When war erupted, Mengele was a medical officer with the SS, the elite squad of Hitler’s bodyguards who later emerged as a secret police force that waged campaigns of terror in the name of Nazism. In 1943, Mengele was called to a position that would earn him his well-deserved infamy. SS head Heinrich Himmler appointed Mengele the chief doctor of the Auschwitz death camps in Poland.
Mengele, in distinctive white gloves, supervised the selection of Auschwitz’ incoming prisoners for either torturous labor or immediate extermination, shouting either “Right!” or “Left!” to direct them to their fate. Eager to advance his medical career by publishing “groundbreaking” work, he then began experimenting on live Jewish prisoners. In the guise of medical “treatment,” Mengele injected, or ordered others to inject, thousands of inmates with everything from petrol to chloroform to study the chemicals’ effects. Among other atrocities, he plucked out the eyes of corpses to study eye pigmentation, and conducted numerous gruesome studies of twins.
Mengele managed to escape imprisonment after the war, first by working as a farm stableman in Bavaria, then by moving to South America. He became a citizen of Paraguay in 1959. He later moved to Brazil, where he met up with another former Nazi party member, Wolfgang Gerhard. In 1985, a multinational team of forensic experts traveled to Brazil in search of Mengele. They determined that a man named Gerhard had died of a stroke while swimming in 1979. Dental records later revealed that Mengele had, at some point, assumed Gerhard’s identity and was the stroke victim.
A fictional account of Josef Mengele’s life after the war was depicted in the film Boys from Brazil, with Mengele portrayed by Gregory Peck.