Mengele: Unmasking the Angel of Death – a book review by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

January 12, 2020 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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In receiving this book, it brought back to me two issues.

First. Josef Mengele was one of a number of people who were qualified physicians and yet committed group murder. Others include George Habash and Barukh Goldstein. Is it just that in a large section of any population there will be a small subsection who will do the wrong thing? On the other hand, becoming a physician usually involves taking the Hippocratic Oath where one affirms that they will “do no evil”- does it only apply to one’s patients or should it be a value that transcends just one’s profession.

Second. When I worked as an Ethicist in a hospital in the USA, I received a phone call from a University which was struggling with the question of whether one could use any of the data Mengele accumulated in his ‘medical research’ in Auschwitz. What has become known as ‘the twin experiments.’ They were reaching out to a number of ethicists, especially Jewish ones, to discuss if there was any possibility of using Mengele’s data – the reality was that it was poor data and hence useless.

I had mentioned to some contemporaries that I had received the book for review and many questioned why even such a book had been written. Marwell’s professional life is such that alone would justify his writing the book. Not only did he serve for many years as the President/CEO of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York but prior to that held a senior position at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. More important than this was that he worked on the Mengele case at the Office of Special Investigations at the US Department of Justice.

This book can be divided into two periods- that of World War II and that following the War and the collusion of governments and agencies to spirit Nazi War Criminals to South America and the avoiding of taking any responsibility for their crimes. As a baby boomer, I remember many “reported sighting” of Mengele and other such criminals. Even after an international search in 1985 and the discovery in a cemetery in Brazil of his grave although there was a group which questioned the evidence.

To return to the first question. Hitler advocated the good of the group over the individual. For the notion was that the physician’s responsibility was not to the individual but rather to the volk. Once physicians accepted this, Marwell states that it was easy for them to violate their Hippocratic oath. The President of the Reich Health Office went so far as to state that “The destiny of the German Volk rests entirely in the hands of the German physicians.”

The first sixty pages of this book set the scene for the time when he emerged, at least in a historical sense, until he arrives in Auschwitz in May 1943. The next sixty pages deal with the period from May 1943 to January 1945 when the German army fled Auschwitz- many survivors used to say that on January 27, 1945, they were not so much liberated but rather that the Russian army replaced the German army. 

Marwell observes that “Auschwitz was the ultimate expression of Nazi Racial policy… one could hear a cacophonous bale of languages… Economic exploitation extended not only to the fruits of a person’s toil but also to the clothes on one’s back and to one’s physical body: teeth of gold, and hair as raw material for fabric.” What a concise description to the reality of that world. 

Summarising this period of history Marwell observes that “If Auschwitz, as place, stands as a symbol of the Holocaust, then Mengele, as perpetrator, has come to serve a similar role for the death camp itself.” As Robert Jay Lipton has observed that at Auschwitz Mengele “found expression for his talents so that what had been potential became actual.”

Perhaps the single most telling action of Mengele was how he selected people when they arrived at Auschwitz. It became known simply as ‘the selection’ for each person who arrived was assigned to go either to the left or the right- to the work camp of to the gas chambers, Some would describe him later as The Angel of Death for like the angel of literature and religion he decided who will live and who will die.

The interesting part of this book begins in May 1945 with the defeat of Germany and its surrender. For three years he lived in Germany although his family had spread the story in 1946 that he had died he was still very much alive. 

In the autumn of 1948, he realized that not only was Germany not the place for him but that the German Federal Republic [West Germany] was emerging and at that point, there had been currency reform which meant that the farmer who had been employing him could no longer afford him.

By the summer of 1949, he headed across the Italian Alps. Just as he had worked on the farm under an assumed name he travelled on another name. In Italy, he was issued an International Red Cross passport by the Swiss consulate and with this document, he would arrive in Argentina in June 1949.

The rest of this book not only gives the reader a sense of Mengele’s life in South America but the machinations of various governments and individuals. He was pursued by Wiesenthal as he was at various times by the State of Israel. 

The reality was that even with the ‘discovery’ of his grave in 1985 there were many who expressed doubts. A whole fascinating chapter is devoted to those who questioned it. By this time Marwell was involved in establishing the veracity of whether the grave and its contents were actually Mengele. This chapter does take on a different, more personal tone, although still factual. The final chapter is entitled “Case Closed” which covers a period Spring 1988 through April 1992. 

For each and every survivor in general, and those upon whom Mengele experimented, there was never a sense of justice, at best it was one of closure.

At the end of reading this book, I knew my feelings were mixed. I felt for the survivors who did not see any justice in Mengele’s case. I felt angry about how he had escaped justice, even though Marwell explains it well. I was thankful that the book had been written for the insights it does give into a time when insanity ruled the world and when society was lost- for it reminded me that when the society and its values usurp the individual anything is possible.

Author David Marwell

W.W.Horton & Company 2019


Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen is Associate Professor (Adjunct) in the School of Medicine, Notre Dame University Australia. He served for 5 years as the CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum.

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