The term “surgeon of Birkenau” has become a household word since the release of a new movie called The Debt. You can read my review of The Debt here.
This movie is a remake of a 2007 movie with the same story line, except that the Nazi “monster” in the 2007 film was called “the surgeon of Treblinka.”
Treblinka was strictly a death camp where all the Jews and a few Gypsies were killed immediately upon arrival, so why would there be a surgeon at Treblinka? For that matter, why would there be a German surgeon at Birkenau? The job of a surgeon is to save lives. Germany was at war and there were thousands of German soldiers who needed surgery after they had been wounded on the battlefield. Why would the Germans send a surgeon to save Jews at Birkenau?
The term surgeon is used in the movie The Debt to describe the character named Dr. Dieter Vogel, who is based on the real-life Dr. Josef Mengele. Dr. Mengele allegedly did surgery for the purpose of torturing the prisoners at Birkenau. For example, he allegedly sewed two children together, back to back, to create Siamese twins. What possible use would this have for German medicine in the future? This was purely torture, done by a “monster.”
When Dr. Mengele came to Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 1943, his first assignment was to take care of the prisoners in the Gypsy camp, which was a family camp where men, women and children lived in the same barracks. He was later assigned to the women’s barracks where he delivered babies, but as far as I know, he did not do surgery. There were plenty of Jewish doctors in all the camps, who could have done any surgery that was necessary to save lives.
In the new film The Debt, the former “surgeon of Birkenau” is hiding out in East Berlin working under an assumed name as a gynecologist. A woman (Rachel Singer) is part of the Mossad team that is assigned to find him; her job is to pretend to be a married woman who is trying to have a baby. She goes to see the suspected “surgeon of Birkenau” so that she can find out for sure if he is the “monster” who killed Jews at Birkenau. The doctor is very gentle and polite but he asks a lot of questions. It seems that he is suspicious of her: She doesn’t speak German like a native German speaker. He asks her who referred her to him and she names a Jewish doctor. He asks about the doctor: “How is the old Jew?”
Dr. Mengele was a medical doctor with an M.D. degree, which he had received in July 1938 from the University of Frankfurt, but his specialty was research on hereditary conditions. He had previously earned a PhD in Anthropology in 1935 with a thesis on “Racial Morphological Research on the Lower Jaw Section of Four Racial Groups.” He was a medical expert on the difference between racial groups and how heredity affects the health of babies in different racial groups.
In January 1937, Dr. Mengele had been 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. 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. The grant for Mengele’s genetic research was authorized by the German Research Council in August 1943.
The research on hereditary conditions was important to the Nazis because they wanted to have a strong, healthy race of people who would be free from hereditary defects. The Nazis did not want the German people to mix with Jewish people because the Jews had a number of hereditary diseases. Dr. Mengele was doing research on how hereditary defects are passed on to future generations. Read here about a hereditary condition that is found among Ashkenazi Jews.
Dr. Mengele had already begun his research on heredity before the war and he jumped at the chance to go to Birkenau where he would have a great opportunity to study hereditary defects. At Birkenau, he volunteered to do the selections for the gas chamber, even when it wasn’t his turn, because he wanted to find subjects for his medical research on genetic conditions and hereditary diseases. He particularly wanted to find twins for the research that he had started before he was posted to Birkenau.
Dr. Mengele escaped from Auschwitz before the camp was liberated by the army of the Soviet Union in January 1945. 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 and will probably never be released to the public.
Dr. Josef Mengele has gone down in history, not as an expert on hereditary conditions, but as a mad scientist who killed and tortured prisoners at Birkenau. He allegedly did operations without an anesthetic at Birkenau, just for the purpose of torture. His most well known crime was turning brown eyes blue, just for the hell of it.
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. He selected 20,000 Jews and Gypsies per month to be killed, according to Posner and Ware.
The total number of deaths at Auschwitz-Birkenau is now set at 1.1 million, out of which 900,000 were Jews. That means that Dr. Josef Mengele was single handedly responsible for almost half of deaths of the Jews at Birkenau. He sent Jews to their deaths with a wave of a baton while he whistled tunes from German opera, according to the stories about him told by the survivors. Besides that, he was very good looking and charming, which made his crimes all the more heinous. His nickname in the camp was actually “The Angel of Death,” not the “surgeon of Birkenau.”
Dr. Josef Mengele died on February 7, 1979 when he suffered a stroke while swimming at Bertioga beach in Sao Paulo, Brazil. His death was kept secret by his family and friends. 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 the Mossad made a massive manhunt to find him.
The movie The Debt is based on what might have happened if the Mossad had started looking for Dr. Mengele in 1965 instead of waiting until after he was dead to begin their search for him. Why was it so important to capture Dr. Mengele and bring him to trial in Israel? Because his legacy as a surgeon who tortured prisoners had to be established, in order to prevent his name from going down in history as the doctor who did research on hereditary conditions that were prevalent among the Jews.