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Lagnado and Dekel, cover

"The Angel of Death"

Book Essay on:
Lucette Matalon Lagnado & Sheila Cohn Dekel,
Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz

(New York: Penguin, 1992), 320 pages.
UCSB DD247.M46 M38 1992

by Joanna Beattie
March 14, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in German History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
$11 & searchable
at amazon

About Joanna Beattie

I am a senior history major at UCSB. I am extremely interested in Medieval, Early British, and Holocaust History. I was born in Essex UK and lived in Cologne Germany at an early age. I have always been fascinated and horrified by Hitler and the Holocaust in Germany. When I was young I would gravitate towards Holocaust literature and films, and was always eager to hear survivor tales of their experiences in concentration/death camps. In middle school I went on a field trip with my class to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and it really made an impact on how I viewed the Holocaust. It was such a “real” and moving experience that I will never forget. In the future I would love to have the opportunity to visit other museums and the remaining sites of the camps from the Holocaust. Until I am able to fulfill these dreams I will continue to read the stories and books concerning the Holocaust. I chose to read Children of the Flames because I could not believe that children lived through the horrendous experiments of Dr. Mengele. I was interested in finding out what the twins had to say of the experiments, how they had affected their lives, and why Mengele actually performed them.

Abstract (back to top)

A candid photograph of medical student Josef Mengele in 1943 (source)

Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel’s book Children of the Flames focuses on the main factors that made the notorious death-camp physician Doctor Mengele perform the savage deeds in the laboratories of Auschwitz. They set out to prove that it was these factors that molded Josef Mengele into the Angel of Death. The major factors, in order of significance, are Mengele’s childhood experiences, his desire to please his mother, and the obsessions – of work and power - that stemmed from it. The next major factor was the influence Hitler had on Mengele’s education, especially in the medical field. The last, and most significant factor was, his mentor Dr. Verschuer. By reviewing actual documents and letters written by Mengele, interviewing the twins and survivors--the book recounts the stories of seventeen survivors who endured the horrific experiments and lived to tell the tale, as well as personal friends and acquaintances of Mengele, the authors gain insight into what made Mengele “tick.”

Essay (back to top)

The manuscript, Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz, written by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel, is a testament to the children who survived the Holocaust under the hand of the monstrous death-camp physician Dr. Mengele, but the book also possesses enormous insight into what transformed Mengele into the sadistic and terrifying figure of the so called “Angel of Death” and how Mengele justified his experiments and the murder of Jews. Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel believe that there were certain main factors that made the notorious Doctor Mengele perform the savage deeds in the laboratories of Auschwitz. The main factors, in order of significance, are Josef Mengele’s childhood experiences, his desire to please his mother, and the obsessions – of work and power - that stemmed from it. The next major factor was the influence Hitler had on Mengele’s education, especially in the medical field. The last, and most significant factor, was his mentor Dr. Verschuer.

Growing up in the Bavarian town of Gunzburg, Josef Mengele, affectionately called Beppo, was a popular boy. No one who remembered Mengele as a child ever saw a hint of the pathology that would make him a killer. For example, during an interview with Dr. Hermann Lieb, Mengele’s family dentist and personal friend, Dr. Lieb stated that “There was an innocence and a sweetness to young Josef that would lead Gunzburg’s citizens to shake their heads in disbelief when they heard, years later, of his savage deeds at Auschwitz” (31) However if one was to delve deep into Mengele’s early childhood, one would find that at an early age, Mengele was obsessed with power and organization. He was described as “a natural leader” by Mrs. Julia Kane, a former Gunzburg native (38). At the age of nine, Mengele’s parents put him in charge of supervising the shipment of goods to and from the Mengele farm-equipment factory (29). As stated by Hermann Abmayr, a West German journalist who grew up in Gunzburg “Mengele was said to revel in it” (30). After Lagnado and Dekel reviewed personal interviews with Josef Baumeister, a teacher in Gunzburg who studied Mengele and Dr. Herman Lieb they found that even as a child Mengele was vain and had a sense of superiority (42). Later in his life Mengele still enjoyed the feeling of power, a survivor who recounted Mengele, recalled his look of delight on selection duty (270). The first sign of Mengele becoming the power thirsty devilish figure can be seen by investigating what made Mengele so obsessed with order and supremacy.

