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.
Mengele was born the eldest of three children on 16 March 1911 to Karl and Walburga (Hupfauer) Mengele in Günzburg, Bavaria, Germany. His younger brothers were Karl Jr and Alois. Mengele's father was founder of the Karl Mengele & Sons company, producers of farm machinery. Mengele did well in school and developed an interest in music, art, and skiing. He completed high school in April 1930 and went on to study Medicine at Goethe University Frankfurt and philosophy at the University of Munich. Munich was the headquarters of the Nazi Party. In 1931 Mengele joined the Stahlhelm, Bund der Frontsoldaten, a paramilitary organization that was absorbed into the Nazi Sturmabteilung (Storm Detachment; SA) in 1934.
In 1935, Mengele earned a PhD in anthropology from the University of Munich. In January 1937, at the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene in Frankfurt, he became the assistant to Dr. Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, a scientist conducting genetics research, with a particular interest in twins. As an assistant to von Verschuer, Mengele focused on the genetic factors resulting in a cleft lip and palate or cleft chin. His thesis on the subject earned him a cum laude doctorate in Medicine in 1938. Both of his degrees were later rescinded by the issuing universities. In a letter of recommendation, von Verschuer praised Mengele's reliability and his ability to verbally present complex material in a clear manner. The American author Robert Jay Lifton notes that Mengele's published work did not deviate much from the scientific mainstream of the time, and would probably have been viewed as valid scientific efforts even outside Nazi Germany.
Mengele joined the Nazi Party in 1937 and the Schutzstaffel (SS; protection squadron) in 1938. He received basic training in 1938 with the Gebirgsjäger (mountain infantry) and was called up for Service in the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) in June 1940, some months after the outbreak of World War II. He soon volunteered for medical Service in the Waffen-SS, the combat arm of the SS, where he served with the rank of SS-Untersturmführer (second lieutenant) in a medical reserve battalion until November 1940. He was next assigned to the SS-Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt (SS Race and Resettlement Main Office) in Posen, evaluating candidates for Germanisation.
On 28 July 1939, Mengele married Irene Schönbein, whom he had met while working as a medical resident in Leipzig. Their only son, Rolf, was born in 1944.
By late 1941, Adolf Hitler decided that the Jews of Europe were to be exterminated, so Birkenau, originally intended to house slave laborers, was re-purposed as a combination labor camp / extermination camp. Prisoners were transported there by rail from all over German-occupied Europe, arriving in daily convoys. By July 1942, the SS were conducting "selections". Incoming Jews were segregated; those deemed able to work were admitted into the camp, and those deemed unfit for labor were immediately killed in the gas chambers. The group selected to die, about three-quarters of the total, included almost all children, women with small children, pregnant women, all the elderly, and all those who appeared on brief and superficial inspection by an SS Doctor not to be completely fit. Mengele, a member of the team of doctors assigned to do selections, undertook this work even when he was not assigned to do so in the hope of finding subjects for his experiments. He was particularly interested in locating sets of twins. In contrast to most of the doctors, who viewed undertaking selections as one of their most stressful and horrible duties, Mengele undertook the task with a flamboyant air, often smiling or whistling a tune.
When an outbreak of noma (a gangrenous bacterial disease of the mouth and face) struck the Romani camp in 1943, Mengele initiated a study to determine the cause of the disease and develop a treatment. He enlisted the aid of prisoner Dr. Berthold Epstein, a Jewish pediatrician and professor at Prague University. Mengele isolated the patients in a separate barrack and had several afflicted children killed so that their preserved heads and organs could be sent to the SS Medical Academy in Graz and other facilities for study. The research was still ongoing when the Romani camp was liquidated and its remaining occupants killed in 1944.
Mengele used Auschwitz as an opportunity to continue his anthropological studies and research on heredity, using inmates for human experimentation. The experiments had no regard for the health, safety, or physical and emotional suffering of the victims. He was particularly interested in identical twins, people with heterochromia iridum (eyes of two different colours), dwarfs, and people with physical abnormalities. A grant was provided by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, applied for by von Verschuer, who received regular reports and shipments of specimens from Mengele. The grant was used to build a pathology laboratory attached to Crematorium II at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Dr. Miklós Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jewish pathologist who arrived in Auschwitz on 29 May 1944, performed dissections and prepared specimens for shipment in this laboratory. Mengele's twin research was in part intended to prove the supremacy of heredity over environment and thus bolster the Nazi premise of the superiority of the Aryan race. Nyiszli and others report that the twins studies may also have been motivated by a Desire to improve the reproduction rate of the German race by improving the chances of racially desirable people having twins.
