July 1938 from the University of Frankfurt. He earned his Ph.D. in 1935 with a thesis on “Racial Morphological Research on the Lower Jaw Section of Four Racial Groups.” In January 1937, Dr. Mengele was appointed a research assistant at the Institute for Heredity, Biology and Racial Purity at the University of Frankfurt.
He worked under Professor Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, a geneticist who was doing research on twins. The grant for Mengele’s genetic research was authorized by the German Research Council in August 1943. As the war-time director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Hereditary Teaching Genetics, located in Berlin, von Verschuer secured the funds for Mengele’s experiments at Auschwitz. The results of Mengele’s research on twins was sent to this Institute.
Allegedly, all of Dr. Mengele’s research papers from Auschwitz were destroyed by von Versheur. That means that the survivors of the Birkenau camp can make up stories about Dr. Mengele and no one can say that the stories are false. But how did the stories of changing brown eyes to blue get started?
According to Gerald L. Posner and John Ware, the authors of Mengele, the Complete Story, Dr. Mengele had a particular interest in studying people who had eyes of two different colors. The story of the eye color experiment on 36 children in Birkenau was told by Dr. Vexler Jancu, a Jewish prisoner at Birkenau.
As quoted in Mengele, the Complete Story, Dr. Jancu said the following:
In June 1943 I went to the Gypsy camp in Birkenau. I saw a wooden table. On it were samples of eyes. They each had a number and a letter. The eyes were very pale yellow to bright blue, green and violet.
This seems to be the origin of the eye changing story. But were these “samples” real eyes that had been removed from dead Gypsy children or were the “samples” actually glass eyes that Dr. Mengele was comparing to the eyes of still living Gypsy children?
Dr. Josef Mengele had arrived in Auschwitz in May 1943 and his first assignment had been to take care of the medical needs of the Gypsy camp. The following quote is from the book Mengele, the Complete Story:
Within days after his arrival, while Auschwitz was in the throes of one of its many typhoid epidemics, Mengele established a reputation for radical and ruthless efficiency. The nearby marshland made clean water difficult to obtain and posed a constant threat from mosquitoes. (Mengele himself contracted malaria in June 1943.) Other SS doctors had failed in their efforts to curb typhus in the close quarters of the camp barracks. Mengele’s solution to the problem was set out in one of the seventy-eight indictments drawn up in 1981 by the West German Prosecutor’s Office, when the authorities thought he was still alive. In terms of detailed evidence, this arrest warrant is the most damning and complete document that was ever compiled against him. According to the warrant, on May 25, 1943, “Mengele sent 507 Gypsies and 528 Gypsy women suspected of typhus to the gas chamber.”
Almost every Holocaust survivor claims to have had personal experience in dealing with Dr. Mengele. There were over 30 doctors who participated in the selections at Birkenau, yet every survivor claims to have gone through the selection line while Dr. Mengele was on duty.
Ruth Elias, a survivor of both Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, wrote a book entitled Triumph of Hope, in which she described Dr. Mengele:
Mengele was an attractive man. A perennial little smile showed the gap between his front teeth. Immaculately dressed in jodhpurs, he wore a cap bearing the SS insignia and carried the obligatory riding crop, constantly slapping it against his gleaming black boots. Whenever he spoke to me, he was very polite, giving the impression that he was interested in me. It was hard to believe that his little smile and courteous behavior were just a facade behind which he devised the most horrific murderous schemes.
This description of Dr. Mengele is typical; all the survivors of Auschwitz describe him as handsome and charming.
The photo above was taken while Mengele was home on leave, after spending 5 months at Auschwitz-Birkenau. He is wearing an Iron Cross medal on the pocket of his uniform. Mengele was very proud of his medals; he earned the Iron Cross 2nd Class shortly after he was sent to Ukraine in June 1941 at the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. In January 1942, Mengele joined the prestigious 5th SS Panzer Division, nicknamed the Viking Division. In July 1942, he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class after he pulled two wounded soldiers out of a burning tank under enemy fire on the battlefield, and administered medical first aid to them.
