Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Josef Mengele, the 'Angel of Death'


Selection of inmates at Auschwitz. Mengele is in foreground at far right with cigarette in hand.
Selection of inmates at Auschwitz.
Mengele is in foreground at far right with
cigarette in hand.

The freight train rumbled to an agonizing stop on the rails inside of the Auschwitz compound. The human cargo that was packed tightly into its bevy of cattle cars continued to groan and clamor, suffering as they were from a four-day journey without food, water, bathroom facilities, or even fresh air. The Jewish prisoners were the latest victims of the Nazi campaign to liquidate the Jewish population of Hungary, the last Jewish community to remain intact during the war. Their final destination was the violent, Dantesque nightmare of Auschwitz, the premier Nazi death factory in southwestern Poland, the most efficient cog in the wheel of the Nazi's Endlosung, Final Solution, to the so-called Jewish question.

The doors of each cattle car were violently thrown open by Nazi SS soldiers carrying machine guns. "Raus, raus!" ("Out, out!") they screamed at the frightened and bewildered Jews, who hurried out the doors under a rain of cudgel blows and past the snapping, barking jaws of the camp's German Shepherds. The air was thick with the deafening and confusing sound of orders being screamed, dogs barking, and the stench of burning flesh and hair that spewed from the smokestacks of the camp's 5 crematoria 24 hours a day. Families were separated immediately, with the males forming one line and the females forming another. Most victims were unaware that this was the last time that they would see their loved ones alive, unaware of their lost opportunity to say last good-byes.

Josef Mengele, Auschwitz in 1943
Josef Mengele,
Auschwitz in 1943

The SS troops marched the doomed prisoners to the head of the ramp onto which they had exited. They were led before an SS officer who, in the midst of all the madness, agony and death, seemed very out of place. His handsome face was set with a kind smile, his uniform impeccably tailored, cleaned and pressed. He was cheerfully whistling an opera tune, one of his favorites by Wagner. His eyes betrayed nothing but a cursory interest in the drama that was unfolding before him, the drama of which he alone was the chief architect. He carried a riding crop, but rather than using it to strike the prisoners as they passed before him, he merely used it to indicate which direction he selected them to go in, links oder rechts, left or right. Unbeknownst to the prisoners, this charming and handsome officer with the innocuous demeanor was engaging in his favorite activity at Auschwitz, selecting which new arrivals were fit to work and which ones should be sent immediately to the gas chambers and crematorium. Those sent to the left, roughly 10 to 30 percent of all new arrivals, had their lives spared, at least for the moment. Those sent to the right, usually 70 to 90 percent of all new arrivals, had been condemned to die without even a passing glance from their judge and jury at Auschwitz. The handsome officer who held omnipotent sway over the fate of all the camp's prisoners was Dr. Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death

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