Along with several other Auschwitz doctors, Mengele transferred to Gross-Rosen concentration camp in Lower Silesia on 17 January 1945. He brought along two boxes of specimens and records of his experiments. Most of the camp medical records had already been destroyed by the SS. The Red Army liberated Auschwitz on 27 January. Mengele fled Gross-Rosen on 18 February, a week before the Soviets arrived, and traveled westward disguised as a Wehrmacht officer to Saaz (now Žatec). Here he temporarily entrusted his incriminating Auschwitz documents to a nurse with whom he had struck up a relationship. He and his unit hurried west to avoid being captured by the Soviets and were taken prisoner of war by the Americans in June. Mengele was initially registered under his own name, but because of the disorganization of the Allies regarding the distribution of wanted lists and the fact that Mengele did not have the usual SS blood group tattoo, he was not identified as being on the major war Criminal list. He was released at the end of July and obtained false papers under the name "Fritz Ullman", documents he later altered to read "Fritz Hollmann".
After several months on the run, including a trip to the Soviet-occupied area to recover his Auschwitz records, Mengele found work near Rosenheim as a farmhand. Worried that his capture would mean a trial and death sentence, he fled Germany on 17 April 1949. Assisted by a network of former SS members, Mengele traveled to Genoa, where he obtained a passport under the alias "Helmut Gregor" from the International Committee of the Red Cross. He sailed to Argentina in July. His wife refused to accompany him, and they divorced in 1954.
In Buenos Aires, Argentina, Mengele worked as a carpenter while residing in a boarding house in the suburb of Vicente López. After a few weeks he moved to the house of a Nazi sympathiser in the more affluent neighborhood of Florida, Buenos Aires. He next worked as a salesman for his family's farm equipment company, and beginning in 1951 he made frequent trips to Paraguay as sales representative for that region. An apartment in the center of Buenos Aires became his residence in 1953, the same year he used family funds to buy a part interest in a carpentry concern. In 1954 he rented a house in the suburb of Olivos. Files released by the Argentine government in 1992 indicate that Mengele may have practiced Medicine without a license, including performing abortions, while living in Buenos Aires.
In spite of having provided Mengele with legal documents in his real name in 1956, thus enabling him to regularize his residency in Argentina, West Germany offered a reward for his capture. Ongoing newspaper coverage of his wartime activities (accompanied by photographs of the fugitive) led Mengele to relocate again in 1960. Former pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel put him in touch with the Nazi supporter Wolfgang Gerhard, who helped Mengele get across the border into Brazil. He stayed with Gerhard on his farm near São Paulo until more permanent accommodation was found with Hungarian expatriates Geza and Gitta Stammer. Helped by an investment from Mengele, the couple bought a farm in Nova Europa, and Mengele was given the job of manager. In 1962 the three bought a coffee and cattle farm in Serra Negra, with Mengele owning a half interest. Initially, Gerhard told the couple that Mengele's name was "Peter Hochbichler", but they discovered his true identity in 1963. Gerhard convinced them not to report Mengele's location to the authorities, saying they could themselves get in trouble for harboring the fugitive. West Germany, tipped off to the possibility that Mengele had relocated there, widened its extradition request to include Brazil in February 1961.
Mengele's name was mentioned several times during the Nuremberg trials, but Allied forces were convinced that he was dead. Irene and the family in Günzburg also said that he was dead. Working in West Germany, Nazi Hunters Simon Wiesenthal and Hermann Langbein collected information from witnesses as to Mengele's wartime activities. In a search of the public records, Langbein found Mengele's divorce papers listing an address in Buenos Aires. He and Wiesenthal pressured West German authorities into drawing up an arrest warrant on 5 June 1959, and starting extradition proceedings. Initially Argentina turned down the request, because the fugitive was no longer living at the address given on the documents. By the time extradition was approved on 30 June 1960, Mengele had already fled to Paraguay, where he was living on a farm near the Argentine border.
