Photographic comparison between known images of Josef Mengele and images of “Wolfgang Gerhard” found in the Brazilian home of people thought to have sheltered him. These were annotated to find twenty-four matching physical traits. Photos: “Behördengutachten i.S. von § 256 StPO, Lichtbildgutachten MENGELE, Josef, geb. 16.03.11 in Günzburg,” Bundeskriminalamt, Wiesbaden, June 14, 1985. Courtesy of Maja Helmer.
Hitler intended to blame the Jews for the new world war he was soon to provoke. That war began in September 1939 as German troops stormed into Poland, a country that was home to over three million Jews. After Poland's quick defeat, Polish Jews were rounded up and forced into newly established ghettos at Lodz, Krakow, and Warsaw, to await future plans. Inside these overcrowded walled-in ghettos, tens of thousands died a slow death from hunger and disease amid squalid living conditions. The ghettos soon came under the jurisdiction of Heinrich Himmler, leader of the Nazi SS, Hitler's most trusted and loyal organization, composed of fanatical young men considered racially pure according to Nazi standards.
In order to make way for these new prisoners, the SS took many thousands of Jews from the ghettos of Kovno, Riga, Minsk, Łódź, Lvov and Lublin to be murdered by the Einsatzgruppen. Even though the SS claimed to be the hardened ‘Master Race’, quite a few of them found it ‘difficult’ to murder women and children. In addition, the shooting process used by the Einsatzgruppen was expensive.
Because they refused to pledge allegiance to the Nazi party or serve in the military, Jehovah's Witnesses were sent to concentration camps, where they were identified by purple triangles and given the option of renouncing their faith and submitting to the state's authority. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that between 2,700 and 3,300 were sent to the camps, where 1,400 died; in The Holocaust Encyclopedia (2001), Sybil Milton estimates that 10,000 were sent and 2,500 died. According to German historian Detlef Garbe, "no other religious movement resisted the pressure to conform to National Socialism with comparable unanimity and steadfastness."
As the war continued, the rescuers learned to adapt and work around the Nazi network of informers and collaborators. However, they were never able to develop effective strategies to combat the Nazis’ rapid organization of mass deportations and population transfers. As the war progressed, rescuers were able to identify sympathetic local groups, individuals, and organizations in every country of occupied Europe; for example, low-level clergymen, Socialists, Communists, and nationalist anti-Nazis. At all times, however, the success of Jewish rescue depended upon fate and chance.
Mengele worked as a carpenter in Buenos Aires, Argentina, while lodging in a boarding house in the suburb of Vicente López. After a few weeks he moved to the house of a Nazi sympathizer in the more affluent neighborhood of Florida Este. He next worked as a salesman for his family's farm equipment company, Karl Mengele & Sons, and in 1951 he began making frequent trips to Paraguay as regional sales representative. He moved into an apartment in central Buenos Aires in 1953, he used family funds to buy a part interest in a carpentry concern, and he then rented a house in the suburb of Olivos in 1954. Files released by the Argentine government in 1992 indicate that Mengele may have practiced medicine without a license while living in Buenos Aires, including performing abortions.
Amir told me that Zeidel made several pilgrimages back to Ponar. And yet he was never able to locate the passageway that carried him to freedom. What Zeidel didn’t know was that three years before he died, a Lithuanian archaeologist named Vytautas Urbanavicius had quietly excavated what turned out to be the tunnel’s entrance. But after taking a few photographs and a notebook’s worth of measurements, he sealed up the hole with fresh mortar and stone without pressing any farther or prominently marking the area.
Mengele firmly endorsed Nazi racial theory and engaged in a wide spectrum of experiments which aimed to illustrate the lack of resistance among Jews or Roma to various diseases. He also attempted to demonstrate the “degeneration” of Jewish and “Gypsy” blood through the documentation of physical oddities and the collection and harvesting of tissue samples and body parts. Many of his “test subjects” died as a result of the experimentation or were murdered in order to facilitate post-mortem examination.
Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Einsatzgruppen and, later, militarized battalions of Order Police officials, moved behind German lines to carry out mass-murder operations against Jews, Roma, and Soviet state and Communist Party officials. German SS and police units, supported by units of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS, murdered more than a million Jewish men, women, and children, and hundreds of thousands of others.
Sometimes the mere presence of German troops in the vicinity was sufficient to spur a massacre. One example is what happened in the Polish village of Jedwabne, where neighbours murdered their Jewish neighbours. For years the massacre was blamed on the Germans, though many Poles likely knew that the local population had turned against its own Jews. In the Baltics, where the Germans were greeted as liberators by some segments of the population, the lure of political independence and the desire to erase any collaboration with the previous Soviet occupiers led nationalist bands to murder local Jews.
Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which. ... The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them ... Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live. ... A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms. ... He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days. This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.
According to the Quad City Times, Yanina Cywinska was a 10-year-old student at the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) when her Polish Catholic parents suddenly called her home to Warsaw. Cywinska's parents, a physician and an artist, worked to assist Jews imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland until they themselves were placed in a Warsaw detention center. Once the family boarded trains for Auschwitz, Yanina would never see her parents or brother again.
Mengele assembled hundreds of pairs of twins and sometimes spent hours measuring various parts of their bodies and taking careful notes. He often injected one twin with mysterious substances and monitored the illness that ensued. He applied painful clamps to children’s limbs to induce gangrene, injected dye into their eyes – which were then shipped back to a pathology lab in Germany – and gave them spinal taps.
The logistics of the mass murder turned Germany into what Michael Berenbaum called a "genocidal state". Eberhard Jäckel wrote in 1986 that it was the first time a state had thrown its power behind the idea that an entire people should be wiped out.[h] Anyone with three or four Jewish grandparents was to be exterminated, and complex rules were devised to deal with Mischlinge ("mixed breeds": half and quarter Jews). Bureaucrats identified who was a Jew, confiscated property, and scheduled trains to deport them. Companies fired Jews and later used them as slave labor. Universities dismissed Jewish faculty and students. German pharmaceutical companies tested drugs on camp prisoners; other companies built the crematoria. As prisoners entered the death camps, they were ordered to surrender all personal property, which was catalogued and tagged before being sent to Germany for reuse or recycling. Through a concealed account, the German National Bank helped launder valuables stolen from the victims.
He was capable of being so kind to the children, to have them become fond of him, to bring them sugar, to think of small details in their daily lives, and to do things we would genuinely admire ... And then, next to that, ... the crematoria smoke, and these children, tomorrow or in a half-hour, he is going to send them there. Well, that is where the anomaly lay.