Hazel McHaffie

Josef Mengele

The seeds of peace

I’ve lost track of the number of books I’ve read about the persecution of the Jews, and the Holocaust, but the horror never fails to move me deeply.

One which has haunted me is The Twins of Auschwitz, first published in 2009. I read it ages ago, but it has remained with me.

It’s a first person story told by Eva Mozes Kor, with the assistance of Lisa Rojani Buccieri. Eva was one of those twins who arrived at the gates of horror, clutching the hand of her identical twin … and survived. One pair of around 3000 children chosen for experimentation.

Every protective instinct in my being is stirred listening, through the perceptions of a six-year-old child, to how innocent Jewish families were taunted and victimised by the locals in Romania, how hatred was infused into their minds, even before the concentration camps began their unspeakable work. And I’m so many steps removed. What must it have been like to be parents, helpless in the face of such ugly harassment, hounded out of their home, forced into ghettos, powerless to resist or reassure their children, haunted by guilt about their failure to escape from their country while they could?

The utter terror that consumes the twins, Eva and Miriam, when they are deported, separated from their families, is heart-breaking. On the Auschwitz selection platform, Eva’s memory is of …
Crying, crying, crying. The crying of children for parents. The crying of parents for their babies. The crying of people confused and bewildered. The crying of people who saw with certainty that their nightmares had come true. All together, the cries resounded with the ultimate and most unimaginable pain of human loss. emotional grief, and suffering.

Their parents and older sisters are sent one way – the way leading to the gas chambers; they are directed in the other. It was the biological accident of being twins that gave the girls access to ‘privileged treatment’. Privilege? A relative term. They find themselves in a filthy stinking barn with a few hundred other twins aged 2 to 16. Auschwitz.

The old photos of Auschwitz in Kor’s book make the whole thing even more gut wrenching – the emaciated bodies, the shaved heads, the aloneness of small children, a smiling and handsome Dr Josef Mengele. Even the family shots hurt – they so much resemble the ones of my own family taken in the same era; same poses, same fashions, same required smiles. But a world apart.

Mengele is there on the selection platform, he’s there in the packed dormitories, he’s there in Birkenau, carrying out his dastardly experiments, obsessed with finding the secrets of genetics in order to create a master race of blond blue-eyed Aryans. The Jewish twins are his guinea pigs.

Though acutely aware that they’re alive because of an accident of nature, the twins have no option but to do as they are told. To sit completely naked for up to 8 hours amongst hundreds of twins – both boys and girls – leered at by SS guards, feeling dehumanised and excruciatingly embarrassed. To undergo hours of measurements and comparisons and blood taking and injections of pathological products and X-rays. Very little is known about exactly what Mengele did in these experiments, apart from damaging one twin in order to compare the effects between the two, sometimes even killing both in order to obtain autopsy results. Beyond evil and barbaric.

Back at Auschwitz, inhaling the putrid stench of a combination of Zyklon B with hydrogen cyanide and diatomite – the chemical mix for the mass murder in the gas chambers – mixed with burning flesh and bones:
It is not a smell a human can ever forget.
Scavenging any morsel of food and water they can. Forced to observe hangings, dead bodies being trundled by in carts, naked bodies left lying in the latrine.

At Auschwitz, dying was easy. Surviving was a full-time job.

After the Nazis have fled the camp, when Eva eventually sees someone on the outside, clean, smartly dressed, going to school, she’s consumed by anger and incomprehension.  How could the world know what was going on and do nothing? How indeed?

And then the Soviet troops arrive to release them. The girls are 11 years old. Their only ambition is to go home and be reunited with their parents and sisters, of whom they’ve heard nothing. But, not only is the family no more, the house wrecked and empty, but the neighbours want nothing to do with them. Even when they go to the protection of an aunt, life under the communists in this war-ravaged Romania is harsh. Once more food and possessions are confiscated, people disappear. Anti-Semitism is still rife.

They plan to leave for Palestine as their father had urged them to do, but it takes over two years to obtain exit visas. They are 16 when they finally set sail for their new home: the land of freedom; the new nation of Israel. Now at last, there will surely be no more anti-Semitism, only encouragement to celebrate their Jewish heritage. Surely.

But the harassment starts up again when Eva marries in haste and moves to the USA; it lasts a further 11 years.

She eventually finds her niche when she forms an organisation CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors) and tracks down 122 survivors, helping them to deal with the issues they’ve carried from that time. When Miriam dies in 1993 from the effects of those horrific experiments, Eva opens the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Indiana, showing the world what was done, preserving the evidence for generations to come.

After years of bitterness and anger, she finally feels powerful when she finds it within her to personally forgive the Nazis for what they did, her parents for not protecting her, herself for hating them. After 50 years, a burden of pain is lifted from her shoulders. She is no longer a victim of her tragic past.

Anger and hate are seeds that germinate war. Forgiveness is a seed for peace. It is the ultimate act of self-healing … self liberation, and self empowerment.

