By the fall of 1948, Mengele had made up his mind to leave Germany and build a life elsewhere. Argentina was the preferred choice of sanctuary. There was a groundswell of Nazi sympathy in Argentina. And his father, Karl Sr., who owned a firm that manufactured agricultural equipment, thought that though his company had no branches in Argentina, he had made several business connections there that Josef might develop.
After the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, the Nazis sent many thousands of Czech Jews to ghettos in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. On 22 June 1941, the German invasion of the Soviet Union brought many more Jews within the German sphere of influence. Some Polish Jews had managed to escape into the Soviet Union during the German invasion of Poland. Now, as the German army rolled into the Soviet Union, they were again trapped.
Seven months later, November 1943, the U.S. Congress held hearings concerning the U.S. State Department's total inaction regarding the plight of European Jews. President Franklin Roosevelt responded to the mounting political pressure by creating the War Refugee Board (WRB) in January 1944 to aid neutral countries in the rescue of Jews. The WRB helped save about 200,000 Jews from death camps through the heroic efforts of persons such as Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg working tirelessly in occupied countries.
In early 1943, encouraged by von Verschuer, Mengele applied to transfer to the concentration camp service. His application was accepted and he was posted to Auschwitz, where he was appointed by SS-Standortarzt Eduard Wirths, chief medical officer at Auschwitz, to the position of chief physician of the Zigeunerfamilienlager (Romani family camp) at Birkenau, a subcamp located on the main Auschwitz complex. The SS doctors did not administer treatment to the Auschwitz inmates, but supervised the activities of inmate doctors who had been forced to work in the camp medical service. As part of his duties, Mengele made weekly visits to the hospital barracks and ordered any prisoners who had not recovered after two weeks in bed to be sent to the gas chambers.
Most Holocaust historians define the Holocaust as the enactment, between 1941 and 1945, of the German state policy to exterminate the European Jews.[a] In Teaching the Holocaust (2015), Michael Gray, a specialist in Holocaust education, offers three definitions: (a) "the persecution and murder of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945", which views the events of Kristallnacht in Germany in 1938 as an early phase of the Holocaust; (b) "the systematic mass murder of the Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1941 and 1945", which acknowledges the shift in German policy in 1941 toward the extermination of the Jewish people in Europe; and (c) "the persecution and murder of various groups by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945", which includes all the Nazis' victims. The third definition fails, Gray writes, to acknowledge that only the Jewish people were singled out for annihilation.
When the Nazis occupied western Poland in 1939, two-thirds of Polish Jews - Europe's largest Jewish community - fell into their hands. The Polish Jews were rounded up and placed in ghettos, where it is estimated that 500,000 people died of starvation and disease. Nazi policy at this point was aimed at forced emigration and isolation of the Jews rather than mass murder, but large numbers were to die through attrition.
Mengele was born on 16 March 1911 to Walburga (née Hupfauer) and Karl Mengele in Günzburg, Bavaria, Germany. He was the oldest of three children; his two younger brothers were Karl Jr. and Alois. Their father was founder of the Karl Mengele & Sons company, producers of farm machinery. Josef was successful at school and developed an interest in music, art, and skiing. He completed high school in April 1930 and went on to study philosophy in Munich, where the headquarters of the Nazi Party were located. In 1931, Mengele joined the Stahlhelm, Bund der Frontsoldaten, a paramilitary organization that was absorbed into the Nazi Sturmabteilung (Storm Detachment; SA) in 1934.