Human history is an infinitely intricate web of wonder and horror, places and people. Nothing in our past leaves us untouched, and much of history leaves us confused—particularly if it involves acts of extreme cruelty, like genocide. It is especially important for us to understand the dark and brutal side of human history if, for no other reason, than to bring some form of closure to our pain and keep alive the hope for a less violent future. That is the reason why the search for Josef Mengele, the Nazi “Angel of Death,” became one of the most infamous manhunts in world history.
The search for Mengele spanned not only decades but also continents and cultures. It brought together men and women from dozens of disciplines and nations, all united in a common cause to find the man responsible for hundreds of thousands of brutal murders, and bring closure to those few who were fortunate enough to survive his atrocities. In the end, it was teamwork and science that closed the final chapter on the crimes committed by Josef Mengele—initially, through the work of a group of forensic anthropologists in 1985 and, later, in 1992, by the use of DNA technology.
Josef Mengele was born on March 16, 1911, in the town of Gunzburg, Germany, to Karl and Walburga Mengele. He was the eldest of three boys born in four years (Karl, who was born in 1912, and Alois, who was born in 1914). Throughout his youth, Mengele had a privileged upbringing and proved to be an excellent student and a popular youngster among his schoolmates. A year after his graduation from the Gymnasium in 1930, Mengele joined a paramilitary group. This organization would later be subsumed into the German Army, which swore an oath of personal obedience to their leader, Adolph Hitler—an oath that Mengele also took, only with an extraordinary penchant for brutality.
Mengele continued his education, as well as his military career, over the next several years. However, in October 1934, he was discharged from the ranks of the military because of a chronic kidney ailment. In 1935, Mengele earned a Ph.D. from the University of Munich. Ominously (and indicative of the horrifying philosophy prevalent in Germany at that time), his doctoral dissertation dealt with the determination of politically inspired racial differences based on the structure of the lower jaw in humans.
On January 1, 1937, Mengele was appointed as a research assistant at the Third Reich Institute for Heredity, Biology, and Racial Purity at the University of Frankfurt. By this time, his outspoken racist ideology had come to the attention of several high-ranking Nazis. Through his work at the Third Reich Institute, Mengele developed personal friendships with many notorious party officials, who shared his bizarre opinions about racial purity. In May of that year, Mengele formally joined the Nazi party and, a year later, was admitted to the SS.
In July 1938, Mengele was granted a medical degree by the University of Frankfurt. Later that year, he began basic military training with the Wehrmacht. Throughout this period, Mengele was vociferous in his convictions about the superiority of the Aryan race and Germany’s allegedly predestined role in world affairs. These ideas drew him even closer to the inner circle of Nazis, who were already planning for the eradication of millions of non-Aryans in the coming years.
While still completing his basic military service in the SS in 1940, Mengele married Irene Schoenbein. Later that year, he joined the medical corps of the Waffen SS. As the war in Europe spread both East and West of Berlin, Mengele was ordered to occupied Poland, where he joined the Genealogical Section of the Race and Resettlement Office. This was his first direct involvement in what would come to be the routine slaughter of millions of individuals over the next five years.
A year later, Mengele found himself in combat in the Ukraine as a member of the Waffen SS. In June 1941, he was honored for bravery with the Iron Cross, Second Class. Six months later, in January 1942, he joined the Viking Division medical corps of the Waffen SS and earned the Iron Cross, First Class, when he rescued two comrades from a burning tank at the risk of his own life. By the end of 1942, Mengele’s military career and ideology had so impressed the Nazi leadership that he was brought from the Eastern front to the Race and Resettlement Office in Berlin. With this posting, Mengele was awarded the rank of Captain (Haupsturmfuhrer) and began the serious work of aiding in the implementation of the Nazi plan for the elimination of all Jews and other minorities from the European continent.
Mengele arrived at Auschwitz, the most notorious concentration camp in Europe and the scene of his horrific crimes, on May 30, 1943. There, he conducted unspeakable experiments on twins and other prisoners who suffered from birth deformities or unusual physical characteristics. He also became legendary for his daily selection of those who would live to suffer in the camps or those who would be immediately resigned to the gas chambers. It was during this time that Mengele became known to the prisoners of Auschwitz as the “Angel of Death.”
On March 11, 1944, the Mengeles gave birth to their son, Rolf, even as the fate of Germany was becoming obvious to most Europeans. After the birth of his son, Mengele began to make plans for his eventual escape from Auschwitz, realizing that his life and freedom would soon be at stake as Germany continued to be battered on both the Eastern and Western fronts. On January 18, 1945, Russian troops finally arrived at the Auschwitz death camp, only to find that Mengele had already fled. Almost immediately, he was listed as a wanted war criminal.
Under orders from Berlin, the Angel of Death had made his way to another notorious death camp, Gross-Rosen, just ahead of the Russian Army. However, he could find no safe haven there. Just before the Russians liberated that camp, on February 11, 1945, Mengele again fled, this time exchanging his SS uniform for that of an ordinary German soldier. However, despite his best efforts, Mengele’s freedom was short lived. In June, he was arrested and placed in a prisoner-of-war camp that was located near Munich and run by American forces. Ironically, unlike most members of the Waffen SS, Mengele had refused to allow the usual tattoo of his blood type to be placed on his chest beneath his arm. Since his captors did not see the telltale tattoo, they assumed that Mengele’s denial that he was a member of the Waffen SS (or a war criminal) was true and they released him.
For the next few years, Mengele lived on a farm owned by George Fischer, always avoiding contact with the townsfolk and, for the most part, his family. In 1949, he was finally able to leave Germany and escape to Argentina. However, by this time, he was already the subject of a massive manhunt across Europe.
For the next four decades, Mengele lived in several locations in South America, using a number of aliases, such as Fritz Ulmann, Fritz Hollmann, Helmut Gregor, G. Helmuth, Jose Mengele, Ludwig Gregor, and Wolfgang Gerhard. Over these many years, the Angel of Death was sometimes helped by small groups of fleeing Nazis and Nazi-sympathizers who had also made their way to the very tolerant environs of Argentina, Brazil, and several other South American nations. However, for many of those years, Mengele was on his own, suffering from paranoia, and avoiding contact with all but his most trusted friends.
In 1954, Mengele divorced his wife, Irene, and, in 1958, married the widow of his brother, Karl. A year after that, on June 7, 1959, West Germany formally issued an arrest warrant for the hunted man and he responded by moving once again, this time to Paraguay. For the next twenty years, Mengele changed his residence several times and avoided contact with all but those in whom he had complete trust.
By early 1979, Mengele was living in Brazil and using the alias Wolfgang Gerhard. On the late afternoon of February 7 of that year, at Bertioga Beach in Embu, Josef Mengele drowned after suffering a stroke while swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. His burial in the hills above the beach was a quiet affair, which had been arranged by a female friend named Lisolette Bossert. However, those who continued to hunt the Angel of Death from Europe, Israel, and America knew nothing about the demise of Wolfgang Gerhard.
Finally, in 1985, several clues surfaced that led investigators to Lisolette Bossert and the alleged grave of Wolfgang Gerhard. Bossert had originally told Brazilian authorities that her friend, Gerhard, had simply died of a drowning accident and she had buried him. However, after hours of interrogation, she finally admitted that the man in the grave was actually Josef Mengele. In truth, Wolfgang Gerhard had been an Austrian friend of Mengele’s, who also lived in South America for many years. When Gerhard departed Brazil to return to Austria, he had left his identification papers behind with Mengele, who promptly altered them for his own use and assumed Gerhard’s identity.
As soon as Bossert’s confession was made public, a team of forensic anthropologists and other forensic specialists was assembled to investigate the claim of Mengele’s death. The team included members from Brazil, the United States, and West Germany. In addition, other international organizations, such as the Wiesenthal Center in California, joined in the effort to investigate the grave of Josef Mengele.
A single skeleton was unearthed from the burial site at Embu, Brazil. Investigators were immediately suspicious of the remains and concerned that the individual who had died may not have been Mengele after all. At the time, it was considered possible that the remains in the grave actually did belong to Gerhard, and Bossert’s story had been nothing more than another red herring designed to keep investigators away from the aging Angel of Death. Given the historical importance of Mengele’s life, and now his death, it became crucial to make a final and accurate determination about who had actually been buried in the grave marked “Wolfgang Gerhard.”
Members of the forensics team gathered as much background information as they could about the physical characteristics of Gerhard and Mengele from Austrian and German authorities. This data included a variety of X-rays, military service reports, photographs of the men, and dental charts that could be used for comparison purposes once the remains had been exhumed. Armed with this information, the team removed the bones from the grave and began their examination.
Unfortunately, the skull of the individual in the grave had been severely damaged by the gravedigger when the body was first unearthed. In essence, the skull now consisted of many fragments, some of which were very small. Before there could be an effort to compare the unearthed remains with the data that had been collected by the team, it would be necessary to reconstruct the skull. The German anthropologist on the team, Richard Helmer, agreed to do the reconstruction work.
After several days of intense effort, Helmer was able to produce an excellent reconstruction of the skull. By this time, other members of the team had examined the remaining bones to determine the sex, ancestry, age, and other physical characteristics of the individual in the grave. Now, the team members could compare and coordinate their findings.
The forensic anthropologists on the team were able to determine that the remains belonged to a Caucasian male who stood five feet, eight inches tall. This was a vital piece of information because it immediately eliminated the possibility that the bones belonged to Gerhard, who stood over six feet tall in life. However, the height estimated by the anthropologists matched that of Mengele when he was alive. In addition, the team was able to conclude that the man in the grave had been between sixty and seventy years old when he died, more than ten years older than Gerhard would have been at the time of his death. However, this estimate matched the age range for Mengele when he drowned.
Although the conclusions of the forensic team pointed to a strong likelihood that the man in the grave had been Josef Mengele, they had no solid proof. Among the data that had been provided by the German authorities about Mengele, there were no X-rays of his teeth—a piece of critical information that could prove or disprove the identity of the remains. The team considered their options and decided that they must locate X-rays of Mengele’s teeth taken after he left Germany in order to prove their case one way or the other. In addition, they decided to make use of a brand new identification technique that was being developed at the time by Richard Helmer and other anthropologists—photographic superimposition.
While members of the team scoured a variety of locations in South America for X-rays of Mengele’s teeth, Helmer worked on what he needed to perform a photographic superimposition. The anthropologist created images of the skull that he had reconstructed, along with transparencies of the last known photographs of Josef Mengele. When he superimposed the two images, they matched perfectly. Now, the team members were convinced that the man in the grave had been the Angel of Death. All they needed was to match the teeth of the remains with some X-rays known to have belonged to Mengele to validate their conclusions.
Finally, after an exhaustive search that ranged across several South American countries, team members were able to locate X-rays of Mengele’s teeth that had been taken by a dentist only a year before his death. The dentist had performed extensive work on a patient he knew as Wolfgang Gerhard. When these X-rays were superimposed over images of the teeth in the reconstructed skull found in the grave, they matched perfectly. Of particular importance, the X-rays clearly showed a peculiar gap between the two front teeth of the patient, which precisely aligned with the gap in the remains and also matched the photographs of Mengele when he was alive.
The forensics team formally announced that they were convinced that the man buried in Embu, Brazil was, in fact, Josef Mengele. Generally, this conclusion was accepted by those who had pursued the Angel of Death for so many decades. However, the nation of Israel refused to issue a public statement acknowledging that the remains were really those of Mengele. Despite the convincing evidence that had been provided by the team of forensic anthropologists, small pockets of doubt still remained.
In 1992, the conclusions of the team of scientists who had first unearthed Mengele’s remains were finally validated beyond any doubt. In that year, Mengele’s son agreed to provide a sample of blood from which a DNA comparison could be made with the evidence gathered from the Brazilian grave. When the two samples were compared, they matched, indicating without doubt that the man in the grave had been Mengele. Finally, nearly fifty years after the Angel of Death had murdered his last victim at Auschwitz, the combined efforts of investigators, scientists, and several governments had paid off. The fate of Josef Mengele had been determined and at least some closure could be brought to the survivors of his countless victims.
The Scientist: Ellis Kerley
The life and times of a forensic anthropologist can be incredibly diverse and fascinating. Ellis Kerley, who is now retired in the San Diego area, had a full career that included some of the strangest and most historically important investigations of this century:
In 1978, Kerley was asked by the U. S. Congress to help with the investigation of the John Kennedy assassination. Some conspiracy theorists claimed that the bodies of Kennedy and his alleged murderer, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been replaced by lookalikes prior to their autopsies. Kerley and his associates were able to prove that the remains of the two men were genuine.
In 1980, Kerley was involved in identifying the remains of servicemen who had died in the Iranian desert during the failed attempt to rescue American hostages being held in Tehran.
Kerley was a member of the 1985 team of scientists that determined the legitimacy of the remains of Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi “Angel of Death.”
In 1986, Kerley worked with the team responsible for identifying the remains of the seven astronauts killed in the Challenger explosion.
Kerley was a member of the team that positively identified the remains of the Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones, who had been buried in Paris in 1792 and later exhumed in 1913.