Scene Thirteen: Dr. Mengele

Giuseppe Verdi–Nabucco-Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, “Va Pensiero, Sull’Ali Dorate” 

Josef Mengele
Josef Mengele, Surgeon of Auschwitz-Birkenau

When my granddaughter Annabel was five years old, my husband and I took her to the Metropolitan Museum’s marionette production of The Sound of Music. The idea seemed quite exciting, for she loved to play with puppets and invent stories for her make-believe friends.

Little did I realize as I watched the show, that marionettes like fairytales, should be reserved for adults. I had seen The Sound of Music in the theater and on film, but never with marionettes. And I never questioned the storyline, being so familiar with the history. But Annabel was experiencing the story for the first time and seeing the marionettes as real-like. Everything was new to her. And although she was only five years old, she wanted to understand.

“Why are the Germans the bad guys?” she asked as we prepared to leave.

“What” I answered, startled. I was so accustomed to see this part of history presented in various ways, that I had neglected to see the puppet performance with the eyes of Annabel.

“What do you mean?” I asked her, sounding far less intelligent than the child before me.

“The family had to go away,” she reflected. “They were afraid of the bad guys. They called them Germans.”

I looked to my husband for help. He had lived the history at the same age as Annabel.

Yet, his answer was hesitant: “It’s complicated. We should talk about this….” But that didn’t satisfy Annabel’s curiosity. My husband and I looked at each other and shared an uncomfortable moment. Both of us didn’t want to spoil our granddaughter’s special day by telling her the real story, and so, we did not. But later that evening after we took Annabel home, I kept wondering if we should have answered her question. At least have given her some explanation. And if we did, what would we have said?

It was at this time that I was writing another draft of Gift of Diamonds, and as I returned to my desk the next morning, Annabel’s question kept returning to my thoughts. I kept wondering, should I put more information in my novel about Dr. Mengele? How much evil could my protagonist take? How much evil could a reader take?

In earlier versions of Gift of Diamonds, I included several scenes about Dr. Mengele to illustrate how evil a man can be. Mica hears stories from her father about Mengele’s inhuman acts that I narrate as a way to contrast with Mica’s innocence and goodness, and to serve as a literary foil to fascism and the Holocaust. But I had deleted many of these scenes. Now I wondered, should I use them in the final version of my novel? I kept deliberating. And then I thought, perhaps, I can put them in my Memory Chest, bury them deep inside, hide them in a dark corner. I rationalized one should be aware of evil to appreciate what’s good. Maybe it’s the time and place to share these stories now and describe how evil one man could be:

Dr. Josef Mengele was the senior doctor of the women’s section, Birkenau, in Auschwitz, from March 1943 to January 1945. He set up a lab there with a surgical operating room to experiment on human beings. He even built a kindergarten for the children he experimented on. He called it the Zoo.

Mengele’s sadistic nature came out the worst when he dealt with children. It was his habit to have his staff strap down several children at the same time on a disecting table, and Mengele would begin by electrocuting each one. Despite their screaming, he proceeded to surgically examine their brain and nervous system – without anesthesia. It didn’t matter if the children were alive or dead or in a coma. He wanted to know how much pain they could tolerate.

Once, when there was a group of children who suffered from ulcers in the mouth, he said he would help. What was his treatment? He pulled out their teeth without anesthesia and then he pointed to the chimney to send them for gas.

In his lab at Auschwitz, he had no ethical dilemmas, no morals, no one to stop him. He was free to kill as many human beings as he wanted. Auschwitz became his human laboratory. When he couldn’t use his victims anymore, he had them gased. 400,000 prisoners were killed because of him by the flick of his cane or scalpel!

Years later, a survivor told her story of how cruel and sadistic Mengele was. When she had just given birth, he had strapped her down on a table and taped her lactating breasts so he could observe how long her infant would cry for milk. For seven days, Herr Doktor came each morning to watch the child cry. The mother became crazy with suffering and implored a Jewish nurse to get her morphine so she could inject her own baby to sleep. When Mengele saw that the infant was no longer alive, he yelled and screamed. He was furious that his experiment had been wasted.

Dr. Mengele used human beings as guinea pigs, especially twins. Each morning when he went to greet the new prisoners at the ramp for his ‘Selektion,’ he’d yell through the crowds, ‘Zwillinge? Twins?’ And when he’d find twins, he’d lead them to Barrack 14 of Camp F in his area of Birkenau next to his lab.

He injected typhus, diptheria, cholera, and malaria into twins to study if one or both got the disease. While they were still alive he’d amputate a leg or an arm without anesthesia and study the limbs to see if they were different. He’d laugh when he forced them to have sex with each other or with other twins, depending who was a boy or girl.

Some days he didn’t want to work on ‘live’ twins, but ‘dead’ ones. So he’d inject 10cc. of chloroform or phenol directly into their heart to cause immediate cardiac arrest. Then he could set to work without listening to them crying. On other days, he wanted both twins alive for his studies. If one died in the experiment, Mengele got rid of both of them and took another pair of living twins. Of the 3,000 twins that he experimented on, less than 100 survived.

His sadism reached a haunting degree on Jewish holy days as Yom Kippur and Passover. He’d visit inmates on his bicycle, get them outside without coats or shoes and organize a parade. He’d have with him a small orchestra of Jewish musicians to follow as they marched through Auschwitz. He’d be at the head of the line on his bicycle, wave his riding stick as if he was the conductor, and whistle Verdi’s, Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from ‘Nabucco.’ He’d have them march for hours and hours until the weak fell to the ground. When he wasn’t amused anymore, he’d point his finger to the chimney.

In Gift of Diamonds, Mengele represents evil. I must confess, that writing about his atrocities made me nauseous and I couldn’t do it for more than ten minutes at a time. I would stop and try to change my thoughts, turning my attention to something good- my granddaughter. I realized that I was suffering with the same period of history as Annabel. And I tried to look at the history with her eyes. In this way, Mica transformed from literary character to granddaughter and I changed from author to grandmother and then to Mica’s father. The facets of metamorphosis helped me write on despite the heinous facts. And I wrote the prologue using Mica as the narrator and Annabel as my future reader:

Every year on my birthday, my father and I talked about monsters and vampires. Tata was a wonderful storyteller. I cuddled in his arms and listen to tales of what happened in the woods of Transylvania where we lived…

Now, many years later, as I look back at my childhood, it seems as if Tata’s vampire stories turned into prophecies. And as politics during that time in Eastern Europe turned inhuman, the stories became guiding principles to help me survive. My father’s monsters taught me there is evil in man. Given the proper situation, man is capable of becoming cruel and sadistic. Tata didn’t want me to become a victim.

As I worked on the prologue, I thought of Annabel, and my beloved grandsons, Sam and Jack, and how I would tell them when they are older, about the tales of what happened in the woods of Transylvania. I will explain that there are monsters, but there are also beautiful pleasures and wonderful people: The passion for life will overrule the savagery that surrounds us.

Like Mica’s father, I will try to give my grandchildren a secret treasure that could open the door to dreams.

Listen my child. There was once a sack of colored diamonds lighting up a world of choices that were never known before. Red, blue, yellow, green hues will sparkle magic jewels.

“Look deep inside. If you have the strength to make these crystals yours, foreign secrets will knock at you back door.

Be passionate about a world to build for these magic jewels will serve as tools.