Hazel McHaffie

Nazi experiments

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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Eugenics: fact and fiction

QuestioningYou’ve probably already heard of the American Eugenics Sterilization Program, in operation in the late 19th, early 20th century. If not … a quick résumé by way of context for today’s post.

The ‘program’ was designed to preserve and improve the strongest and ‘best’ within the society, and it did so by preventing the birth of babies to men and women with mental and social problems: the ‘mentally defective‘, ‘morons‘, the ‘feeble-minded‘, those with epilepsy, families on ‘welfare‘ – the very language makes us cringe today, doesn’t it?  But sterilizing these unfortunate citizens was considered to be in the ‘public good‘. It was later judged – rightly – as a terrible violation of human rights, but it’s only in the last few years that any sense of justice or compensation has been offered.

Most states stopped this practice after World War II, uncomfortable with the comparison with the Nazi eugenic experiments in Germany, about which much more is known, but North Carolina continued, and is said to have carried out as many as 7600 such operations between 1929 and 1975. North Carolina was also the only state to give social workers the power to petition for the operation for specific individuals; elsewhere it was limited to those already in institutions.

It’s against this shameful period of American history that Diane Chamberlain Necessary Liessets her novel, Necessary Lies. As a former social worker herself, she’s probably got a certain edge when it comes to writing on this subject; she beautifully captures the ambivalence some professionals felt in determining what was in the best interests of their clients at a time when few choices existed; punitive views relating to sexual behaviour were prevalent; little was known about genetic inheritance; racial intolerance was rife; and class distinctions were very much the norm.

Jane Forrester is a young idealistic woman, newly married to a doctor, Robert, who disapproves of wives working. Jane unilaterally decides to postpone having children herself in order to become a social worker and help vulnerable families. When she encounters the Harts – two teenage girls, an illegitimate son, and an ageing grandmother – living in abject poverty, she simply cannot stand by while their rights are abused by well-meaning professionals. Before long she’s in deep trouble with her husband, her colleagues, and the police.

Chamberlain herself acknowledges that this was a research-heavy novel, but it doesn’t come across that way. The simplicity of the narrators’ voices, the un-sensationalised story line, the authentic emotions, combine to make this tale both challenging and gripping, heart-stopping and powerful. I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to be a Jane Forrester, but I’d definitely have wanted her on my side, deceptions and head lice notwithstanding! How about you?

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