Mengele’s mother, Walburga, was almost impossible to please. Walburga seemed to have had dual personalities and was difficult to predict. For instance, according to Dr. Zdenek Zofka, a writer and unofficial Gunzburg historian, who had grown up in Gunzburg, Walburga, “could be warm and maternal, or she could behave like a raging bull” (36). Josef Mengele preferred his mother over his father, he wanted to anything just to please Walburga, and he was extremely loyal to her throughout her life. As argued by Lagnado and Dekel, Mengele felt an aspiration to succeed, because of the “influence of his self denying mother” (41). This became apparent after reviewing an interview with Dr. Kurt Lambotz, a fellow student and friend who discussed Mengele’s dedicated study habits at the University of Munich. It is interesting to note that Josef Mengele was a lot like Walburga and had split personalities. In the 1970’s, Mengele had become much like his mother. In letters to his son Rolf, “he could veer from affection to abuse, from a show of warmth to an outburst of rage”(224) While practicing his brutal experiments on the twins of Auschwitz, these inherited qualities led to Mengele receiving the nickname, the Angel of Death. His appearance and demeanor were angelic, but on the other hand, he was capable of sinister deeds and murder.

In the 1920’s Mengele joined the Greater Germany Youth Movement – a nationalistic and patriotic organization that urged members to strive for a return to the basic values of Mother Germany. In 1931, Mengele officially joined the Stalhelm (40). At this time in his life he had no political allegations to Nazism.

According to Josef Baumeister, even at a young age, the vain Josef Mengele was obsessed with his own appearance. Mengele made the decision to devote his life to a science whose main aim--promoting a race of ‘perfect’ Aryan people--mirrored his own personal obsession” (69).Mengele began to become captivated by the notion of creating a superior race, Lagnado and Dekel indicated that this concept led Mengele to become a eugenic scientist and a doctor in anthropology (42). This fateful education choice also led to the next major factor of Mengele’s transformation.

Hitler started to gain influence in 1930, as he spoke throughout the country promising to cleanse Germany of all of the elements that had led to its decline (41). The focal point of Hitler’s speeches was racial purity through the process of racial hygiene (41). Traditional academic disciplines began to incorporate Hitler’s ideas. Hitler set in motion an obsession with race and antisemitism, especially in anthropology and genetics – Mengele’s chosen fields. According to Lagnado and Dekel, it was at the University of Munich - where Mengele had begun his studies in the autumn of 1930 – that “Mengele had first exhibited the obsessive attention to work that would mark his later years” (41). However, it is important to note that Josef Mengele was already fixated on organization and the feeling of power in the workplace at an early age. The boy from Gunzburg had aristocratic pretensions. The vanity and sense of superiority had always been there, even in the amiable Beppo. What the villagers and the workers at his family’s factory had seen as friendliness were cut from the same “cloth” as the deceptively charming demeanor of the Angel of Death (42). It was Hitler’s influence on Mengele’s education and the time spent in the classrooms of the University of Munich, where, “His apprenticeship as a mass murderer formally began” (42).

While studying eugenics at the University of Munich, Mengele was introduced to the work of the social Darwinists – who believed that almost all social and personal problems were inherited. As stated by Lagnado and Dekel, the social Darwinists “wanted to encourage the genetically fit to have more children, while those of questionable stock would remain childless” (42). Mengele’s definition of the “genetically fit,” was those of pure German Aryan blood, the “questionable stock,” was generally made up of the lower class, and also included alcoholics, mentally disabled, Jews, and Gypsies. Mengele became fixated on the ideas of racial purity and seemed to have enjoyed his time at the University of Munich because he was able to exploit his obsessions in his work. He saw himself as a visionary ad an idealist who was working toward a “better world” through the human gene (43).

The last and most influential factor for Mengele’s transformation into a malevolent death camp doctor was his mentor Professor Otmar von Verschuer. In 1935, the year the Nuremburg Laws were passed and the year of Mengele’s graduation from the University of Munich, Mengele applied to Verschuer’s Institute for Heredity, Biology, and Racial Purity in Frankfurt, and was appointed Verschuer’s assistant (44). Mengele was assigned to the task of evaluating racial fitness, which was to determine whether a person’s Aryan ancestry was pure (44). Lagnado and Dekel state that, “Even in the years before deportations to the camps began, a determination by Mengele that individuals were racially Jewish could jeopardize their life in Germany” (44). According to Ottmar Katz, a West German journalist and Mengele specialist, Mengele’s job as an assistant to Verschuer, “marked his formal initiation into the world of Nazi racial medicine” (45). Mengele was highly favored by Professor Verschuer and it was under Verschuer’s guidance that Mengele “learned that it was acceptable – even desirable – to experiment on human beings if it advanced a scientific cause” (46). This direction that Verschuer had led Mengele was, according to Ottmar Katz, the “critical link in Mengele’s transformation from an ambitious young scientist into a camp doctor who sent Jews to their deaths and performed experiments on children” (46). Katz, a magazine journalist, spent years studying Mengele and believed that Verschuer was the man who led Mengele to his downfall. Mengele was a murderer, but he was only the disciple. The master was Verschuer. Dr. Mengele’s fixation on twins was also a direct result of his connection with Verschuer. Verschuer was certain that twins held the solution to revealing the mysteries of genetics and the only way to find the answers was through “in vivo” experimentation (46). Mengele worked hard to please his adviser. Mengele’s combination of vanity and insecurity made him an ideal candidate for manipulation (48). As Lagnado and Dekel, argue, Mengele had become Verschuer’s “biological soldier” (48).

Verschuer was a devout follower of Hitler and paid tribute to him in many of his publications. According to the authors of Children of the Flames, Hitler and his Nazis “relied on him to offer scientific rationales for their more brutal actions” (48). Mengele was influenced greatly by Verschuer teachings and began formulating theories of his own on the “racial origins” of hereditary traits, especially defects (48).

In 1938 Mengele decided to join the SS, “as a young officer/doctor, Mengele was assured of a distinguished future” (49). One of Mengele’s first tasks was to sort through applications to determine who met the racial and genealogical criteria (49). In 1942 Mengele joined the SS Viking Division as a field physician (49). Lagnado and Dekel state that it was on the Russian front that “Mengele honed the art of selection” (50). He had to choose who among the wounded would be treated and who would be left to die.

Since 1939 “all known standards of medical ethics had been swept aside by the Nazis” and experiments carried out on human subjects had been under way (51). Mengele and Verschuer were thrilled to learn of the research being performed in the concentration camps, the most interesting research possibilities were presented at the concentration camp Auschwitz, located in Poland (51). In April 1943, Mengele obtained a position as a SS doctor at Auschwitz. Just one year after arriving at Auschwitz, Dr. Mengele was completely engrossed in his horrific experiments and research, including the sterilization of women and girls, castration of men and boys, brutal surgeries, amputation of limbs, and shock treatments (54). Many of his subjects died due to his experiments, and after their death he would dissect them for study. His favorite subjects were twins, and Verschuer’s protégé was eager to solve the mysteries of genetics by performing as many experiments as possible on these twins to find the answers he desired.

Mengele was extremely passionate about his research and experiments. According to Lagnado and Dekel, “the work habits Mengele had developed over the years in Munich and Frankfurt stood him in good stead at Auschwitz.” There was a perception that Mengele was “more hardworking than his Nazi colleagues” (59). Once again, Mengele’s obsession with work led him to execute more and more terrible actions.

Mengele justified the horrific scope of crimes against Jews by pronouncing that Jews were to blame for the war, and therefore for the horrifying fate they later met (113). In his autobiography, courtesy of the U.S. Justice Department and translate by David Marwell Office of Special Investigation, Mengele stated “the internationality of the Jews and their supposed links with the intelligence services of other countries would be enough to take measures such as concentration camps. As potential enemies of the state, the Jews, had to be killed” (113). Doctor Mengele’s actions and the justification he gave should have eventually led to his capture and trial, which would have hopefully led to an appropriate punishment. However Mengele eluded German, British, and American officials, as well as “Nazi hunters,” and was never caught. He was able to sneak away undetected beneath the radar and hide under different aliases in different countries – including Austria, Argentina, and Brazil – until his estimated death from drowning in 1979 (252). Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz, by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel, has important insight regarding what made Mengele “tick,” and what transformed Mengele into the sadistic and terrifying figure of the so called “Angel of Death.” The novel also explains how Mengele justified his experiments and the murder of Jews. There were certain main factors that made the infamous Doctor Mengele perform the horrific experiments in the laboratories of Auschwitz. Doctor Josef Mengele was an evil, chilling figure. It is disappointing that he was never caught and punished for his deeds. It is important that people realize the horrors and atrocities that Mengele’s victims were subjected to, and as a testament to them, listen to their stories of hope, sorrow, and survival.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/24/08)

