Moment Memoir | Shame, Names and the Mengele Tractor Factory

By | Dec 30, 2022
History, Jewish World, Latest, Moment Memoir
Drawings by Miriam Isaacs to go along with her memoir about Mengele

I learned about the Mengele tractor factory in 1981 when I was trying to get from Denmark to Italy by rail. I simply could not avoid Germany, so I decided to book a sleeper car and sleep my way through. It was my very first time there since my parents and I left the Displaced Persons camp when I was a toddler. I woke up and I went out to the corridor to look out the window and see where I was, really hoping to be in Italy. But I could tell I was still in Germany, for in the middle of a bucolic meadow stood a tractor with “MENGELE” printed in large letters. My heart almost stopped. I couldn’t breathe. The conductor stood beside me and smiled.

Mengele. I remember the name from my childhood. I recall my mother, Pnina, waking up in the night weeping and screaming after nightmares of Josef Mengele. That was how I first learned of that monster. In Auschwitz, the spring of 1944, he personally conducted his notorious “selections”; to the left or right, links, rechts—life or death. My mother longed to testify against him, could never forget his face, and wanted him punished. Because she was single and healthy enough, he sent her to the right, to forced labor in the slave labor camp Ravensbruck. He sent my grandmother, Gitl, and all the others—her sisters and their children—to the gas chambers. There was never to be any justice except perhaps in hell, where he surely burns. On earth, though, my mother died young, in 1971, from the effects of the beatings at the camps, while Mengele, medical experimenter, Angel of Death, was to die of old age, of natural causes, unrepentant, the darling of Nazis, while going for a swim in Brazil in 1979.

In 1946 I was born in his hometown, Ginsberg, (Günzburg) on the Danube, near Ulm in the south of Germany. My entry into the world took place even as the murderer was sheltered by his wealthy family. My birth certificate, geburtskunde, from Ginsberg, shows that I was a stateless refugee. To the German authorities my real name, “Miriam” was not a possible option, so they dubbed me Maria, a good Christian name. Yet they still made sure to put me down as Juddisch—Jewish. Despite being born there, I am not, to this day, entitled to German citizenship even as my US passport lists Germany as my birthplace. Did Mengele come to the nearby Displaced Persons camp? Did my mother see the name Mengele on a tractor when she walked the five kilometers to the hospital to give birth to me?

How am I to relate to my birthplace? When people ask me where I was born and I tell them Germany, they are puzzled. “Are you German?” “No!” I write about this now, though the monster is long dead, to call attention to the outrage that this name invokes. I needed to understand how to relate to this bit of history. Most of all, I have to write for the sake of my mother and her memory.

A Point in History: Names and Shame

What does it mean that this region has yet to erase the name of Mengele from public view? In the world today, public places are being renamed, the reputations of public figures currently reconsidered. Regret, public shame associated with once proud names, requires pulling them from public spaces, away from the public eye; street names, monuments and plazas. How does one address past injustices, the sins against indigenous peoples, witch trials in Salem, slavery, the names Hitler, Stalin, Lee, and Columbus?

The family name Mengele is still prominent in Ginsberg and why it remains so became clearer to me when, in 2010, perhaps to overcome my antipathy to the country, and hoping for a changed, enlightened world, I agreed to teach a summer course on Yiddish at Tubingen University. Again, I traveled by rail eastward from France. My train just happened to be passing my birthplace, and I toyed with the idea of getting off, but didn’t. I backed out. I couldn’t face being there on my own. 

The author’s father in Leipheim, where he became a camp security guard and helped create a temporary but safe Jewish community.

At Tubingen, a picturesque university town, in conversation with a colleague, I communicated my shock and indignation that the hated name of “Mengele” should still stand so prominently. Wasn’t it as bad as Hitler? Proportional comparisons escaped me. His answer was “Why? It’s just their name. Why should they change it? Why should they be ashamed of their name? Why should a whole family be ashamed of their name if one person brings dishonor?” I was left speechless. He tried to be kind, to show his affection for Jews, and he ran off to bring me a box of matzos as a gesture. Matzos in July!

People change names all the time. Some for shame over family stains, others for convenience, career or for marriage. It is ironic that many Jews changed their names to assimilate to German culture. Jews in many lands have cast away Jewish European names, whether for shame or a desire to assimilate. People in traditional cultures have held that names have magical powers, to invoke a person, living or dead, human or spirits, good and evil. To utter a name is to make something real. Names carry with them power, whether for good or for evil. Families who have done good works endow descendants with pride while evil lives on. The word “Mengele” is repugnant, an obscenity to many Jews and non-Jews.

