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About the Holocaust

The Holocaust was the "systematic bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder (USHMM)" of nearly six million Jews and five million others including Gypsies, Polish Christians, and Jehovah’s Witnesses by the Nazi regime. It was a historical turning point in which the world witnessed genocide at its extremity. The time frame of the Holocaust is understood to be the period of 1933 to 1945—the era of Adolf Hitler’s reign over Germany. While the Nazi persecution of Jews was a constant theme in this period, the methods and degree of persecution evolved over time, becoming increasingly malignant, ultimately building up to the "Final Solution," an operation designed to destroy completely European Jewry as well as the Gypsies. The Jewish population was reduced from nine million in pre-Holocaust Europe to only three million at the end of World War II. In addition, three million Polish Christians, half a million Gypsies, and tens of thousands of other groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and the disabled were massacred.

Instilled with a belief in so-called Aryan supremacy, the Nazis publicized a brand of nationalism that sought to rid German life of Jewish presence and cleanse Europe of those groups that they deemed inferior. In the the early years after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Nazi policies were geared towards the isolation of Jews economically and socially. The next level of persecution—between 1939 and 1941—was the ghettoization of Jews in Nazi occupied territories in worsening conditions, while many were also sent to concentration camps. In the subsequent phase of the Nazi era, Polish and most Eastern European Jews were deported from the ghettos to concentration camps. With tens of thousands of Jews already massacred by 1941 in Eastern Europe by Einsatzgruppen (Nazi task forces), the next phase was the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question," a Nazi euphemism for the total annihilation of the Jews. Killing units began mass murdering entire Jewish communities through asphyxiation with poison gas, shooting, and other means in extermination centers established in Nazi territories—Chelmno, the Operation Reinhard camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek. During this period, the Nazi killing methodology shifted from mobile killers and stationary victims, to stationary killing centers and mobile victims. In its entirety, the Holocaust consumed the lives of two-thirds of the pre-World War II European Jewry and almost all of its Gypsy population.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, eugenics is defined as "the biosocial movement which advocates the use of practices aimed at improving the genetic composition of a population—usually referring to a human population." This was an international movement in the early twentieth century spanning across North America and Europe. On the outset the movement did not profess a racist element as much as emphasizing the importance of multiplying the “best” and the attrition of “bad genes” in a population. However, it soon evolved both in America and Europe into a desire to propagate the superior Nordic race (Aryan in Nazi nomenclature) and prevent "contamination" from races that were classified as inferior. During the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act in the United States, policymakers advocated the need to limit the entry of Slavs, Latin Americans, and even the Irish, as they regarded them as inferior races that would pollute the American blood. In Nazi Germany however, the eugenics movement reached unmatched heights, with its extreme anti-Semitic character. Many of Germany’s top scientists joined the Nazis, actively aiding in the implementation of “racial hygiene” programs.

Dr. Josef Mengele was the most widely known SS physician, infamous for his medical experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz. His racial dogma and inhumane inclinations toward Jews and other non-Aryans were informed by a key influence in his early adult life. Upon earning a Ph.D. in physical anthropology from the University of Munich, the young German became the assistant of Dr. Otmar von Verschuer, a renowned human biologist who shared the Nazi concern for “racial hygiene." Molded by such a mentor, coupled with his own zeal for excelling in his field, Mengele developed into a soldier of biology whose quest it was to understand human genetics and propagate the master (Aryan) race. In particular, both he and his mentor were exponents of twin research. As the largest concentration camp, Auschwitz offered the most abundant supply of human specimen, among whom were likely to be some twins. Under the patronage of Verschuer, Mengele won grants to undertake two research projects and was appointed an SS doctor at Auschwitz.

Mengele came to be known as the “Angel of Death” in Auschwitz, as one of his high profile tasks was the selection of humans for experimentation or death. In other words, he decided who among the incoming prisoners would be retained as test subjects and who would be sent immediately to the gas chambers. Mengele performed a wide range of gruesome and lethal experiments with Jewish and Roma twins. He was particularly partial toward children in his selection of test subjects. Many of the Mengele victims died as a result of the procedures inflicted upon them. Many were also murdered for the purpose of conducting autopsies. A minority of the twins survived, some of whom have shared the story of Auschwitz and Josef Mengele with the world.

Handwritten Letters From Nazi SS Doctor Joseph Mengele

These pieces are on loan from the Florence and Laurence Spungen Family Foundation . These documents are currently on display at CANDLES. Visit us during our normal hours to see them in person.

Both letters were sent by Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele to his wife, Irene, while he was stationed at Auschwitz. The letters offer rare insight into the life and mind of the man who has been nicknamed the “Angel of Death” and the “God of Auschwitz” for his seeming mastery over who lived and who died in the camp. These letters offer a jarring juxtaposition to what we know of Mengele and the horrific medical experiments he performed on camp prisoners, including the twin sisters Miriam Mozes Zeiger and Eva Mozes Kor, the founder of CANDLES.