Book Reviews

  • Mifflin, Margot. “Book Capsule Review: Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz.” Entertainment Weekly. (July 19,1991) http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,314867,00.html
    Margot Mifflin, in her brief review, states that it was miraculous although they still suffer from flashbacks and other horrible maladies the survivors were able to rebuild their lives after their blighted childhoods, Mifflin emphasizes that Children of the Flames “exposes a crucial, if agonizing, piece of Holocaust history.”
  • Sadler, K.L. “Remembering that Science can be used to hurt others…” Amazon Customer Reviews. (January 26, 2003) (amazon)
    Amazon.com customer Sadler gives the impression that she was confused by the book’s overlapping arrangement of Mengele’s story and the survivor’s stories. She seemed to completely miss the book’s emphasis on what pushed and molded Josef Mengele into the evil doctor of Auschwitz. She did pay close attention to the girls who had survived and had become mothers and how they were obsessed with their children’s safety and suffered from extreme anxiety, panic, and depression, which had stemmed from their terrible past.
  • Selikow, Gary. “Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz by Lucette Matalon Lagnado.” Israel Hasbara Committee. (May 1,2007) http://www.infoisrael.net/cgi-local/text.pl?source=4/b/viii/010520072
    In his scholarly review, Gary Selikow focuses on the survivors. He saw the testimony of the survivors as an illustration of the terrifying Mengele and Auschwitz and as scars of the experiences suffered by the victims. This review is the most informative of the three.


  • Douglas Lynott, “Josef Mengele: The Angel of Death” (November 30, 2006) http://www.mindcontrolforums.com/jm-angelofdeath.htm
    Douglas Lynott’s website is extremely informative! It recounts Mengele’s whole life with detail found nowhere else. His childhood and family life is picked apart, as well as his time at the University of Munich where he was molded into a young Nazi. The influence that Verschuer had on Mengele is explained. His time at Auschwitz and his experiments are explained specifically and clearly. His time after the war and his escape are also described, as well as his death.
  • Bulow, Louis, “Angel of Death: Josef Mengele” (2008) http://www.auschwitz.dk/Mengele/id17.htm (accessed March 5, 2008)
    Bulow’s website presents a simple description of Mengele’s life, beginning with his childhood until his death in 1979 and the conclusion that the body found in Brazil–after DNA testing–was indeed Mengele’s.
  • “Heroes and Killers of the 20th Century: Josef Mengele” (February 15, 2006)
    This website provides a timeline of Josef Mengele’s life and a short biography and background notes on his life.
  • “Who was Josef Mengele?”(May 18, 1999) http://www.holocaust-history.org/short-essays/josef-mengele.shtml
    This website describes the frightening figure Josef Mengele and how he has come to symbolize the manner in which medicine became a tool for genocide.
  • The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise “Josef Mengele” (c2008) http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/Mengele.html (accessed March 4, 2008)
    This website received its information from the C.A.N.D.L.E.S. website (http://www.candlesholocaustmuseum.org). The C.A.N.D.L.E.S website was unfortunately under construction. Of all the aspects of Mengele’s character which are of interest, his research on twins is the focus of C.A.N.D.L.E.S. oThis website describes the twins that were the victims of Mengele and how they survived to tell their stories.
  • Jennifer Rosenburg, “Mengele's Children: The Twins of Auschwitz”(c2008)
    http://history1900s.about.com/od/auschwitz/a/mengeletwins_2.htm (accessed March 5, 2008)
    This website illustrates Mengele’s selection process and the experiments he performed on his subjects – most importantly the twins. It describes a day in the life of a twin/victim of Mengele during their time in Auschwitz.
  • Hist 133d review of Lagnado and Deckel by Rachel Malin


  • Gerald Astor. The Last Nazi: The Life and Times of Dr. Joseph Mengele. New York: D.I. Fine, 1985. UCSB: D804.G4 A75.
    This book emphasizes the last two decades of Mengele’s life after WWII and his escape and hiding. The book lacks insight into Mengele’s childhood and life before Auschwitz and what led him to perform his experiments.
  • Gerald L Posner and John Ware. Mengele: The Complete Story. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986. UCSB: DD247.M46 P67 1986 .
    This book is helpful in following up on Mengele’s life. Posner and Ware were not survivors themselves, but they researched the infamous ‘Angel of Death’ for five years. They were able to gain access to Mengele’s journal and letters, through his son. These documents have not been released to the public and Matalon and Dekel were able to gain information from Posner and Ware. This book gives insight into Mengele’s character through chronicles and interviews with people that personally knew Josef Mengele.


  • William E. Seidelman, " Mengele Medicus: Medicine's Nazi Heritage," The Milbank Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 2. (1988), pp. 221-239. (jstor-proxy required)
    This article briefly touches on Mengele whose name seems to be synonymous with all of Nazi evil in Auschwitz. It also draws attention to Dr. Otmar von Verschuer who played a major role in Mengele’s professional development and career. Seidelman points out that Mengele saw his experiments in Auschwitz as being crucial in achieving his personal goal of an academic career. The article also brings to light the origin of twin experimentation in Auschwitz – Verschuer and Mengele.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/23/08; last updated:
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