When Allied forces liberated Auchwitz in January of 1945, they found living and deceased human skeletons. Among these skeletons were those of the treasured twins of Dr. Josef Mengele. Although experiments were performed on many types of people at Auschwitz, twins were targeted directly. Mengele performed heinous experiments on identical and fraternal twins of all ages to learn about genetic and environmental traits, and also how to multiply the Aryan race through the birth of twins.
Mengele was obsessed with finding vast numbers of twins. During railhead selections, he would become extremely excited when twins were discovered. He would shout, "Zwillinge, Zwillinge," meaning "twins, twins!" Soon it would become known to the people on the trains that Mengele desired twins. Parents would put children of roughly the same age and appearance together and have them announce, "Wir sind Zwillinge," which meant "We are twins" (Astor 93). In this way, many children who were not twins were spared death and instead lived a painful life. Mengele would stop truck convoys headed for extermination because they contained just one set of twins. Hardly any twins escaped Mengele’s selection process.
After the twins were selected, they were housed in special barracks. Mothers of young female twins were allowed to stay with their daughters for a short time. On Mengele’s orders they were given almost adequate food, comfortable beds, and hygienic living conditions. It is alleged that at times over 200 pairs of boy twins were housed under Mengele’s care. They were tattooed with a special number sequence that included the letters "ZW" for "twins." An older child or an adult twin was made block chief and called "Zwillingsvater," or "twins’ father" (Lifton 348). The twins were treated as priceless objects. They were only permitted to have a light job such as a messenger, and harsh penalties followed anyone who was found to have been beating them. Mengele would visit his subjects often. He would bring them gifts of candy and clothing. Many of the children adored Mengele and called him "Uncle Pepi" (Posner & Ware 37-38). This treatment was used to build up their strength and to make them trust Mengele.
The next step the twins encountered involved scrutinization and humiliation. The twins were told to strip and sit next to each other. Mengele would examine every detail of their bodies. He or one of his assistants would spend hours measuring and comparing features of the twins. Mengele would concentrate on one part of the body, such as the eyes, for several hours. The subjects were naked for two to five hours (Lukas 87). They were cold, scared, and sometimes cried. Some of his more prized twins were photographed. In one instance, a pair of dwarf twins girls named Elizabeth and Perla were paraded before an audience of 2,000 SS men and one visiting senior bureaucrat (Posner & Ware 58). Mengele would ask them questions about their family history including sicknesses and the possibility of more twins.
The next stage, called the "in vivo" stage involved a barrage of experiments on the twins that often left them emotionally and physically scarred for life (Posner & Ware 38). The twins would be infected with diseases such as typhus and their wounds were infected deliberately. Chemicals would be applied to the skin to see what color the reaction would cause. Parts of the body were stuck with needles and clamped to see how long the twins could bear the pain. Marc Berkowitz and his twin sister Francesca were two of Mengele’s victims. Marc described what occurred after they were strapped to the marble slabs. "I felt a needle digging into my back. My entire body was burning and the next thing I knew I was fighting from fainting" (Astor 95). Forty years later, Marc still suffers from pains due to these injections. Mengele would give one set of twins a blood transfusion from another set of twins to observe the reaction. The twins would suffer from a severe headache and high fever. Mengele drew an estimated 10 cubic centimeters of blood from the twins at every session (Lifton 350). Some of the blood was used for examination and even more was used to treat German soldiers on the front. The inadequate diet of the twins in Auchwitz made it difficult for them to reproduce blood, so it became harder to draw each time.
Some twins were studied because they were not exactly identical. In his examination of a pair of boys, Mengele found that one of the twins had an undescended testicle. He studied the other twin to learn more about the condition and of the possible genetic factors. Once, Mengele mistook the two Reichenberg brothers, who were close in age, for twins. One brother had a beautiful singing voice and the other could not carry a tune. Mengele performed crude surgery on their vocal cords to find out why. Ephriham lost all use of his voice and his brother was never to sing so sweetly again (Posner & Ware 43). Twin boys named Tito and Nino were taken away by SS officers after it was discovered that one of the boys was hunchback. They were returned three days later. Tito and Nino had been cut and sewn together, back to back, at the hunch and wrists. They were dirty and smelled of gangrene (Posner & Ware 40).
Mengele tried to change the color of twins’ eyes and hair. The eye experiments began in the summer of 1943. Mengele would inject different colors into the eyes of twins, which resulted in painful infections and sometimes blindness. Once, Mengele murdered three sets of twins in one day due to their eyes. Six of the eight children were heterochromes, meaning they had one blue eye and one brown eye. This was very rare, especially among twins (Astor 97). A Jewish inmate doctor named Vexler Jancu told of his discovery. "In June 1943 I went to a Gypsy camp in Bikenau. I saw a wooden table. On it were samples of eyes. They each had a number and a letter. The eyes were very pale yellow to bright blue, green, and violet" (Posner & Ware 36-37). Mengele would also anoint the scalps of his victims with different substances to find information on what determined hair color. This produced severe pain for his victims.
When the twins were deemed useless due to illness or as the results of experiments, they were slaughtered. If one twin died, the other was killed for comparison of their organs and general development. Sometimes twins were killed just to resolve a dispute among doctors about a diagnosis. There were many ways that Mengele had his twins killed including gassing, shooting, and injection. Mengele would offer the twins a ride in his car. He would then either shoot them in the back of the head on the way or bring them to the gas chamber. Mengele would use either concentrated phenol or chloroform injected into the twins to kill them quickly. Mengele poured the solution into a bowl from which the executioner would fill a large syringe with a long needle. The patient’s left arm was positioned so that the chest was thrust forward. The right hand was placed either over the victim’s mouth or eyes. Then the needle was driven into the fifth rib space.
Gisella Perl was quoted as saying, "Our whole being concentrated on Mengele’s hands. Those hands had the power to condemn us to immediate execution or to prolong our miserable life by a few days" (Astor 4). This was the life of the twins who lived in Auchwitz. The gruesome experiments performed on them were endless. One minute, the twins would be enjoying the chocolate and new toy that was given to them by Mengele. The next minute would find them laying on an examining table in excruciating pain. The twins of Auchwitz were truly survivors and their story needs to be told.
Astor, Gerald. The "Last" Nazi: The Life and Times of Dr. Joseph Mengele. New York: Donald I. Fine, Inc., 1985.
Lifton, Robert Jay. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York: Basic Books, 1986.
Lukas, Richard C. Did the Children Cry? Hitler’s War Against Jewish and Polish Children, 1939-45. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1994.
Posner, Gerald L. and John Ware. Mengele: The Complete Story. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1986.
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