Saturday, January 24, 2015

Repost of my review of Children of the Flames

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)

Review by knotheadusc
Rated a Very Helpful Review

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.

My thoughts

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.

Overall

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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