“Every morning after roll call, Mengele came to our barracks for inspection. Smiling, he called us meine kinde, my children. Some of the twins liked him and called him Uncle Mengele. Not I. I was terrified of him. Even in those days I knew he did not care for us like a real doctor.”
                    - Eva Mozes Kor, A-7063, Surviving the Angel of Death


Letter from April 26, 1944

The medal Mengele describes, the Kriegsverdienstkreuz or War Merit Cross, was created in 1939 by Adolph Hitler to replace the non-combatant Iron Cross. The medal had two grades, 2nd class and 1st class, and was awarded with swords and without swords. The version with swords that Mengele received was awarded for service above and beyond the call of duty, though not necessarily in direct combat.



Auschwitz, 4.26.44

My dear, sweet Butzel!

Once in a while there’s a small ray of light in my bleak daily routine in this concentration camp business. This afternoon at 4pm I was ordered to the commanding officer, and I was awarded a medal (Kriegsverdienstkreuz, second degree with swords). Even though this is not a rare honor, and even though I already possess more valuable decorations, I was touched by the acknowledgement of my work and my dedication. My work sometimes jeopardizes my own health and even my life; therefore I was very appreciative. (You can see my dear Butzele that the medals are coming in slowly one after another to stay on this hero’s chest!!) I was supposed to get it on 4.20.44, the Führer’s birthday, but I wasn’t here since I was home with you. Dr. Thilo got the same honor; we now call it the “typhus medal.”

When I came back they were already waiting for me with 3 bottles of wine and one bottle of champagne. I was with a group of nice people (Fircher, Frank, Wussow, plus their wives), and we drank whatever we had. During our gathering I also raised a glass to Rolf and his lovely Butzele.

I’m doing okay so far. My work is going ahead, but I’ve decided that I want to be altogether more reclusive. Berlin doesn’t suit me. I’m feeling better now, but after the long hours on the train my legs were swollen. I will check myself into the field hospital later for a thorough examination. Berlin was quite cold. Especially sister Emmi took good care of me. Schade used every moment of his free time to be around me. I had plenty of time to talk to Olaf about everything.

I have already mentioned my visit to Lambertz to you. He is still the same: He pretends to be audacious, but in reality he is just shy and inhibited. He still hasn’t found a nice girl, even though he has a casual relationship with a waitress. (Please keep this to yourself, and never, ever let him know that I told you!) I want to introduce him to Schlicks. Maybe Mrs. Schlicks can introduce him to nice girls that she knows or something like that!

How are you, Butzele, and how is the boy? I hope everything is just fine. I’m sending kisses from me to both of you.

Yours, Papili.

Letter from December 14, 1944

The format of the stationery, written in such a way that it can be folded to form its own envelope, is typical of the time the letter was written. The brown stamp was used to seal the letter, which resulted in it being cut into quarters when opened. Also, note the Auschwitz postmark on the red stamp. Mengele addresses his wife as “Butzele” and himself as “Butz,” which are common German terms of endearment.



Frau Irene Maria Mengele
Am Stadtbach 4

SS Doctor Mengele
Auschwitz 0/S
Concentration Camp SS Precinct

Auschwitz, 12.14.44

My beloved Butzele!

Your letters from November 29th, December 8th and December 9th have arrived. I thank you for them from the very bottom of my heart. In these letters you address the question of our moving, and I’m glad to see that we agree on major points that we have to consider. The date is the only thing that’s difficult. You don’t want to come for Christmas; you prefer the time after the Holidays. I don’t think that’s a good idea since the days before the holidays are really bad to start your journey. It would also mean that we’re once again not together on Christmas Eve!

Naturally, I cannot come to visit you, and I won’t be able to pick you up. I might be able to ask Wirths to send a nurse to travel with you. But I know you understand that I would like to avoid asking him. Do you really think it’s impossible for Karl to come along? Or maybe your father? If it looks like he’s being evacuated, they will have to give him a travel permit! I forwarded your wishes to our man who’s responsible for housing (Wilks). I think your requests will be met.

It’s too bad that you didn’t decide earlier, since you had planned on being here by now. But since it takes such a long time to send mail nowadays, you have to decide and act on your own. This letter will probably reach you after you started your journey. It would be awful if you weren’t able to come at all! Perhaps, and this is what I hope, you got the letter that Dr. Precht carried with him, and I hope the letter helped you to make a quick decision to come as soon as possible. Maybe my telegram could have had the same effect?! That would’ve been beautiful!

Please send my regards to everybody, and let me kiss you.

Yours, Butz.

Why haven’t I heard anything about Loes? Do you know how he’s doing?