It is very important to Eva Kor that Josef Mengele not be labeled a “monster.” To that end, upon reading one of the blog posts in which I labeled him as such, she called me on the phone, “Hello Jill, this is Eva Kor!” It amuses me that she always uses her full name, as though there is another Eva in my life whose accent is peppered with Hungarian and salted with Hebrew. “You are going in the wrong direction on something very important and I want to tell you what it is.” My heart sank a bit, “Oh no. What is it?” I asked. Here is what she said:
“The world will tell you that Josef Mengele was a monster. Everyone says that about him. But it isn’t true. Dr. Mengele was a good doctor and a good Nazi.”
A good Nazi I bought right away, but a good doctor? I had a hard time reconciling that phrase with the images of two million eyes closing for the last time on his examination tables. “A good Nazi and a good doctor,” I repeated, just to make sure I had heard her correctly. “Yes,” she affirmed.
I had heard in several places, including a documentary in which Dr. Münch—a colleague of Dr. Mengele’s—is featured that Mengele’s science was “nonsense.” Without realizing it, I had made assumptions about Mengele based on misinformation given by the media, as well as a larger agenda of which I was completely unaware before I met Eva. Eva Kor, that is.
I hesitated to write about our conversation on this particular subject for two reasons: One, I am not sure I can do it justice. Two, I don’t want to turn this blog into a discussion about anything resembling “scandal.” Those two things being said, it is extremely important that the truth in this matter be communicated. It is important because the truth is important, and it is important because it directly ties into Eva’s message of forgiveness. With those two aspects standing before me like head lights shining on my face, I will tread toward the truth while also being blinded by the discomfort of what that truth means. First, I will discuss the goodness of Mengele. Second, I will discuss how our view of Mengele directly affects Eva’s message of forgiveness.
“Do not call Mengele a monster. We think that for him to be conducting these diabolical experiments he must have been pure evil. We always hear Nazi doctors are evil. That is incorrect. Mengele was a good doctor and a good Nazi. His research was concerned with creating an Aryan race and advancing the Nazi agenda. Mengele was concerned with science alone not with the people themselves. He was concerned with his research, his science.” Eva continued; I listened. The crux of our conversation was this:
Mengele was a student of The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Medical Research in Germany, which was the most prestigious institute in Germany during the time of the war.
Mengele was a good student who was concerned primarily with the study of human genetics. His objective was not only to conduct experiments that would lead to a blue-eyed, blond-haired Aryan race (an objective that has mistakenly lead most to consider Mengele’s motives to be purely racist) but to find genetic details and weaknesses that would ultimately lead to cures for diseases and sickness. I would assert that Mengele was a Darwinist. His work pointed to a belief in the idea of survival of the fittest and the theory that with enough time the genetically perfect race would emerge and could be sustained. Under Hitler’s regime, Mengele was trying to bring hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary theory to fruition within one generation. The connection is that Darwin was a racist. He believed that the white race held the best of the world’s gene pool, but Darwin did not identify himself as a racist: he identified himself as a good scientist. Likewise, Mengele identified himself as a good doctor.
After Mengele was conducting this particular work for some time, his experiments changed. Suddenly, his experiments became less about genetic discovery and more about medical testing. The reason for the shift in focus was simple: the Bayer Corporation was funding The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Medical Research . . . they still fund them today. The Bayer Corporation provided injections to Mengele and Mengele stabbed them into the flesh of children of all ages, as well as pregnant mothers. Mengele was concerned with his research, his science, his job, and providing for his own family. He did what he was told, like a good Nazi and a good doctor.
There are many reasons that the connection between The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, the Bayer Corporation, Mengele and Eva are extremely important. These “scandals,” or truths, are Eva’s to tell as she is the woman who has not only researched these connections but has also walked the halls of the institute on two separate occasions. I invite you to research the connections on your own, as well as to contact Eva at her museum in Terre Haute, Indiana, Candles Holocaust Museum if you are truly interested in learning more. For my purpose I will move to my own first objective, understanding the goodness of Mengele:
Any of us can become a “Mengele.” Mengele did not have eyes that bulged from his head when he looked down into the hideously brown eyes of children. Fire never blew from his ears; he never threw his head back while maniacal laughter swelled into the air above his horns and pitchfork. Instead, he offered the children candy. He spoke softly to them. Much like a person motivates a dog to “come” or to “sit” by offering him a treat. “Dr. Mengele was not concerned with the well being of his patients, he was concerned with the outcome of his research as it was assigned to him.” While Josef Mengele, also known as “The Angel of Death,” is an awfully extreme example of the way in which money and power can drip into the soul and work through the hands of a man, I do wonder: are we like him? What pitfalls are we to avoid in order not to reflect his fame? Is it possible to set our focus on the brightly colored petals of an objective before our own eyes and ignore the fact that it is rooted in the poisonous soil of wrong motivation? What motives do we allow to glove our hands as we surgically add and remove those things from our lives that we imagine create the perfect situation for ourselves?
I am a good teacher. A very good teacher. There are other teachers who would also label themselves with the badges of “excellence,” “top notch,” and “supremely effective,” who lose sight of their students’ rights to think for themselves and their need to be lead to knowledge but not told what to believe. Those teachers who purpose to vomit years of their own bias into the minds of their students for the sake of guiding them into a specific and “right” direction might be good teachers. And they might be motivated by their own research and science. They might be funded by groups whose biases are taller than the ghosts of the World Trade Center and whose power to influence is stronger than a tornado that flattens an entire town in Oklahoma. And they look good on a resume. For all their prowess and expertise presented on their resume, this type of teacher is dangerous. When we forget that our first responsibility is to our students, we can become someone else’s monster. Mengele was a man. He had a family. He had a good job. He was given a great deal of power because he was good at what he did. And he forgot to ask himself, “What is best for this person in front of me? If I were this little girl how would I want to be treated?”
Secondly, Eva’s message of forgiveness was brought to the attention of the world when she decided to forgive Dr. Mengele. Eva says of her tormentors, “If we call them monsters we dismiss them as people and we think no one else can do what they did because they were monsters but we are people.” We don’t forgive monsters because once we’ve labeled someone or something a monster we have painted their visages with thick layers of oily paint so we can no longer see their faces. They crust over and crack like devils that hang in old art museums. We visit them as they hang there like forces from which we have to remember to protect ourselves. To forgive such a caricature is a waste of time, an act of futility. Nonsense.
To forgive a man, however . . . that is a different story. To forgive a man who looks at a child through the lens of his own need and desire, who stalks about tiny eyes, arms and hands, who exacts pain on a child and then calls his wife to tell her he loves her . . . that is an act of courage. To forgive a monster we have to believe in fairy tales. To forgive a man, we have to face the truth.
–Jill Szoo Wilson