And here’s my last Epinions repost for today. I wrote this as/is review in May 2010.
It’s ironic that I finished reading Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz (1995) last night. Last night, it was May 2, 2010. May 2, 1945 was the day that Rena Kornreich Gelissen and her younger sister, Danka Kornreich Brandel, escaped the nightmare of the German labor camps. Rena and her sister had survived the Holocaust against all odds. Their bittersweet story is related, with help from ghost writer Heather Dune MacAdam. Having finished this book on the 65th anniversary of the sisters’ liberation from Auschwitz and Birkenau, I can state with no hesitation that this is not a story I will soon forget.
A brief outline
Rena and Danka Kornreich grew up in Tylicz, Poland. Their parents, Sara and Chaim Kornreich, had four daughters. Rena and Danka were the two youngest. When Danka was a few months old, she got the croup, which made her cough relentlessly. When the coughing suddenly stopped, Sara thought her baby had died and covered her with a sheet. But a few minutes later, it became clear that Danka was still living. Sara asked Rena, who was just two years older, to promise that she’d always look after the little one.
Born in 1920, Rena was a young woman when the SS invaded Poland and the surrounding countries. She ended up escaping to Slovakia, but later turned herself in to German authorities as a means of protecting the people who were hiding her. Rena was engaged to be married at the time; it was just two weeks before her wedding.
Rena was on the very first transport of Jewish women to Auschwitz. She arrived on March 26, 1942. Upon arrival, she was tatooed with the number 1716. Three days later, her younger sister Danka arrived. Remembering her promise to her mother, Rena vowed to look after Danka. Over the three years time Rena and Danka spent in Auschwitz and Birkenau, they escaped death and forced medical experimentation several times. They survived, in part, because they formed a bond with each other, were very cunning, and cooperated with other prisoners. Of course, I think they were also very lucky, particularly when they were selected for forced medical experimentation by Dr. Josef Mengele.
While the two sisters were in Auschwitz, they were forced to write letters that made the camp sound like it wasn’t such a bad place. Of course, if any relatives volunteered to go to the camp, they soon found out what they were in for. Rena and Danka came up with a way to include a warning so that others might be spared their fate.
When the sisters were liberated, they went to Holland, where they met and married their husbands. In the 1950s, both sisters emigrated to America, where their eldest sister Gertrude had been living since 1921. They never knew what became of their parents or their other sister, Zosia. It’s because of Gertrude that Rena’s Promise has any photographs from the girls’ childhood.
This book includes a postcript that explains what Rena and Danka knew of the people they knew while they were in Auschwitz. From what I could gather, the vast majority did not have an ending as happy as theirs was.
This book is the incredibly moving and often inspiring story of two sisters who were determined to survive against all odds. Heather Dune MacAdam did a marvelous job writing Rena’s story as if it came straight from her, translating the heartbreak and terror Rena and Danka experienced as well as the few lighthearted moments that made their experiences bearable.
In this book, I read of the supreme hunger and exhaustion the two sisters endured together, as well as the terror they experience every time there was a “selection” of prisoners who were to go to the gas chambers. I read of how Rena and Danka felt when they were forced to witness executions of their fellow prisoners who dared to attempt escape. I got a mere inkling of the incredible brutality the sisters and other prisoners suffered at the hands of the Nazis who forced them to work and live in deplorable conditions. Rena even describes what it was like for her to have her period while she was a prisoner. As I read this account, I was amazed at the sisters’ will to live and how Rena kept her promise to their mother.
I would definitely recommend Rena’s Promise to anyone who is interested in learning more about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, particularly from a woman’s point of view. According to Wikipedia, Rena Kornreich Gelissen died in 2006, though her sister Danka is still alive (ETA: Danka died in 2012). Rena died without her tattoo. She had it cut off after her liberation.
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Last night, as Bill and I were enjoying the cool evening sundown in our backyard, I suddenly remembered what I had wanted to write about yesterday. Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of connections between people, events, and other things I’ve run into, like books, videos, and music. A few days ago, we had a memorial for a guy I knew in the Peace Corps. My former colleague and I served in Armenia, which has been in the news in recent years as the people there try to get the Armenian Genocide recognized by the international community. I am now living in Germany, where people have been trying to make amends for the Holocaust, which took place during World War II.
