How Josef Mengele Became The Angel Of Death

Published June 6, 2016
Updated July 16, 2020

Josef Mengele’s Volatile Temperament

Josef Mengele Experiments

For all of his methodical work habits, Mengele could be impulsive. During one selection — between work and death — on the arrival platform, a middle-aged woman who had been selected for work refused to be separated from her 14-year-old daughter, who had been assigned death.

A guard who tried to pry them apart got a nasty scratch on the face and had to fall back. Mengele stepped in to resolve the matter by shooting both the girl and her mother, and then he cut short the selection and sent everybody to the gas chamber.

On another occasion, the Birkenau doctors argued over whether a boy they had all grown fond of had tuberculosis. Mengele left the room and came back an hour or two later, apologizing for the argument and admitting he had been wrong. During his absence, he had shot the boy and dissected him for signs of the disease, which he hadn’t found.

In 1944, Mengele’s zest and enthusiasm for his work earned him a management position at the camp. In this capacity, he was responsible for public health measures at the camp in addition to his own research at Birkenau. Again, his impulsive streak surfaced when he made decisions for the tens of thousands of inmates.

When Typhus broke out among the women’s barracks, for example, Mengele solved the problem in his characteristic way: he ordered one block of 600 women gassed and their barracks fumigated, then he moved the next block of women over and fumigated their barracks. This was repeated for each women’s block until the last one was clean and ready for a new shipment of workers. He did it again a few months later during a scarlet fever outbreak.

Josef Mengele Womens Camp

Derkaiser/YouTube

Through it all, Mengele’s research continued. In the pointless effort to prove crackpot Nazi race theories, Mengele stitched pairs of twins together at the back, gouged out the eyes of people with different-colored irises, and vivisected children who knew him as kindly old “Uncle Papi.”

When a form of gangrene called noma broke out in the Gypsy camp, Mengele’s absurd focus on race led him to investigate the genetic causes he was sure were behind the epidemic. To study this, he sawed off the heads of infected prisoners and sent the preserved samples to Germany for study.

After the glut of Hungarian prisoners were mostly killed off during the summer of 1944, the transports of new prisoners slowed down and eventually stopped. Operations at the camp were wound down through the fall and into the winter.

In January 1945, the camp complex at Auschwitz was mostly dismantled and the starving prisoners force-marched to – of all places – Dresden (which was about to be bombed mercilessly by the Allies). Dr. Josef Mengele packed up his research notes and specimens, dropped them off with a trusted friend, and headed west to avoid capture by the Red Army.

Escape To Brazil And Evasion Of Justice

Josef Mengele Passport Photo

Wikimedia Commons

Mengele managed to avoid the victorious Allies until June, when he was picked up by an American patrol. He was traveling under his own name at the time, but the wanted criminal list hadn’t been efficiently distributed and the Americans let him go. Mengele spent some time working as a farmhand before deciding to skip out of the country in 1949.

Using a variety of aliases, and sometimes his own name again, Mengele managed to avoid capture for decades. It helps that almost nobody was looking for him and that the governments of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay were all highly sympathetic to the escaping Nazis who sought refuge there.

Even in exile, and with the world to lose if he got caught, Mengele couldn’t behave himself. In the 1950s, he opened an unlicensed medical practice in Buenos Aires, where he specialized in performing illegal abortions.

This actually got him arrested when one of his patients died, but according to one witness, a friend of his showed up in court with a bulging envelope full of cash for the judge, who subsequently dismissed the case.

In 1959, Mengele traveled to Paraguay to treat the former Secretary to the Fuhrer, Martin Bormann, who had been sentenced to death in absentia at Nuremberg and who was now dying of stomach cancer. In 1956, the West German government-issued identity papers for Josef Mengele under his own name and allowed his family to leave the country unobserved to visit him in South America.

Israeli efforts to capture him were diverted, first by the chance to capture SS lieutenant colonel Adolf Eichmann, then by the looming threat of war with Egypt, which drew the Mossad’s attention away from fugitive Nazis for good.

Josef Mengele With Friends

Bettmann/GettyJosef Mengele (center, at edge of table), with friends in the 1970s.

Finally, one day in 1979, the 68-year-old Dr. Josef Mengele went out for a swim in the Atlantic Ocean. He suffered a sudden stroke in the water and drowned. After his death, friends and family gradually admitted that they had known all along where he had been hiding and that they had sheltered him from justice all his life.

In March 2016, a Brazilian court awarded control over Mengele’s exhumed remains to the University of São Paulo. According to a statement from the doctor in the case, the remains will be used by student doctors for medical research.


After learning about Josef Mengele and his terrifying human experiments, read about the Ilse Koch, the “Bitch of Buchenwald” and meet the men who helped Hitler rise to power.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.