After being wounded in battle on the Eastern front in 1942, Dr. Mengele was promoted to Hauptsturmführer (Captain) and sent to the Race and Resettlement Office in Berlin, the same office where Adolf Eichmann was in charge of transporting the Jews for “resettlement in the East.”
According to the book Mengele, the Complete Story, a severe outbreak of typhus struck the women’s camp in Birkenau in late 1943, while Dr. Mengele was the chief doctor for the women’s barracks. Around 7,000 of the 20,000 women in the camp were seriously ill.
The following quote is from Dr. Ella Lingens, an Austrian doctor who was a political prisoner at Birkenau. In a personal interview given to S. Jones and K. Rattan on February 14, 1984, Dr. Lingens said the following as quoted in Mengele, the Complete Story:
He sent one entire Jewish block of 600 women to the gas chamber and cleared the block. He then had it disinfected from top to bottom. Then he put bath tubs between this block and the next, and the women from the next block came out to be disinfected and then transferred to the clean block. Here they were given a clean new nightshirt. The next block was cleaned in this way and so on until all the blocks were disinfected. End of typhus! The awful thing was that he could not put those first 600 somewhere.
The Birkenau camp was 425 acres in size. Seven small villages had been torn down to make room for the camp; it was like a small city with a total of 300 buildings. There was a total of 140,000 prisoners in the camp in 1943, but the barracks had a capacity of 200,000 prisoners. There was plenty of space to put the first 600 women somewhere, even if he had to set up tents on the soccer field which was near one of the gas chambers at Birkenau. In his performance review, his superior officer complemented him on his work in stopping the typhus epidemic; there was no mention of the 600 women that he had allegedly murdered to accomplish this.
According to the book entitled Mengele, the Complete Story, by Gerald L. Posner and John Ware, Dr. Josef Mengele spent 21 months at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, and during that time, he sent 400,000 prisoners to their deaths in the gas chambers at Birkenau. Allowing for the time that Dr. Mengele could not work when he was sick with malaria and typhus, he selected 20,000 Jews and Gypsies per month to be killed, according to Posner and Ware.
There is a famous story about Dr. Mengele sewing two children together, back to back, to create Siamese twins. Vera Alexander, a survivor of Birkenau, claimed to be a witness to the Siamese twins experiment. Dr. Mengele had died in 1979 but his death was kept a secret by his friends and family. In October 1985, while an intensive manhunt for Mengele was underway, Vera Alexander said the following in an interview for the TV production The Search for Mengele, as quoted in the book Mengele, the Complete Story:
One day Mengele brought chocolate and special clothes. The next day, SS men came and took two children away. They were two of my pets, Tito and Nino. One of them was a hunchback. Two or three days later, an SS man brought them back in a terrible state. They had been cut. The hunchback was sewn to the other child, back to back, their wrists back to back too. There was the terrible smell of gangrene. The cuts were dirty and the children cried every night.
Dr. Mengele escaped from Auschwitz before the camp was liberated by the army of the Soviet Union, and he took all of his research papers with him. These papers later fell into the hands of the Allies, but they have never been published. The results of Dr. Mengele’s experiments are currently being held in a vault in Israel. The testimony of some of the Jews, who were the subjects of his experiments or research, has been published, but not the results of Dr. Mengele’s experiments, nor his research papers on Jewish genetic conditions and diseases.
Dr. Josef Mengele died on February 7, 1979 when he suffered a stroke while swimming at Bertioga beach in Sao Paulo, Brazil. It was not until a couple of years after his death that survivors began to come forward with stories about the crimes that he had committed at Birkenau, and a massive manhunt was made to find him.
But was anyone really trying to find Dr. Mengele? Not according to his son. As long as Dr. Mengele was not found and brought to trial, the survivors of Birkenau could make up stories without having to prove those stories.