The other day, I was watching YouTube videos and happened to see one about The Holocaust. It was very well done and informative. I’ve read a lot of books about people who survived The Holocaust, and I’ve watched many videos about the experiences of people during that time. But, for some reason, this particular video made me think more about what happened than the others had. Or maybe this idea popped up because I have been talking to people I knew in Armenia, and Armenia is more on my mind than usual. It occurred to me that I’ve lived in Armenia, where people are descended from victims of genocide. And now I live in Germany, where I am surrounded by people whose ancestors had a part in committing genocide. It definitely offers a unique perspective. Or, at least I think it does.
Before I lived in Armenia, I had never heard of the Armenian Genocide. In fact, I barely knew anything about Armenia. The only reason I’d even heard of it was because my fourth grade teacher was of Armenian descent and told us a little bit about his heritage. At that time, Armenia was part of the Soviet Union, so as a nine year old, I never thought I would ever get to visit there, let alone live there. My teacher did not speak about the Genocide. He told us about how Armenians were Christians and that most people’s last names end in “ian”. He said Armenians were very proud of being Christians, hence the “ian” at the end of their names. Now I know that’s factually incorrect, but it sounded good to me when I was nine.
I also remember my Armenian fourth grade teacher played Jesus Christ: Superstar for us. I didn’t hear that music again until I moved to Armenia in 1995, where it was everywhere. People in Armenia LOVED Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous musical. I even bought a bootleg cassette of the album and quickly became familiar with it. Andrew Lloyd Webber was very popular in the 80s and 90s, anyway, so I don’t know if Armenians always loved that show or it just became popular during their sudden independence in the 90s. Bill and I finally saw a production of it in Washington, DC in 2004.
The Armenian Genocide, which occurred from 1915-1917, resulted in the mass murder of over one million ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turks. The murders were achieved through death marches into the Syrian desert and mass executions. Many Armenian women and children were forced to convert to Islam. When I was in Armenia, I worked in a school in Yerevan that was named after a famous Genocide victim and poet, Ruben Sevak. I see that it’s now an elementary school, but when I was teaching there, there were students of all ages, and I taught kids who ranged in age from 7 to 16 years old. During my first months at that school, Ruben Sevak’s daughter, Shamiram, who was then in her 80s and lived in France, came to Yerevan. She attended a party thrown for her at my school. I tried to keep up with all the toasts and got very, very drunk. That was probably the drunkest I’ve ever been in my life!
While searching for Ruben Sevak’s daughter’s name, I found this fascinating blog post about Sevak and his family. I learned that Ruben Sevak (Sevak translates to “black eyes”) was actually a pseudonym. His real name was Roupen Chilingirian, and he was born in a city called Silivri, located about 37 miles from the city now known as Istanbul, but then called Constantinople. His family was wealthy, and Ruben was well educated. He became a physician, having studied in exclusive schools, including medical school at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. He met his wife in Switzerland, Helene (Jannie) Apell. Big surprise– she was from a German military family! Their respective families objected to their romantic affair, but Ruben and “Jannie” finally got married in Lausanne, and later had a religious ceremony at the Armenian Church of Paris. The young couple had a son named Levon in 1912, and then their daughter, Shamiram, was born in 1914.
Ruben Sevak became politically active, joining the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. He was a prolific writer, and his works were published in literary journals and newspapers. He wrote a book of poetry in 1909. It was titled The Red Book, and the works within it recalled the Adana massacre— an event in which Armenian Christians were killed by Ottoman Muslims. He planned to write more poetry and political works in more books. He would never get the chance to fulfill that dream. Clearly, Sevak’s writings were threatening to the Ottoman Turks. He was one of the million people killed during the Armenian Genocide, having been conscripted in 1914 and serving as a military doctor in Turkey. In June 1915, Sevak was arrested, and though his wife and her parents tried valiantly to save his life, even involving the German government, their efforts would be in vain. Ruben Sevak was murdered on August 26, 1915.
If you’d like to know more about Ruben Sevak, I highly recommend following this link to the blog post I mentioned earlier. I wish I had known this story when I worked in the school named for Ruben Sevak. It actually blows my mind that I was once in the same room with one of Ruben Sevak’s direct descendants. I’m sure she’s gone now, but how amazing is it that she visited the school where I worked in 1995? What are the odds that I, an American from a small town in Virginia, would one day work in a country that was once part of a larger country that was pretty much off limits to Americans until 1991? And then I would attend a party held in honor of the daughter of a famous poet and doctor who was murdered in the Armenian Genocide? Fate is an incredible thing.