Some complain about “cancel culture,” to hang on to the past, to feel good about their fallen heroes. Many argue that they can embed the ugly bits into a larger, softer, pleasanter story. I understand that people naturally want to feel pride in their homes, their nations, their institutions, but if that means glossing over or covering up, applying a patina to the past, the truth will eventually come out.

Günzburg und Legoland Deutschland

Karl Mengele was the father of Josef, eldest son, born in 1911. Of course, Josef Mengele did change his name, not out of shame but to escape justice. After the war, he went into hiding around his hometown, and then, in 1949, fled to South America. His wealthy family felt no need to bring him to justice or to clean up. To this day the street names Karl Mengele, father of the criminal, adorns Ginsberg, which seems to have freed itself of stigma. The fact that LEGOLAND Germany thought it fine to place a theme park there, is evidence of this, notwithstanding probing journalists and Nazi hunters. The past seems to have been swept away.

The street signs honoring Karl Mengele honor a Nazi. In 1907 Karl took over a factory of agricultural machinery. In 1932, Karl offered the farm machine factory as space for one of Adolf Hitler’s election campaign events. In 1933, Karl joined the Nazi Party. A quick search on Google maps tells me there is more than one Karl Mengele Street. Clearly, they are not ashamed of this ex-Nazi. The family remained rich during and after the war, making quite a lot of money from a 1958 manure spreader curiously named Doppel-TrumpF.

Karl’s son Josef conducted his gruesome experiments in Auschwitz and in 1944 he sent my mother to Ravensbruck. By that time, the miscreant saw himself as an aspiring medical scientist who wanted to use his “research” from Auschwitz as data for a postdoctoral dissertation, perhaps score a professorship in Germany based on his human lab animals. His crimes are well documented, his experiments on twins, how they sewed dirty rags into the legs of women like my aunt Zelda to study infections. Mengele’s career was thwarted by the approach of the Red Army and he fled from Poland to Germany. Meanwhile my mother and other victims endured the death march. I imagine Mengele got to ride back to his Deutschland. The American authorities captured Mengele but for some reason let him go. From the summer of 1945 until spring 1949, using false papers, he evaded an international manhunt, hidden and supported right under the noses of the American administration. 

The “Angel of Death” did face some consequences. He didn’t get tenure. He and his wife divorced in 1954. While in South America he married his sister-in-law. His son Rolf came to visit his ignominious father from Germany, bringing him cash and making sure that the Nazi hunters could not trace him. Josef received payments from his family of between $100 to $175 monthly over more than 35 years in hiding in South America. Abetting a war criminal seems to have been all right. After the war, in 1952, with his son on the run to escape charges, former Nazi and daddy Karl was made a gold-medal citizen of the city and was elected city councilor and mayor. Even in the 1980s, when Ginsberg residents were interviewed and investigated, many found the Mengele clan was held up as a good Christian family.

Founded 70 BC by the Romans, Günzburg’s long history has culminated in the honor of becoming the home of Germany’s Legoland. Can I buy a little tractor with a swastika on it? As evidence of how much the Mengele family name remains, I present part of the results of a quick directions Google maps to Legoland Deutschland. to get from “Mengelestraße, 89335 (Ichenhausen, Germany)-to LEGOLAND Germany, you go to Legoland-Allee 1, 89312 Günzburg,— The route has restricted usage or private roads and is “Mostly flat. Use caution–walking directions may not always reflect real-world conditions on Mengelestraße Head east on Mengelestraße toward Wortwinstraße 499 ft, then turn left onto 233 ft etc.” 

Don’t worry, you Mengeles. I am not coming anytime soon, nor will I visit that Legoland nor what might remain of the DP camp. The modern Mengele family still flaunts the family name despite a long, tormented history of survivors struggling to see any kind of justice.

Displaced Persons and Leipheim

In April 1945, almost the end of the Second World War, the allies bombed Günzburg and the region later became part of the U.S. occupied zone. In 1946 my parents arrived in a train convoy smuggling surviving Jews from Poland through Czechoslovakia to Germany. We were settled in a DP Camp in the town of Leipheim only five kilometers away from Ginsberg. When my mother went into labor with me she walked to the Ginsberg hospital because there was no medical facility in the DP camp. How could she know that at this very time the hated Mengele lived nearby under a false name? Undoubtedly many of the local citizens knew, and that his family was wealthy and had clout.

The author’s family was transported to the town’s Displaced Persons camp (DP) Leipheim, only five kilometers away from Ginsburg, home to the Mengeles and the author’s birthplace. Above is the author’s mother, Pnina and herself in 1946.