Meanwhile, Mengele sightings were reported all over the world. Wiesenthal claimed to have information that placed Mengele on the Greek island of Kythnos in 1960, Cairo in 1961, in Spain in 1971, and in Paraguay in 1978, 18 years after he had left. He insisted as late as 1985—six years after Mengele's death—that he was still alive, in 1982 offering a reward of $100,000 for his capture. Worldwide interest in the case was raised by a mock trial held in Jerusalem in February 1985 featuring the testimony of over a hundred victims of Mengele's experiments. Shortly afterwards, the governments of West Germany, Israel, and the United States launched a coordinated effort to determine Mengele's whereabouts. Rewards for his capture were offered by the Israeli and West German governments, The Washington Times, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Meanwhile, Zvi Aharoni, one of the Mossad agents who had been involved in the Eichmann capture, was placed in charge of a team of agents tasked with locating Mengele and bringing him to trial in Israel. Inquiries in Paraguay gave no clues as to his whereabouts, and they were unable to intercept any correspondence between Mengele and his wife Martha, then living in Italy. Agents following Rudel's movements did not produce any leads. Aharoni and his team followed Gerhard to a rural area near São Paulo, where they located a European man believed to be Mengele. Aharoni reported his findings to Harel, but the Logistics of staging a capture, budgetary constraints, and the need to focus on the nation's deteriorating relationship with Egypt led the Mossad chief to call a halt to the operation in 1962.
Mengele and the Stammers bought a house on a farm in Caieiras in 1969, with Mengele as half owner. When Wolfgang Gerhard returned to Germany in 1971 to seek medical treatment for his seriously ill wife and son, he gave his identity card to Mengele. The Stammers had a falling out with Mengele in late 1974 and bought a house in São Paulo; Mengele was not invited. The Stammers bought a bungalow in the Eldorado neighbourhood of São Paulo, which they rented out to Mengele. Rolf, who had not seen his father since the ski holiday in 1956, visited him there in 1977 and found an unrepentant Nazi who claimed he had never personally harmed anyone and had only done his duty.
Mengele's life was the inspiration for a novel and film titled The Boys from Brazil (1978), where a fictional Mengele (portrayed by Gregory Peck) produces clones of Hitler in a clinic in Brazil. In 2007, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum received as a donation the Höcker Album, an album of photographs of Auschwitz staff taken by Karl-Friedrich Höcker. Eight of the photographs include Mengele.
Mengele's health had been steadily deteriorating since 1972, and he had a stroke in 1976. He had high blood pressure and an ear infection that affected his balance. While visiting his friends Wolfram and Liselotte Bossert in the coastal resort of Bertioga on 7 February 1979, he suffered another stroke while swimming and drowned. Mengele was buried in Embu das Artes under the name "Wolfgang Gerhard", whose identification card he had been using since 1971.
On 31 May 1985, acting on a tip received by the West German prosecutor's office, police raided the house of Hans Sedlmeier, a lifelong friend of Mengele and sales manager of the family firm in Günzburg. They found a coded address book and copies of letters to and from Mengele. Among the papers was a letter from Bossert notifying Sedlmeier of Mengele's death. German authorities notified the police in São Paulo, who contacted the Bosserts. Under interrogation, they revealed the location of the grave. The remains were exhumed on 6 June 1985, and extensive forensic examination confirmed with a high degree of probability that the body was Mengele's. Rolf Mengele issued a statement on 10 June admitting that the body was his father's. He said that the news of his father's death had been kept quiet to protect the people who had sheltered him for many years. In 1992, DNA testing confirmed Mengele's identity. Family members refused repeated requests by Brazilian officials to repatriate the skeletal remains to Germany. The bones remain in storage at the São Paulo Institute for Forensic Medicine, and are used as educational aids during forensic Medicine courses at the University of São Paulo's medical school.
In February 2010, a 180-page volume of Mengele's diary was sold by Alexander Autographs at auction for an undisclosed sum to the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. The unidentified previous owner, who acquired the journals in Brazil, was reported to be close to the Mengele family. A Holocaust survivors' organization described the sale as "a cynical act of exploitation aimed at profiting from the writings of one of the most heinous Nazi Criminals." Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center was glad to see the diary fall into Jewish hands. "At a time when Ahmadinejad's Iran regularly denies the Holocaust and anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews is back in vogue, this acquisition is especially significant," he said. In 2011, a further 31 volumes of Mengele's diaries were sold—again amidst protests—by the same auction house to an undisclosed collector of World War II memorabilia for $245,000.