I had heard of the Holocaust when I was growing up, but to be honest, I think it was because I had seen a made for television movie calling Playing For Time. That film aired in 1980, and my parents let me watch it, even though I was 8 years old. I remember the movie starred Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Alexander. It was about young Jewish women in a death camp who were musicians tasked with playing music for arriving prisoners and entertaining Nazi bigwigs. I’m not sure I totally understood the film as I watched it. I do remember thinking it was interesting and I never forgot it, but the horror of what it was about didn’t dawn on me until years later. And I honestly don’t remember learning about what actually went on during World War II when I was in school. Of course, that was many years ago. Maybe I’m mistaken. But it seems like there was so much that had to be covered during those years that we didn’t spend a long time talking about one specific incident in history. U.S. schools, at least in the 80s, covered world history in ninth or tenth grade, U.S. history in eleventh grade, and Government in twelfth grade. Prior to that, we had civics in eighth grade and social studies in seventh grade and below. I’m not even sure if learning about the Holocaust was considered age appropriate in those days.
So there I was a few days ago, watching the above video about the Holocaust, which had popped up randomly in my YouTube queue. I listened as the narrators described the conditions the Holocaust victims encountered as they arrived at Auschwitz. I tried to imagine the terror and extreme horror of it on some level. I thought to myself that I probably wouldn’t have survived, if I had been among the unfortunate people who went to Auschwitz or the other death camps. Hearing about it and seeing the footage is one thing, but actually living through that– watching friends and loved ones being marched off to be executed, freezing in filthy, inadequate clothes and shoes, starving while being worked to death, getting deathly ill or badly hurt and being forced to keep working… being treated as worse than the lowest form of life. It’s just so hard to reconcile that reality with what I’ve seen in Germany, having now spent about nine years of my life in this country. It amazes me that such decent people can be reduced to treating other human beings the way Holocaust victims were treated. I can’t imagine sinking so low… and yet so many ordinary people did.
Then I thought of our present day situation. I read that Donald Trump is being encouraged to run for president again. He “handily won” a straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference. I have mentioned before that I see some similarities between Trump and Hitler. No, he’s not yet having people rounded up and sent to concentration camps to be murdered, although some people have compared the situation at the southern border of the United States to the Holocaust. I’m not sure I would go that far, as many of the people in that situation weren’t necessarily rounded up from their homes and forced to march to detention centers. And I don’t think there’s really anything that quite compares to the absolute sickness and sheer awfulness of the Holocaust. At least not yet.
The similarities I do see between Trump and Hitler have to do with the way both men worked a crowd, as well as some of the historical events in Germany that led to Hitler’s rise to power, and the actual things that both men say– which are things that most narcissistic types say. The narrator in the above video describes how Germans were caught up in fear, poverty, and bigotry. The public were frustrated and looking for scapegoats on which to blame Germany’s depressed economy. Hitler exploited people’s fears, humiliation, anger, and ignorance to get common citizens to accept him as the only person who could make Germany great again. Elections were suppressed, and soon Hitler became a tyrant who murdered millions of innocent people. If you listen to Trump’s speeches and compare them to Hitler’s speeches, you hear a lot of the same kind of stuff. No, they aren’t exactly alike, and they never will be. But I do see similarities that disturb me, and I am not the only one.
I have watched from afar as people in my country have become more and more radicalized and unreasonable. I have seen a lot violence and heard a lot of disturbing rhetoric. I believe a lot of Americans think of Trump as their savior. They ignore the many disturbing signs of his extreme narcissism, as well as the obvious efforts of Republicans to suppress votes from people who won’t vote for them. People are very polarized and some have forgotten their basic sense of decency and compassion. I actually worry less that Trump will be re-elected than someone younger, smarter, more charismatic, healthier, and crueler might be waiting in the wings, ready to take over when Trump inevitably meets his end. I have noticed a lot of vocal Republicans who are rallying disenfranchised and ignorant people to support them in their quest to reclaim power.
Maybe I shouldn’t be writing blog posts like this one. Maybe I will end up being rounded up and killed. I’m sure the people who perished in the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust had no clue that one day, they would face the horrors they faced. But I can’t help but think of Spaniard George Santayana’s quote, “Those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” So I hope and pray that enough of my fellow Americans open their eyes and demand decency and compassion in our leadership.
