Words by Beth Brown
“Here I am in Birkenau, the closest place to hell on this Earth.” (Eva Mozes Kor)
Josef Mengele entered Auschwitz in May 1943. During his time at the concentration camp, Mengele would conduct human experiments on prisoners: with a particular interest in twins. Mengele was keen to discover how to generate an Aryan race, viewing twins as the solution. This immense desire ‘overrode all conscience and sense of morality’ according to Gerald Posner. Due to these tests, Mengele would more commonly be known as ‘The Angel of Death.’
At Auschwitz, over 3000 twins were experimented on under Mengele. Chillingly, despite the deadly experiments he would subject the children to, many referred to him as “Uncle Mengele” as he would bring sweets in his pockets and sometimes play with them. However, it was a very different story within Mengele’s labs. Most twins would have blood drawn daily alongside a series of tests. These experiments varied from cruel to outrightly gruesome.
The twins were forced to undress and their anatomy was precisely studied, usually for several hours. Beyond this, more radical tests included mass blood transfusions between twins, chemical eye drops to recreate Aryan blue eyes, surgeries lacking anaesthetic and a variety of injections. These injections and tests remained widely a mystery to the twins, as they were not told the reasoning for the experiments or what was being done to them. For example, diseases such as typhus and tuberculosis would be purposefully injected into the prisoners without their knowledge.
In the event of the death of any of the twins, Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, Mengele’s prisoner pathologist, would study their autopsies. Some twins were even purposefully killed simply for the posthumous examination. Only an estimated 200 twins survived Mengele’s experiments.
However, one notable survivor is Eva Mozes Kor. Born in Transylvania, Romania in 1934, Kor was a part of the only Jewish family in the small town of Portz. After Romania was occupied in 1940, Kor and her twin sister Miriam were called names, spat on and attacked at school. Not only were they not protected by staff, Kor recalls one instance where her teacher threw corn kernels into the corner of the room and made the girls kneel on them for an hour. Meanwhile, other schoolchildren were permitted to taunt the twins.
Kor recounts the terrifying moments Nazis entered the town to take the family away: “the streets were lined with people. Nobody smiled. Nobody said a word.” The family were then taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau where over 1.1 million people were murdered, of which 90% were Jewish. Between May and July 1944 alone, around 430,000 Hungarian Jews arrived at Birkenau.
Upon arrival, Eva and Miriam were separated from their family once it was discovered they were twins. Kor remembers her mother being pulled away from them, arms outstretched. This was the last time either of the girls saw their mother. They were then moved to a special barrack and tattooed with their identification numbers: A-7063 and A-7064.
Kor recounts the nature of the testing, as the girls were measured for approximately eight hours a day. Other days, in ‘the blood lab’, they would be accompanied by around 30 other children as they received mystery injections and blood tests. On one occasion, an injection made Kor incredibly feverish and Mengele gave her a mere two weeks to live, yet the young girl defied the odds and recovered.
Then, the girl’s salvation finally arrived, as Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated on January 27th 1945. 7,000 survivors were found, with 180 children amongst them, including Eva and Miriam. However, the girl’s relief was short-lived upon their return to Portz. After 9 gruelling months, the two were able to return home but were not reunited with the rest of their family.
“We entered. Nobody returned.” “Where do I go? What do we do? The home that I dreamed about [was only] the walls. Nobody who was supposed to be there was there.”
Later, the twins moved to Israel for a fresh start, where Kor served in the military and attended agricultural school. However, after 10 years, the twins separated for the first time as Kor moved to the US after meeting Michael Kor. The two married and had two children together. However, the impact of Kor’s time in Auschwitz-Birkenau only continued as the family returned home one day to find swastikas and slurs painted on the walls. Kor was isolated, in a new country, struggling with the language.
However, the production of the 1978 mini-series ‘The Holocaust’ propelled Kor into activism. Upon questioning whether the show would include archival material, she was invited for an interview. The reception these interviews received led to Kor becoming determined to discover what she and her sister had been subjected to. Miriam’s kidneys were discovered to have stopped growing around the age of 10, during her time at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Kor attended the first National Holocaust Memorial in 1983, in Washington D.C., and brought a sign identifying herself as a Mengele twin. She was discouraged to discover not many people were aware of the experiments. Kor also reached out to numerous news outlets in an attempt to locate other twins and received no response. However, after establishing the CANDLES organisation, press recognition increased and 80 Mengele twins came forward in Israel.
On the 40th anniversary of their liberation, Kor and other Mengele twins returned to Auschwitz-Birkenau, sparking an international manhunt for Mengele and his files. A preliminary report was released that Mengele’s body was found in Brazil, yet Kor was not convinced and spent $18,000 on a Mengele inquest to no avail. A conclusive report surrounding Mengele’s body was not published until 1992, nearly eight years after the investigation began.
However, Kor continued to search for answers to what happened to her and Miriam. In 1993, Kor even met with Nazi doctor Hans Munch for an interview. Munch noted he never worked alongside Mengele, and did not know the location of his files, but agreed to document what he did see during The Holocaust. The same year, Miriam died aged 59, from kidney-related cancer.
In a shocking turn, Kor decided to write Munch a letter forgiving him for his sins. Beyond this, she publicly forgave the Nazis during a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau for the 50th anniversary of its liberation. According to Kor, this was so she was able to emotionally move beyond her time in Auschwitz-Birkenau. This forgiveness is what formed her legacy and still remains contentious today.
“Anger is a seed for war. Forgiveness is a seed for peace.” (Eva Mozes Kor)
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons