Villainy Apprehended at the Talbot County Free Library
by Bill Peak
World War II came to an end. The Korean War began and came to an end.
The Russians put the first man in space. The Vietnam War began. We
put the first man on the moon. The Vietnam War came to a crushing,
dispiriting end. Time moves on. Reggie Jackson becomes Mr. October.
“Star Wars” wins seven Oscars. The first cellular phone goes on the
market. The Susan B. Anthony dollar is minted. And still,
somewhere—we all knew it—Dr. Josef Mengele, Auschwitz's “Angel of
Death,” continued to live and breathe and, as it seemed, thumb his
nose at the very notion that there was justice in this world.
My father was a doctor. My grandfather was a doctor. And for the
first three years of college, I was pre-med; but, fortunately for the
patients of this world, I wasn't smart enough to make the cut. Still,
thanks to Dad, whom I looked up to as you might a minor god, and those
undergraduate years, which taught me how dedicated you have to be to
get into medical school, I have long admired and honored doctors.
Which probably goes some way toward explaining why I have also long
been fascinated, and scandalized, by Josef Mengele. How could anyone
go through all the work and effort required to become a physician,
learn each of the microscopic miracles that must take place in perfect
sequence to turn a bit of undifferentiated protoplasm into a human
being that walks on two legs, reads books, and listens to Bach ... end
up putting small children to death so he could harvest their eyes?
Mengele, for those of you too young to recognize the name—a 2018
survey found that two-thirds of Americans between the ages of 18 and
34 didn't know what Auschwitz was—served as the doctor at that most
infamous of Nazi concentration camps. Every day at the camp's
railhead, Mengele inspected a long line of new arrivals, took a quick
glance at each in turn, then pointed either left or right. Those sent
left ended up in the camp, doomed to perform slave labor for as long
as they survived. Those sent right were delivered immediately to the
gas chambers. But there was a third category Mengele also watched
for. Whenever a pair of twins appeared at the head of that dreadful
line, Mengele had them torn away from their parents and sent to his
laboratory so he could experiment upon them. He was particularly
interested in eyes.
A monster through and through, but at least—or so I always told
myself—a lone monster, an outlier, an anomaly, the exception that
proved the rule of medical benevolence. Then I read David
G. Marwell's new book, “Mengele: Unmasking the 'Angel of Death.'”
Marwell, a member of the investigative team put together by the Reagan
administration to bring Mengele to justice, tells two stories in his
book. First, and by far the best part of the work, is the tale of
Mengele himself, his unremarkable youth, his medical training, his
career as an SS doctor, and then, after the fall of the Third Reich,
the series of near-misses by Allied authorities that allowed him to
escape to South America. The second tells the story of the
international inquiry conducted by historians, pathologists, and law
enforcement agencies that finally determined how Mengele met his end.
Reading the book, one learns it was the very training that should have
turned him into a gentle, caring physician that eventually led Mengele
to so callously destroy the lives of those he was meant to heal. In
the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as scientists began
to understand the laws of genetics and their application in animal
breeding, some began to unflinchingly recommend similar steps be taken
with the human population. When they came to power, the Nazis
enthusiastically endorsed the idea of eugenics and the focus of
medical training shifted accordingly. Young doctors were taught that
the health of the patient sitting on the examining table before them
mattered only insofar as it affected the health of the German people
as a whole. Sterilization and euthanasia lay not far behind.
In Nazi Germany, Mengele wasn't an outlier, he was the ideal. He
wasn't the only SS doctor. He wasn't even the only doctor at
Auschwitz. He was just the doctor whose experiments upon twins made
him the perfect symbol of (and whipping boy for) the many physicians
that wore the death's head insignia.
I cannot recommend “Mengele: Unmasking the 'Angel of Death'”
unequivocally. The second half of the book, which covers the search
for Mengele by Marwell's team, lacks the drama of the first and ends,
inevitably, in anticlimax. Still, the work as a whole provides an
object lesson in the limits of both science and justice. The art of
medicine must be practiced indiscriminately, and always with
compassion. There can be no exceptions to the rule: “First, do no
harm.” And justice, sadly, does not always prevail. Mengele did not
die wracked by guilt, haunted by visions of the children he destroyed.
He died unrepentant. We can only pray that the type of thinking that
could lead a doctor to commit such atrocities died with him.