If you’re supporting a politician who is beloved by the KKK or Neo-Nazi groups, you may want to re-evaluate your choices. Do you really want to be lumped in a group of people who are driven to hate and kill others? Isn’t it better if we come together in peace and moderation? Is money and power really worth more than other people’s lives? Think about it… and all of the exceptional people who have died because of extremism and the desire for power, money, racism, and religion.
So ends today’s blog sermon… Gotta take Arran and Noyzi for a walk before the rain starts again.
This is a reposted review that I wrote June 20, 2017. It appears here as/is.
Hello again! I’ve just gotten back from our whirlwind long weekend in Belgium. Today happens to be my 45th birthday. I have spent all day in an aging SUV, hurtling down various high speed freeways and avoiding traffic jams as much as possible. It was kind of hellish, trying to get back to Germany today. However, as bad as today’s journey was, it paled in comparison to the journey so many others took to and through Germany back in the 1940s.
I don’t know why, but it seems like I always read about the Holocaust at this time of year. I just recently read The Pharmacist, a book about an ethnic German Romanian pharmacist who was corrupted and became a Nazi. A couple of days ago, I finished Inside the Gas Chambers: Eight Months in the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz (2013) by Shlomo Venezia (Venezia also includes an interesting commentary about why so many Jewish people have places as their last names). This may seem like a very heavy topic to be writing about on my birthday, but I wanted to get my thoughts down before I forgot too much… although honestly, this book was so gripping that I’d be hard pressed to forget much about it.
I’ve read a lot of books about the Holocaust, but none that have quite the perspective that comes from Shlomo Venezia, an Italian Jew whose family was rounded up and deported from Athens, Greece and sent to Auschwitz. Once they arrived, Venezia’s mother and sisters disappeared, almost certainly gassed immediately. In exchange for some extra bread, Shlomo Venezia agreed to be a member of the Sonderkommando. He had no idea what he was signing up for when he agreed to this special duty; basically, it was his job to help remove the corpses from the gas chambers and burn them.
This book, written in interview style, covers what it was like for Venezia to carry out his grim duties. Although he had relative comfort compared to other prisoners, he was there to see fellow Jews sent into the gas chambers. He heard their screams and saw what they looked like after they were murdered. He watched his colleagues raid their bodies before they were dispatched to the crematoriums. One guy lied about being a dentist and was tasked with removing gold teeth from the corpses. He found the work relatively easy at first, but then it grew more difficult as the bodies stiffened.
There were times when Venezia would run into people he knew. One time, an uncle grew too sick to work and was sent to the gas chamber. Shlomo had the opportunity to talk to him before he died. He reassured his uncle, knowing that he was lying, but trying to comfort him in his last moments. He gave him an extra piece of bread. And when he died, he and his colleagues were able to say a kaddish for him before he was cremated.
Venezia was also in a position to see some things that other survivors could not have seen. He witnessed a baby that survived the gas chamber only to be shot in the neck by a Nazi. He saw a mother and son evade the gas chamber for a couple of days, hiding in tall grass. They were eventually found and murdered. He saw some prisoners try to escape, unsuccessfully, of course.
As the war drew to an end, the members of the Sonderkommando became dangerous. They had seen so much. The SS wanted to exterminate them before they could reveal all they knew. Venezia had to use his wits to escape the situation and survive so that he could tell the tale of the horrors of Auschwitz. While it must be a living hell to have those memories, we are fortunate that he is able to share them with the world. I think we still have a lot to learn from the horrors of the Holocaust.
I won’t lie. This book is pretty depressing and often shocking. And yet, it’s fascinating and unbelievable… unbelievable that I now happily live in the country that produced most of the monsters who were capable of such horrific acts. One thing I have noticed about Germany, though, is that its citizens fully recognize what happened and are very ashamed of it. I have had some interesting conversations with Germans in my two times living here and many times visiting. I even met one guy who was a POW in the USA. Still, even having had those conversations and read so many books, it’s hard to even fathom the horrors that went on during World War II.
Shlomo Venezia’s account is stark, unflinching, dispassionate… and it’s often very depressing and horrifying. I still think it’s valuable reading. We really do have a lot to learn from what happened in the 1940s, especially given what is going on in Washington, DC right now.
I highly recommend Inside the Gas Chambers. Be prepared to be shocked at the cruelty people are capable of… and heartened by the smallest acts of kindness and humanity.
Tomorrow’s post will be on a much lighter topic. I promise!
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Another book review repost. This one was written May 27, 2017. It appears here as/is.
