Shortly after Auschwitz was liberated on January 27, 1945, 7-year-old twins Lea and Yehudit Csengeri were ordered to huddle next to other survivors near the camp’s barbed wire fence. Before savoring a taste of freedom, they were required to take part in a Soviet army propaganda film that purportedly showed the camp being liberated, although the event had not been filmed in real time. It was a staged display, the twins told Haaretz last week as they gazed at themselves in a still frame from the movie.
Despite the staging, the film is remarkable footage, reflecting the exceptional fate of two Jewish twins who survived the terrible experiments conducted on them by sadistic German doctor Josef Mengele. The picture, which is on display at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum as well, also shows their mother, Miriam-Rachel, who was 28 at the time, and also survived.
The twins say their mother played a major role in their survival. “We are alive only because of her,” said Yehudit, who is now 82. “She combed our hair, bathed us in the snow and sneaked into our barracks to bring us some bread.”
On one occasion, when Mengele was conducting an experiment on them, their mother burst into the barracks and begged him to stop. As punishment, she was given an injection that rendered her unconsciousness for two weeks. “She’s our hero,” Yehudit’s sister, Lea Huber, exclaimed. “There are very few cases in which both twins survived the camp and the experiments.”
Yehudit and Lea were born in 1937 in the town of Somlyó (or Szilágysomlyó) in Transylvania. In 1940, the town was annexed from Romania to Hungary.
In 1942, their father, Zvi, was assigned to a forced labor unit, and in May 1944, Yehudit and Lea were sent with their mother to the Somlyó ghetto. They were deported to Auschwitz later that month. Of all the members of their family who were sent to Auschwitz, only Yehudit, Lea and their mother survived.
Because they were identical twins, Mengele selected Yehudit and Lea for his notorious medical experiments. “As soon as they placed us in the twins’ block, we learned that Mengele would periodically come by, selecting the twins whom he wanted for his experiments,” Lea said. “As little girls, we viewed him as someone who was strong and authoritative, as someone who decided who lived and who died.”
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The biggest fear of the two was that one day only one of them would return from the experiments. “We had seen that most twins were not coming back together,” Yehudit said, “so we held hands.”
Even today, 75 years later, the two don’t wish to discuss the experiments they were subjected to in Mengele’s block, preferring to leave their memories of the experience off-limits. But Lea’s granddaughter Shani Levany was willing to reveal a bit about their contact with the Nazi doctor.
“He had a measure of fondness for them,” she said. “He called them the pretty Csengeri twins and addressed them by their names rather than as numbers. On one occasion, he moved them ahead in line when everyone was lining up for a meal, because they were polite and well-behaved and didn’t know how to push their way through.”
Yehudit and Lea recall that, following their liberation, it took them a long time to realize that they were free. “As girls, we didn’t feel liberated” Lea noted. “We may have gotten a little more food, but we still didn’t have a home. We were busy rebuilding our lives.”
The sense of true freedom, they said, came 15 years later, in 1960, when they immigrated to Israel with their parents, both of whom survived. “We were suddenly free, and no one was persecuting us,” Lea remarked.
“We were no longer being asked what we were doing,” her sister added.
Seventy members of their extended family were murdered in the Holocaust, including a grandfather and grandmother.
“As a girl, I always wanted to call someone “grandpa” or “grandma,” but there was no one to call by that name. It’s sad,” said Yehudit, whose last name is now Barnea. “On the other hand, I raised a family, and I am enjoying my beautiful country and its achievements. I have won.”
On Monday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the two will participate in a conference at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva sponsored by the health science department’s Jakobovits Center for Jewish Medical Ethics. The gathering will explore issues of medical ethics related to the Holocaust and the Nazi regime and is being held in cooperation with the Israel Medical Association.
Lea’s granddaughter Shani is a medical student at the university and has found particular meaning in her choice of profession in light of the suffering that her grandmother and great-aunt experienced at the hands of someone who had the title of doctor. “I had to go through a process, asking myself what kind of doctor I want to be and what ethical principles I would be guided by when treating my patients,” she said. “I hope I don’t just follow the rules, but also manage to see the human being behind the patient.”
Shani Levany is also an assistant to Dr. Matthew Fox at the university’s center for medical ethics. In recent years, Fox has been studying how modern medicine, even in the 21st century, has to deal with issues prompted by the Nazi period. “There is no dilemma today in medical ethics that is not somehow related to the topic,” Fox said, noting that it arises in connection with various treatments, novel therapies and experiments on human beings and with euthanasia, abortion and genetic engineering, as well as in the relationship between public health and individual patient rights.
Despite the many years that have passed since their liberation from Auschwitz, the Csengeri twins are still anxious when they have contact with doctors. “We try to go as little as possible, since we are still frightened from the experiments that were done on us when we were girls,” Lea said.
“The fact that a doctor abused us remains in our subconscious many years later. We even feel hesitant on the way to the doctor. It’s a terrible fear,” Yehudit added. “Even a simple blood test is a nightmare. We still see the doctor as a threat, as an unfeeling and cruel person. To this day, when I meet a new doctor who doesn’t know me, I first explain that he is dealing with a different kind of patient.”
Despite the fear, they both have another personal connection with the medical field. Lea married a veterinarian and Yehudit married a dentist. The twin sisters wanted to study dentistry, but before immigrating to Israel, they had to make do with becoming dental technicians in communist Romania. Yehudit later became a dental assistant to her husband and to her son, who is also a dentist.
“It’s very important that doctors know that a patient is also a human being, with a soul, with feelings, doubts and fears,” she declared.
A warning sign
Dr. Fox also identifies with this message. “As future doctors, our students learn about the slippery slope this profession could descend into. They are taught to look for warning signs,” he explained.
“Medicine is a noble profession, but when all is said and done, doctors are human beings. When we think of war criminals, we usually think of police officers or soldiers, not doctors. We trust doctors. They are not perceived as people who could commit war crimes.”
Reality, however, has shown otherwise. Fox, who has thoroughly researched the subject, said that Mengele was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the involvement of German physicians in Nazi war crimes. Mengele was at the forefront, but nearly the entire medical system was mobilized to carry out the Holocaust.
“Many people don’t know this, but Mengele conducted his horrific experiments at Auschwitz as part of his post-doctoral work, under the guidance of a world-renowned expert in genetics in Berlin. He received funding from a prestigious research foundation,” Fox noted.
And the first people to commit systematic murder in Nazi Germany were also doctors, he said, noting that tens of thousands of patients with physical or mental disabilities, many of them Germans, were killed by the doctors and nurses who had been treating them. It was part of a euthanasia program called T4 that was carried out between 1939 and 1941.
Its aim was ridding Nazi Germany of the sick and infirm, who were seen as a social nuisance. The first gas chambers were installed at several hospitals where German patients were killed with gas even before the killings by gas in the death camps of the Holocaust began, Fox said. In the process, “the medical establishment developed the theoretical and practical infrastructure for the genocide of the Jews.”
Fox said based on historical research, it is now clear that the German medical establishment, with Dr. Mengele as its best-known representative, was fully involved in the Holocaust. “Doctors joined the Nazi party and the SS to a greater extent than any other professional group in Germany,” he noted. “These crimes were perpetrated not only by individual doctors such as Mengele,” he said, “but by an entire medical system – the academic world, professional associations and research institutions, all of which were deeply involved at every level.”