My father, Israel Gottdank, survived the war in the Soviet Union, having lost his wife and son in Poland, and married my mother right there in Leipheim. This photograph of Leipheim in 1946, taken by historian Ruth Gruber, gives the reader a sense of the place.

We were quartered in former Luftwaffe barracks. Leipheim was famed as the home of the Messerschmitt airplane. Jewish survivors slept six to a room on bunks with no sheets or pillows, according to the Yiddish writer H. Leivick. Undoubtedly, at that time Mengele slept on down pillows, although he was in hiding.

Coming to terms with my family’s history and Germany, even these decades later, is no easy thing. How could survivors cope with the fact that they were surrounded by the murderers of their loved ones, that they were still on occasion under attack? Survivors, forced to remain in blood-soaked Germany for years because no country would take them, struggled to leave. Like many Jews, my parents and I were stuck in Germany for years. My father first arrived in Munich, one of a troupe of twenty-six former Jewish partisans and former Soviet soldiers engaged by a Zionist brigade, the Bricha, to get a trainload of Jews out of Poland. My mother had been part of a makeshift Kibbutz hoping to get to Palestine. In Leipheim my father became a camp security guard and was active in creating a new, temporary but safer Jewish community. Here is my father, in uniform, at a gate.

Our timing was similar in that Mengele had to leave Germany to escape trial and my family wanted to leave, desperately. We finally got out when my father managed to get us a visa to Canada in 1948, a ship brought us to Halifax and a train to Montreal where my family had to begin again.

This immigration document below for a visa to Canada shows my mother (and me as a baby). She was malnourished, sick, and all her teeth had rotted. This was one of several documents that would get us to Canada under a special visa for tailors. At that time the United States would not let us in, the doors to most countries were closed to Jews. Even as my family was working to make it to Canada, Mengele’s family helped him escape to Argentina. Mengele had to take a false name, by contrast, we left Germany with no money, no one to care for us, but with dignity and we proudly kept our names.


Confronting Demons in Search of Justice

While in my twenties, I was staying at a youth hostel in France, when I met some young German travelers. One of them was wondering why I was taking a long route to Italy, while circumnavigating Germany. I didn’t say why I took such a roundabout route, but she told me she understood. Then a young German man told me that he was OK with Jews but not with Israelis. That frightened me because I read into his reply that, to him, Israelis who just happened to be Jews could be disliked in a politically acceptable form.

This immigration document for a Canadian visa shows the author’s mother and the author as a baby. The family went to Canada on a special visa for tailors. (The U.S wouldn’t let the family in; most countries also remained closed to Jews.)

Over time and encounters with good people and individual Germans I have become more open. One memorable personal encounter changed my perspective. a young German woman explained that, despite all the pain i had to deal with, at least I could be proud of my heritage. Everything I ever knew about my family informed me that those who came before were honest, hardworking, moral people. She could not say the same for her ancestors. She had married a Jewish man and was raising their children as Jews.

I studied the German language in college and read Goethe, enjoyed Schubert lieder. A few years ago, I was invited by a young German historian to give a lecture at a small liberal arts college. He revealed that growing up in Germany, he began to research the history of his town and uncovered uncomfortable truths about his neighbors in the Nazi era. He refused to keep quiet and eventually had to leave his town and Germany altogether. 

The Nazi “angel of death,” Mengele, outlived many of his victims, while the victims who survived his experiments remain scarred. The Nazi hunters and the victims are largely a thing of the past, and they were never to take him to trial. In February of 1985, a symbolic “tribunal” was held on Mengele at Israel’s Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. Many survivors told their stories. Clearly others shared my desire to erase that hated name even as former Mayor Rudolf Köppler claimed, “Ginzburg was not a Nazi stronghold,” a place neither worse nor better than other German towns.” He opposed renaming the street that honors Mengele’s father.

Jewish tradition demands the impossible, to both remember and obliterate the hated name of a certain biblical Amalek and all his offspring, like Haman of the Purim story long ago. A hated name must be erased and yet remembered as in each generation a new Amalek comes along; the list includes Haman and Khmelnitsky, Hitler, Eichmann, the list goes on. I both remember and erase this vile name. I do this in the name of my mother. It was fear and not shame over his family roots that forced Mengele to change his name. Shame is not what the family of Josef Mengele felt when, in the decades after the war, they helped him. When one tries to cover up something rotten, vermin tend to breed. Sunlight and fresh air need to purge the Mengele obscenity.

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