For some reason, I often read about the Holocaust during the late spring months. It was definitely true when we lived in Germany the last time. It’s been true this year, too. Maybe there’s something about the sunny weather and warmer temperatures that make me want to read about the grotesque history of Naziism and Hitler’s Final Solution. I don’t know.
I just finished Patricia Posner’s fascinating book, The Pharmacist of Auschwitz: The Untold Story, which is the remarkable tale of Victor Capesius, a Romanian man who served as the chief pharmacist at Auschwitz during World War II. Posner’s book, published in January of 2017, apparently breaks new ground with a story that, until now, had not been widely reported. Having finished reading it this morning, I feel like I learned a lot by reading this well-written and solidly researched book. It was particularly interesting because I happen to live not too far from where Victor Capesius eventually settled after the war.
Dr. Victor Capesius was an ethnic German who was born and raised in Transylvania. He studied pharmacology, married his wife, Fritzi, who was also from Romania, and had three daughters. Eventually, he started working for Bayer, a German pharmaceutical company. Capesius dispensed medications, but he also sold them. He did business with people throughout Europe and was well-liked and regarded. Then, in 1943, when he was 35 years old, Capesius joined the Nazi SS. He was sent to work at Auschwitz, where he quickly rose the ranks in power to become the chief pharmacist.
As chief pharmacist, Capesius had many duties. Some of his work involved providing medications to people who were sick– those people being other officers and their families. He was also in charge of procuring and dispensing Zyklon B, the deadly cyanide based pesticide that was used to murder Jews in gas chambers at death camps around Europe. Another one of Capesius’ duties was to help select Jews arriving at Auschwitz for the gas chambers. Apparently, Capesius wasn’t happy about having to participate in selections, not because he was morally opposed to it, but because he didn’t want the extra duty. Like Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death” who capriciously chose who lived or died, Capesius decided whose lives would be spared and who would be gassed within an hour or two of arrival at the death camp.
Because of his work as a salesman and pharmacist, it wasn’t unusual for Capesius to see people he knew arriving at Auschwitz. These were former friends, colleagues, and customers who had known him as a kind, friendly person. When the prisoners saw Capesius’ familiar face, they trusted him. They had no way of knowing that this man they had once regarded as a friend, or at least someone worthy of respect, was making the decision to exterminate Jews. Sometimes Capesius would spare people he knew and send their families off to be gassed.
Capesius was also notorious for stealing. He stole the belongings of the arriving prisoners, many of whom had stashed their valuables in their luggage, thinking they were simply going to be working for awhile. The pharmacist also stole dental gold from the corpses. He stockpiled these treasures and, once the war was over, used the booty to establish a comfortable life for himself. After World War II, Capesius moved to Göppingen, a town not far from Stuttgart, and started a successful pharmacy. Eventually, his wife, Fritzi, and daughters Melitta, Ingrid, and Christa, were able to leave Romania and join him in Germany. Capesius and his colleagues had pretty much reintegrated into German society after the war and the government seemed content to simply whitewash the past.
Twenty years after the war ended, Capesius and his cronies were brought to justice by a very determined prosecutor. Against the odds, the men were tried and most were found guilty and sentenced to prison. Sadly, the sentences they received for their crimes were ridiculously light.
Patricia Posner’s book is a very interesting read. But more than that, it’s a cautionary tale that Americans should expose themselves to, especially given our current government situation. Victor Capesius was once a fairly decent person. Once he was given unconditional power, he underwent a metamorphosis into a monster. And then, when the war was over and he went back to his regular life, he wanted to bury the past and not be held accountable for his crimes. It seems that many Germans were content with simply forgetting about the horrors of the Holocaust. The same thing could happen in the United States if we’re not careful.
Capesius died in 1985. He was stripped of his pharmacy degree, but he still owned his home and his business, which he ran even after he was convicted of war crimes and served some time in a German prison. His wife, Fritzi, died in 1998. His three daughters went on to earn high level degrees and launched successful careers in Germany, attending schools very close to where I’m currently living.
Another aspect of this book that I found interesting is Posner’s discussion of the company I.G. Farben, which was a conglomerate of several German chemical and pharmaceutical companies, a few of which are still operating today. I.G. Farben consisted of Bayer, BASF, Hoechst, Agfa, Chemische Fabrik Griesheim-Elektron, and Chemische Fabrik vorm. Weiler Ter Meer. At the beginning of the 20th century, German chemical companies led the world in the production of synthetic dyes. The word “Farben” in German means colors.