She spends the rest of her life teaching young people the life lessons learned through her pain, trying to bring transformative peace and kindness to the world. In her words:
I hope, in some small way, to send the world a message of forgiveness; a message of peace, a message of hope, a message of healing.
Let there be no more wars, no more experiments without informed consent, no more gas chambers, no more bombs, no more hatred, no more killing, no more Auschwitzes.

Eva Mozes Kor died unexpectedly and suddenly in 2019.

It’s a troubling book, a challenging message. Perhaps even more so given the horrors of the recent conflict in the Middle East – only a matter of four months ago.

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The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Ludwig Eisenberg was born on 28 October 1916 in Krompachy, Slovakia. He was transported to Auschwitz on 23 April 1942 and tattooed with the number 32407. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is his story, a salutary reminder that ‘every one of the unimaginably large number of Holocaust victims was an individual with a unique story …’ ; another window on one of the most barbaric events in human history.

It took the author Heather Morris three years to untangle, as she built up a special friendship with this extraordinary man, now Lale Sokolov. Trust took time to establish. For him, memory and history were closely intertwined, and overlaid with a burden of guilt lest he be seen as a collaborator in these crimes. And Morris has captured his truth: he did what he did in order simply to survive, and in so doing, found little ways to bring compassion and humanity into the lives of others.

When he’s first assigned the task of tattooing numbers on each new batch of inmates, he recoils from the prospect of defiling hundreds of innocent people, but he quickly realises that he could put soul into the task, hurt them less than someone with no sensitivity for their pain and degradation.

And being the Tätowierer brings privileges – a room to himself, freedom to circulate, extra food rations – benefits he’s determined to share with his previous bunk mates and his assistant. He becomes a conduit for goods in both directions – jewels, medicines, food, luxuries – smuggling necessities to those who fall ill, bribing guards in order to gain advantages for others. And as he stealthily does what he can, he witnesses many other examples of courage and humanity and selflessness, even in the face of brutality of incomprehensible proportions.

One of the most sinister and chilling sections relates to Lale’s encounters with Herr Doktor Josef Mengele whose ‘soul is colder than his scalpel’. Watching the tattooist at work, the doctor stands before the parades of young women prisoners queueing to be assigned a number, deciding their fate with a flick of his hand – right, left, right, right, left, left, right – no obvious logic since they’re all in the prime of their lives, fit and healthy. And by and by his eye falls on Lale’s young assistant, Leon. He is whisked away, returned some time later without his testicles, cut off in the name of Mengele’s infamous medical experiments.

As Lale sinks deeper and deeper into scenes of unparalleled inhumanity, he feels he is drowning in hell. Even the walls seem to be weeping for those who leave a room in the morning and do not return at night. He befriends a whole consignment of Romani people who share his block of rooms, only to see every last one of them rounded up and reduced to ash.

At one point he’s called to the very centre of the horror, to one of the ovens in the Crematorium, to identify the correct owner of a given number when two corpses appear to bear the same one. He steps into a cavernous room …
‘Bodies, hundreds of naked bodies, fill the room. They are piled up on each other, their limbs distorted. Dead eyes stare. Men, young and old; children at the bottom. Blood, vomit, urine, faeces. The smell of death pervades the entire space.’
The SS officer with him teases him that he’s probably the only Jew who ever walked into an oven and then walked out again, but for Lale, this is one step farther into the abyss.

As a privileged person himself, Lale is also personally vulnerable – he must be wary of  people’s motives for befriending him, for confiding in him, alert to the threat of backstabbing and false accusations, of being seen to be collaborating with the enemy. And again and again he asks himself, what has he been saved for?

‘Choosing to live is an act of defiance, a form of heroism … I have been given the choice of participating in the destruction of our people, and I have chosen to do so in order to survive. I can only hope I am not one day judged as a perpetrator or a collaborator.’

Nor is he free from the constant fear of his own death or degradation. His personal safety is at the whim of the armed guard assigned to monitor him, his mood, his thirst for disposable fodder. When someone betrays Lale for the stash of gems (bargaining chips) under his mattress, he undergoes severe torture and starvation, now reliant on others to rally to his support and cherish him. And falling in love with prisoner 34902, Gita, renders him vulnerable in many new and delicate ways.

Originally a screenplay, this debut novel often reads like a script for actors, or the descriptive overlays on TV programmes designed for those with hearing- or visual-impairment. I wanted to edit it severely!! But what it lacks in literary merit it makes up for in the poignancy of a life lived in the face of inhumanity beyond reason. A sobering lesson for us all.

When his Romani friends were summarily cremated, Lale sank into a deep depression, but Gita told him ‘you will honour them by staying alive, surviving this place and telling the world what happened here‘. He has indeed honoured them. The cost to him can only be dimly imagined. No one could possibly survive such an experience without being terribly traumatised. In his case ‘everything and everyone he cared for is now only visible to him through glasses darkened by suffering and loss.’

Let us never forget.

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