Nazi War Criminal Josef Mengele

Joseph Mengele, known as 'The Doctor of Auschwitz' and 'The Angel of Death' for his pseudo-scientific experiments on inmates at Nazi death camps.
Keystone/Getty Images

Josef Mengele (1911-1979) was a German doctor and Nazi War Criminal who escaped justice after World War Two. During the Second World War, Mengele worked at the infamous Auschwitz death camp, where he conducted twisted experiments on the Jewish inmates before sending them to their deaths. Nicknamed “the Angel of Death,” Mengele escaped to South America after the war. In spite of a massive manhunt led by his victims, Mengele eluded capture and drowned on a Brazilian beach in 1979.

Before the War

Josef was born in 1911 into a wealthy family: his father was an industrialist whose companies sold farm equipment. A bright young man, Josef earned a doctorate in Anthropology from the University of Munich in 1935 at the age of 24. He continued his studies and earned a medical doctorate at Frankfurt University. He did some work in the burgeoning field of genetics, an interest he would maintain throughout his life. He joined the Nazi party in 1937 and was awarded an officer’s commission in the Waffen Schutzstaffel (SS).

Service in World War II

Mengele was sent to the eastern front to fight the Soviets as an army officer. He saw action and was recognized for service and bravery with the Iron Cross. He was wounded and declared unfit for active duty in 1942, so he was sent back to Germany, now promoted to captain. In 1943, after some time in Berlin's bureaucracy, he was assigned to the Auschwitz death camp as a medical officer.

Mengele at Auschwitz

At Auschwitz, Mengele had a lot of freedom. Because the Jewish inmates were sent there to die, he rarely treated any of their medical conditions. Instead, he began a series of ghoulish experiments, using the inmates as human guinea pigs. He favored anomalies as his test subjects: dwarfs, pregnant women and anyone with a birth defect of any sort caught Mengele's attention. He preferred sets of twins, however, and "rescued" them for his experiments. He injected dye into inmates' eyes to see if he could change their color. Sometimes, one twin would be infected with a disease such as typhus: the twins were then monitored so that the progression of the disease in the infected one could be observed. There are many more examples of Mengele's experiments, most of which are too gruesome to list. He kept meticulous notes and samples.

Flight After the War

When Germany lost the war, Mengele disguised himself as a regular German military officer and was able to escape. Although he was detained by Allied forces, no one identified him as a wanted war criminal, even though by then the Allies were looking for him. Under the false name of Fritz Hollmann, Mengele spent three years in hiding on a farm near Munich. By then, he was one of the most wanted Nazi war criminals. In 1948 he made contact with Argentine agents: they gave him a new identity, Helmut Gregor, and his landing papers for Argentina were swiftly approved. In 1949 he left Germany forever and made his way to Italy, his father's money smoothing his way. He boarded a ship in May of 1949 and after a short trip, he arrived in Nazi-friendly Argentina.

Mengele in Argentina

Mengele soon acclimated to life in Argentina. Like many former Nazis, he was employed at Orbis, a factory owned by a German-Argentine businessman. He continued doctoring on the side as well. His first wife had divorced him, so he remarried, this time to his brother's widow Martha. Aided in part by his rich father, who was investing money in the Argentine industry, Mengele moved in high circles. He even met with President Juan Domingo Perón (who knew exactly who "Helmut Gregor" was). As a representative for his father's company, he traveled around South America, sometimes under his own name.

Back Into Hiding

He was aware that he was still a wanted man: with the possible exception of Adolf Eichmann, he was the most sought-after Nazi war criminal still at large. But the manhunt for him seemed an abstraction, far away in Europe and Israel: Argentina had sheltered him for a decade and he was comfortable there. But in the late 1950's and early 1960's, several events happened which rattled Mengele's confidence. Perón was thrown out in 1955, and the military government that replaced him turned over power to civilian authorities in 1959: Mengele felt they would not be sympathetic. His father died and with him much of Mengele's status and clout in his new homeland. He caught wind that a formal extradition request was being written up in Germany for his forced return. Worst of all, in May of 1960, Eichmann was snatched off a street in Buenos Aires and brought to Israel by a team of Mossad agents (who had been actively looking for Mengele as well). Mengele knew he had to go back underground.

Death and Legacy of Josef Mengele

Mengele fled to Paraguay and then Brazil. He lived out the rest of his life in hiding, under a series of aliases, constantly looking over his shoulder for the team of Israeli agents he was sure were looking for him. He kept in contact with his former Nazi friends, who helped him out by sending him money and keeping him apprised of the details of the search for him. During his time on the run, he preferred to live in rural areas, working on farms and ranches, keeping as low a profile as possible. Although the Israelis never found him, his son Rolf tracked him down in Brazil in 1977. He found an old man, poor and broken, but unrepentant of his crimes. The elder Mengele glossed over his ghastly experiments and instead told his son about all of the sets of twins he had "saved" from certain death.

Meanwhile, a legend had grown around the twisted Nazi who had avoided capture for so long. Famous Nazi hunters like Simon Wiesenthal and Tuviah Friedman had him at the top of their lists and never let the public forget his crimes. According to the legends, Mengele lived in a jungle laboratory, surrounded by former Nazis and bodyguards, continuing his plan to refine the master race. The legends could not have been further from the truth.

Josef Mengele died in 1979 while swimming on a beach in Brazil. He was buried under a false name and his remains were undisturbed until 1985 when a forensic team determined that the remains were those of Mengele. Later, DNA tests would confirm the forensic team's finding.

"The Angel of Death" -- as he was known to his victims at Auschwitz -- eluded capture for over 30 years through a combination of powerful friends, family money and keeping a low profile. He was, by far, the most sought-after Nazi to escape justice after World War Two. He will forever be remembered for two things: first, for his twisted experiments on defenseless prisoners, and second, for being "the one that got away" to the Nazi hunters who looked for him for decades. That he died poor and alone was of little consolation to his surviving victims, who would have preferred to see him tried and hanged.


Bascomb, Neil. "Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi." Paperback, Reprint edition, Mariner Books, April 20, 2010.

Goni, Uki. "The Real Odessa: How Peron Brought the Nazi War Criminals to Argentina." Paperback, Reprint edition, Granta UK, January 1, 2003.

Interview with Rolf Mengele. YouTube, Circa 1985.

Posner, Gerald L. "Mengele: The Complete Story." John Ware, Paperback, 1st Cooper Square Press ed edition, Cooper Square Press, August 8, 2000.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Minster, Christopher. "Nazi War Criminal Josef Mengele." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Minster, Christopher. (2020, August 27). Nazi War Criminal Josef Mengele. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "Nazi War Criminal Josef Mengele." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 15, 2021).