I.G. Farben had a pretty dirty history. The company used slave labor provided by prisoners from Auschwitz to produce its products. In fact, when it became clear that there was a need for more prison labor, the company was even responsible for the construction of the Monowitz concentration camp, which was a sub-camp of the Auschwitz concentration camp system. It was named after the Polish town where it was located. Prisoners at Monowitz were used at I.G. Farben’s Buna Werke industrial complex, where synthetic rubber was made. The prisoners were starved and sickened and they could not work as hard or as efficiently as the regular employees, despite being threatened with beatings. Prisoners who died while working were dragged back to the camp at night by their colleagues so they could be properly accounted for. Female prisoners were forced to work as sex slaves at Monowitz’s bordello.
I.G. Farben cooperated closely with Nazi officials, producing goods used by the Nazi regime. The conglomerate also owned the patent for Zyklon B, which was invented by a Jewish-German Nobel Prize Winner named Fritz Haber. Zyklon B was originally intended to be an insecticide, but it was very effective for killing people, as well. I.G. Farben profited directly from its use as a murder agent in the gas chambers.
After the war, the Allies considered I.G. Farben to be too morally corrupt to continue operating. Indeed, since 1952, the conglomerate ceased any real activity and remained a shell of a business. However, legally, the conglomerate still existed until just fourteen years ago. And most of the individual companies that were involved with the conglomerate are still operating today.
I highly recommend Patricia Posner’s book for many reasons. I think it’s a good reminder of what can happen when good countries fall victim to bad leadership. Greed, corruption, and hatred can cause a decent society to fall into moral bankruptcy.
Certainly, anyone interested in the history of the Holocaust will find Ms. Posner’s book a great read. She provides plenty of sources for additional reading, so the especially curious will find a rich supply of information. Yes, the subject matter of The Pharmacist of Auschwitz is horrifying and depressing, but it’s a cautionary tale to which we should all pay heed.
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Here’s one more reposted book review. This one was originally written for Epinions.com in 2010 and reposted on my old blog January 24, 2015. It appears here as/is.
On January 27, 2015, it will have been 70 years since Russians liberated the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz. This morning, I read a fascinating news article about an 80 year old Slovakian Jewish woman who was at Auschwitz when the Russians came. It was Marta Wise’s 10th birthday when she was caught by Nazis and sent away, first to the Sered labor camp in Slovakia and then, a few weeks later, to Auschwitz, where she and her sister, Eva were imprisoned and were subjected to the cruel medical experiments carried out by Dr. Josef Mengele.
In the last days of Auschwitz, there was a lot of chaos. Able bodied prisoners were forced to march westward in an attempt to escape the Russians. Because Eva was sick, Marta stayed behind with her. The Nazis tried to kill Marta and some other prisoners by locking them in an enclosure and setting fire around it… but European weather is fickle. A sudden rainstorm put out the fire and Eva and Marta were rescued.
Their survival was against all odds. The sisters were able to go back to Bratislava, where they reunited with their parents and all but one sister, Judith, who died at Auschwitz. Marta moved to Australia and went on to marry and have children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am reposting my review of Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz.
The story of Dr. Josef Mengele and his gruesome twins experiments May 8, 2010 (Updated May 8, 2010)
Pros: Fascinating book. Well-written and insightful. Photos.
Cons: May depress some readers.
The Bottom Line: This book is a valuable reminder of where humankind has been and where we don’t want to return.
Last night, I finished reading Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz. This book, published in 1991, was co-written by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel. Lagnado is writer who has had a special interest in Dr. Josef Mengele and his twins experiments at Auschwitz. Sheila Cohn Dekel is also a writer and an educator, as well as the widow of Alex Dekel, one of Mengele’s victims.
A brief overview
Dr. Josef Mengele was a high ranking Nazi physician. He literally had a deadly charm to go with his handsome face. Although Dr. Mengele had been an undistinguished student at his Gymnasium in Gunzburg, Bavaria, he eventually managed to study at the University of Munich, where he earned a Ph.D. in anthropology. Mengele happened to be in Munich as the ideas of eugenics, racial purity, and ethnic cleansing were becoming popular in German society.
