Let’s talk about the Mengele trope

FYI: It’s absolutely NOT my intent to call any Shoah survivors liars or ignorant. What I’m interested in is the how and why of this commonly-cited trope which isn’t borne out by careful examination of historical evidence. There’s also a moral obligation to represent this period of history as accurately as possible, to avoid adding any fuel to the deniers’ fire.

When I read Joachim Neander, Ph.D.’s excellent rebuttal of Irene Zisblatt’s wildly exaggerated, so-called memoir The Fifth Diamond, I was quite surprised to discover “Dr.” Mengele didn’t perform nearly as many selections as Shoah survivors routinely depict him as having done. He was still a vile, evil POS who shouldn’t have escaped earthly justice, but he wasn’t some all-powerful being who was everywhere at once either.

I totally understand how jarring it can be when we discover something we long accepted as fact is challenged by new evidence, but we can’t keep clinging onto falsehoods because of personal feelings.

There’s a perfect example in that author’s surname, Neander, which is shared by the German valley which gave our Neanderthal cousins their name. (BTW, the H is silent.) When I first started reading about prehistory in second grade (almost 30 years ago), it was believed Neanderthals were the final step before Cro-Magnons.

Then we found out they were distant cousins, and then it was believed they were victims of Cro-Magnon genocide. The latest evidence shows most people of European and Asian descent have 2-4% Neanderthal DNA, with some outliers who have more. There was more interbreeding than genocide. I can’t wait to have an ancestry DNA test to find out how much Neanderthal DNA I’ve got!

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I’ve watched countless testimonies from the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, and there’s a common line coming up around selection at Auschwitz:

“And this, of course, was Mengele.”
“As we later found out, this was Mengele.”
“And all the while, the whole goal was being pushed towards Mengele.”
“You know this was Mengele.”
“How do I know it was Mengele? How do you know who Bill Clinton is? You see his picture all the time!”
“He was a beautiful German officer whom we soon found out was Mengele.”
“Mengele pushed me to the right.”
“Mengele selected so fast.”
“This, of course, was Mengele.”

This so-called doctor did perform selections, but not nearly as often as survivors report. There were also “Drs.” Heinz Thilo, Horst Fischer, Bruno Kitt, Fritz Klein, and several others. One reason so many survivors may think Mengele selected them is because he did frequently appear off-duty at the ramp, searching for twins and other “medical curiosities.”

Another reason was mentioned by Vera Laska, a Czech political prisoner. She suggested so many people might name Mengele because that’s one of the few names they know, and it’s human nature to want to put a name and face to this kind of traumatic event. Imagining him as nameless, faceless evil wouldn’t be as personal.

On a side note, I loved how Vera admitted she married her husband because his surname, Laska, means “love” in Czech. That’s a really awesome name to have.

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Survivor Emanuel Mittelman, one of the few remaining survivors with his number branded on his chest instead of tattooed on his arm, claimed he encountered Mengele in 1942, though Mengele only arrived in May 1943. Mengele has become such an icon of the Shoah, he’s reported as being sighted even when he wasn’t there.

Many Buchenwald liberators have similar testimonies, that of having encountered the vile Ilse Koch. She and her husband left the camp in disgrace and headed off to prison in 1943, never to return.

Mengele was never one of the camp brass, and was never even the chief “physician.” Yet not only do many survivors paint him as the only one who ever performed selections, but as doing other things going on at the same time.

How could one person be conducting selections for both men and women and children, performing additional selections after realizing not enough people had been chosen for labor, pushing children alive into bonfires (because the gas chambers and crematoria couldn’t work fast enough to keep up with all the Hungarians arriving in 1944), performing selections in Lager C every day, AND doing medical experiments?

Mengele was evil, twisted, and grotesque enough without assigning omnipotence to him. I don’t fault Shoah survivors for not remembering every single detail correctly, but historians and historical novelists shouldn’t perpetuate this trope.