Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission Awareness - Education - Inspiration

7 February: The Death of “The Angel of Death” and Best Classroom Practices


By J.E. Wolfson

The villain who is always one step ahead of the authorities has long been a trope in the arts, which helps to explain the ongoing popular fascination with Dr. Josef Mengele, who is reported to have died on this day in 1979.

Mengele is notorious for his roles in performing sadistic so-called “experiments” on Jewish and Roma prisoners – often twins and children – and in personally conducting many of the selections on new arrivals at Auschwitz, where he was commonly known as “The Angel of Death.” That is, while he stood in a handsome suit and gloves and whistled classical music, he decided at a glance who would be sent directly to the gas chamber, and who would instead be worked to death in the coming weeks or picked at a later selection. At war’s end, he was able to escape to South America through an underground network, largely with the support of sympathetic Church officials. That network kept him protected until he died of natural causes while swimming decades after the war. It was not until the mid-1980s that news of his death was confirmed, thereby bursting any hopes that he would ever be caught, brought to justice, or understood.

Now confined to the spaces of memory and imagination, Mengele highlights a significant set of issues that teachers are forced to navigate when planning their curricula on the Holocaust and genocides:  whether, how, and to what extent specific examples of atrocity should be presented in lessons to students. It is even fair to ask whether anything about Mengele should be taught, though I respond in the affirmative.

In the Classroom

There are several appropriate and effective ways to teach students about Mengele, who undeniably was a significant figure in the death camp and had a far-reaching historical impact. For one thing, students can certainly be brought to appreciate that Mengele and other Nazi doctors in the camps committed crimes whose impact is felt in the growing field of medical ethics.

I recommend that how artists and audiences have approached Mengele over the years can certainly prove a thought-provoking matter for students. Mengele is ubiquitous in literature and films as a face of evil, but that face frequently bears little resemblance to the real historical figure. He is romanticized. Portrayals of Mengele – how they depart from eyewitness accounts, and how audiences embrace or reject the departures – demonstrate the ways in which Western culture has had to grapple with the aftermath of the Holocaust. For example, it tells us something about our needs, rather than about the historical Mengele, that as a character he is often framed within the subject of forgiveness (See the highly controversial Forgiving Dr. Mengele for one recent example): he never expressed remorse for any of his terrible crimes, and there is no denying that he got away with them. Moreover, there seems to have been a strong inclination to imagine Mengele as an evil genius who never got his hands dirty, as the criminal mastermind who commits atrocities without ever soiling his white gloves. However, Holocaust survivor accounts, such as Gisella Perl’s I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz from 1948, present a wholly different picture. Perl describes an unpredictable madman who almost daily flew into rages and monstrously disfigured women inmates’ faces through random beatings with his bare hands, which he would then calmly wash at the sink as though it were all in a day’s work. Yet it seems that for all the times he is depicted in fictional short stories like “Mengele” and a number of novels and films, we never see that side of Mengele’s character.

Another topic to investigate through Mengele is that many people continue to believe the simple but dubious canard that Hitler alone was morally responsible for the Holocaust, while the masses were brainwashed or just following orders. Mengele’s case demonstrates that in reality evil was always a choice for the perpetrators. Mengele was not drafted into the SS, but rather chose to join, as all its members did. (The only difference seems to have been that Mengele somehow avoided being tattooed with his blood type, as required of SS; this seems to have helped in his escape at the end of the war.) Mengele chose to work at Auschwitz for the opportunity to experiment on human beings at a time when the laws in the Reich forbade medical experimentation on dogs, but afforded Jews and Roma no such protection.

Finally, Mengele also presents an opportunity for classroom discussion regarding popular assumptions about the very nature of evil and how to confront it. The facts of Mengele’s biography shatter popular assumptions about the virtues of pursuing higher education and appreciating the arts. For the entire time span of Mengele’s Auschwitz tenure of torturing and murdering innocent victims, he held doctorates in medicine and in anthropology, and he was well versed in classical music and philosophy. In this light, we can easily see that Nazism did more than destroy individual human beings, but also perverted the very foundations of Western culture.

Pitfalls to Avoid

I want to be very clear that I am not a proponent of putting the horrific details of Mengele’s pseudo-scientific practices in front of students. Teachers are sometimes tempted to do so in an effort to reach apparently unmotivated students, for such details typically evoke a powerful emotional response. However, they are simply too disturbing to be pedagogically appropriate and violate the principle of making “responsible methodological choices” in the USHMM’s Guidelines for Teaching the Holocaust. Besides, images and readings about Mengele’s crimes offer little promise of engaging critical thinking or fostering a better understanding of the most important questions about the Holocaust. This problem of sensitivity to students’ developmental needs extends beyond the classroom. If you have ever taken students to Holocaust Museum Houston, you can appreciate that its display on medical experiments places photographs of such atrocities behind a physical barrier and well below eye level, so a person must knowingly choose to approach in order to see them.

The other big danger of inviting the subject of Mengele into the classroom is that he can come off as larger than life. In his day, he was described as verbally charming and physically attractive, even by those he abused. Fania Fénelon, who observed him up close, writes of these qualities in her memoir. That he managed to evade daring Nazi hunters for decades has only added to his mystique. The very epithet, “The Angel of Death” implies that Mengele was a creature of metaphysical importance and in possession of superhuman attributes. As educators, we do not want to set up the Nazi criminal as a charismatic figure of awesome power, a Darth Vader, or we risk glamorizing the Auschwitz evil. The alluring patina of a dashing face, a sharp outfit, and a dramatic escape should not be what we use to attract students to learning, nor should it be what they most vividly remember, about the Holocaust.

Tags: mengele auschwitz guidelines pedagogy educational resource holocaust education teaching the holocaust medical ethics ushmm hmh


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