Graduating from university with highest honors, he went on to Frankfurt University, where he earned a medical degree and later joined the military. In 1941, he got his first taste of combat and was an excellent soldier. The following year, he was in another battle on the Russian front when he made his first selection. Because there wasn’t enough time or supplies to help every wounded man, Mengele had to decide which of the wounded would be treated and which would be left to die. This task was reportedly very gruesome for Mengele and he hated to do it… but he was evidently very good at it.
Mengele’s skill at picking and choosing would be used again when he went to work at Auschwitz. It was often Mengele who met the trains carrying hungry, exhausted, and often very sick Jews when they arrived at Auschwitz. With a white gloved hand, he would casually pick candidates for the gas chambers, directing the new prisoners to go left or right.
Mengele’s studies in genetics and anthropology made him fascinated by so-called “freaks of nature”. And so, when those trains came to Auschwitz, he directed his fellow Nazi soldiers to help him find quirky subjects for his research. He looked for dwarves, giants, and Jews who didn’t look like Jews. But he was most interested in twins. Mengele believed that twins held the answers to the genetic secrets he had a burning desire to explore. Mengele’s position as a high ranking SS physician at Auschwitz gave him the freedom to explore those secrets by undertaking any experiments his heart desired.
Mengele’s children: a protected class
Dr. Mengele sought twins every time new Jewish prisoners arrived at Auschwitz. Most of the prisoners who arrived were under the impression that they were there to work. So when soldiers called for twins, some parents of twins and adult twins were reluctant to come forward. But as it turned out, the people who ended up in Mengele’s experiements were often better treated than other inmates were. They were fed better, allowed to keep their hair, and had better quarters. They were also safe from the gas chambers. The catch was that they had to be Mengele’s specimens for his often gruesome experiments and exploratory surgeries. Those that didn’t survive the experiments or surgeries were autopsied by an assistant, who would send their body parts and organs to Berlin.
Supposedly, Mengele was comparatively gentle with the twins, particularly with the small children. He kept them in fairly good health and had a fairly gentle touch when he drew blood (on a daily basis). Sometimes, if he had a very young set of twins, he’d let their mother come with them. Mengele would often pick a pet who would be especially well treated. It’s said that he was affectionate with the children, giving them candy and chocolate and sometimes even playing with them. Some of them called him Uncle Mengele. But he would also casually dispose of them when he grew tired of them and none were spared his horrifying experiments.
This book’s layout
The authors of Children of the Flames chose to recount the story of Mengele and the twins in an interesting way. They got the stories from surviving twins who were the subjects of Mengele’s research and flip-flopped between the twins’ experiences and Mengele’s life story. Among the twins interviewed were a pair of male/female twins. The male half had been chosen to be the “twins father” because he had served in the Czechoslovakian army. He looked after all of the male twins. His sister was almost murdered, but was saved before she was sent to the gas chambers. The female twins in Mengele’s research did not have a “twins mother”.
The authors include a lot of commentary from the “twins father”, as well as several other sets of the several thousand twins that Mengele used in his research. Of course, of all of those twins, only a few hundred survived the war. The authors also include photos as well as an afterword that updates readers on the twins.
One thing to know about this account is that it’s not entirely about the concentration camps. The authors don’t go into great detail about the experiments and they don’t dwell much on the concentration camp experience. Instead, they approach the story by describing how it was for the twins before and after the war as they interweave Mengele’s story.
I found Children of the Flames fascinating. Josef Mengele was a horrible person, but he’s extremely interesting to read about. From this account, he comes across as deceptively charming and kindly, yet underneath that gentle exterior was a monster who killed and tortured people as if they were toys. As someone who has studied the social sciences, I find Mengele an extraordinary subject. He really is an example of a sociopath. The authors follow him from Germany to several countries in South America. They also offer information about his two wives, his son Rolf, and his nephew and former stepson, Karl Heinz.
I also enjoyed the interviews from the twins, most of whom were incredibly resilient. Their stories from before and after their experiences at Auschwitz are recounted, giving readers some perspective as to what it was like during their recoveries. Anyone who thinks the Jews had it so much better after they were liberated may be in for a shock. The twins describe very hard times, particularly for those who went to Eastern Europe or Israel rather than America or Canada.
Children of the Flames is excellent reading for anyone who is interested in learning more about Nazi Germany and concentration camps. The authors did an outstanding job of describing who Josef Mengele was as they put a face on his victims. They provide valuable insight as to what it was like for Jews after they were liberated. Even when they weren’t prisoners, they were still victims, haunted by nightmares, poor health, and crushing poverty. This should be required reading for anyone who is a student of European history.
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