In the Talmud, when Hillel was challenged to teach the entire Torah “while standing on one foot,” Hillel answered, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but “Remember” might have been a better answer. “Remember” is found 169 times in the Bible, including “remember Amalek,” about the merciless people mythically linked to everyone from Haman to Hitler. Holocaust memories, in particular, are sacred, but what if truth is elusive, lost in memory’s fog?
Ask Auschwitz survivors about their first day in hell, waiting to be directed to the gas chambers or to camp slavery, and they’ll almost certainly tell you about the Nazi making the selection. “It was Mengele,” survivors remember with a shiver. Dr. Josef Mengele, the most notorious Nazi in the most notorious concentration camp.
And yet, writes David G. Marwell in his chilling and masterful new book, “Mengele: Unmasking the Angel of Death” (W.W. Norton), something doesn’t add up. He cites Geoffrey Hartman, who studied survivor testimony, noticing that “every Auschwitz survivor seems to have gone through a selection by Mengele, as if he manned his post 24-hours a day.”
Every Jew’s fate was decided by a Nazi doctor, but was it Mengele? When freight trains, 50 box cars long, were arriving from Hungary in 1944, day and night, unloading 440,000 Jews between April and July, was it always Mengele — as survivors remember — initiating these Jews into Auschwitz? He was hardly the only Nazi doctor to do so, in Auschwitz or elsewhere.
Mengele wasn’t the first of the “doctors from Hell,” as one chronicler described them. He didn’t innovate, but he epitomized.
Marwell writes, “If Auschwitz is the symbol of the Holocaust, then Mengele … has come to serve a similar role for the death camp itself. Perhaps for this reason, much of what is known of Mengele’s time in Auschwitz [May 1943 to January 1945] is more trope than truth.”
In his book, Marwell seeks to uncover the truth. Director emeritus of The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to The Holocaust, he has done more than most others to unravel the mystery of Mengele, from his early career as a promising pre-war medical researcher to his post-war disappearance into South America, the most notorious Nazi to evade capture or punishment.
Marwell worked on the Mengele case for the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations in the 1980s. By then, the Nazi doctor had died by drowning — presumably while suffering a stroke — on Feb. 7, 1979. The exhumed body was only proven to be Mengele’s many years after the fact.
Was Mengele evil above and beyond what we know of Auschwitz? “It’s much more satisfying to write him off as some kind of anomaly,” answered Marwell, “presumably motivated by an obsessed, grotesque interest in sadism, when he was much more a product and the promise of the German scientific establishment, and in a way that’s a more frightening picture.”
Mengele pursued his experiments, Marwell writes, “not as some renegade propelled solely by evil and bizarre impulses but rather in a manner that his mentors and his peers could judge as meeting the highest standards.”
The Holocaust was a two-tiered phenomenon, perpetrated by lower-class street thugs and upper-class intellectuals and scientists in academia, law, government — and Auschwitz. The intellectuals claimed to understand the “Jewish race” scientifically and medically. At the Wannsee Conference, the pivotal 1942 summit of high-ranking Nazis formulating the Final Solution, eight of the 15 participants had doctorates. At all camps, not just Auschwitz, the “selections” were always assigned to medical doctors, to give the veneer of medical triage to the decisions of who was too sickly, too old or too needy to be worth saving.
Mengele’s experiments on children, little people, twins and Roma were cruel and grotesque — he was quite interested in eyeballs and shipped a crate of them to a lab back in Germany — but such medical experiments were hardly unusual in the camps.
Nor was Mengele, who operated almost exclusively in Auschwitz II (Birkenau), the only such doctor in Auschwitz. In Auschwitz I, the main camp, Dr. Carl Clauberg, a research gynecologist, conducted painful or deadly sterilization experiments on hundreds of Jewish women. Clauberg also conducted experiments on women (his test “rabbits”) in the Ravensbruck camp.
In Auschwitz III, there were electro-shock experiments. Dr. Bruno Weber tested drugs on prisoners. In Dachau, Dr. Hubertus Strughold had prisoners submerged into ice-cold water, or left naked in freezing temperatures, all experiments supposedly justified by military or academic necessity.
Mengele was hardly a solo practitioner. He answered to SS Dr. Eduard Wirths, the chief medical authority in Auschwitz, who answered to Dr. Eno Lolling, the chief physician of all concentration camps. Few remember their names.
Marwell points out that Mengele “was almost certainly planning to use his Auschwitz research as the basis for his … post-doctoral thesis.”
Mengele, writes Marwell, explained to another Auschwitz doctor, Hans Delmotte, who tried to refuse selection duty, “the necessity of eliminating the Jews.” Mengele compared it to a battlefield doctor, making selections, knowing he can’t treat everyone. Added Mengele, Berlin had already decided “to eradicate the Jews.” They were as good as dead, so why be so bothered? Delmotte resumed his selection duty, and killed himself at the end of the war.
Dr. Horst Fischer was another hesitant selection boss, asking why these ragged, powerless Jews had to be killed. Mengele explained that “it was precisely from this reservoir of people that the Jews drew new power and refreshed their blood. Without the poor but supposedly harmless Eastern Jews, the civilized West European Jews would not be capable of survival. Therefore it is necessary to destroy all Jews.”
All of this excited Mengele. He “thrived in Auschwitz,” writes Marwell. Mengele never denied what he did or accepted guilt. When confronted by his adult son long after the war, Mengele argued that the selections were not his policy, and Auschwitz existed long before he arrived.
And yet it was Mengele who lodged in the memories of so many survivors. Marwell cites historian and former Auschwitz inmate Hermann Langbein, who identified “the Mengele effect,” a form of “memory displacement,” in which, says Langbein, “I heard survivors say that Mengele did this or that to them, even though Mengele had not yet arrived in Auschwitz at the time.”
Elie Wiesel even wrote of Mengele’s monocle, though Langbein, who worked with Mengele almost daily in the SS infirmary, said Mengele never wore a monocle. Hungarian survivors say Mengele spoke to them in Hungarian, a language he did not speak.
Israeli historian Na’ama Shik suggests that survivors’ accounts decades after the fact could be shaped by what “they have read and heard” in the years since. Langbein adds, “If a member of the SS is repeatedly named in public in connection with especially monstrous deeds, it is possible that survivors will project their experiences on to him.”
Marwell’s biography places Mengele exactly where he belongs: not as a singular perpetrator of evil, but as one of the many cogs in a monstrous machine.