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Twin Fates

Aharon Granot

Decades later, Rene and Irene Guttmann are some of the last “Mengele twins” still alive

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

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The twins saw each other just once during their stay in Birkenau. It was across a barbed wire fence that separated their two lagers. They didn’t exchange a word, but each recognized the other. Seeing that their twin was still alive must have ignited a small measure of resolve to survive (Photos: Amir Levy, Family archives)

"Who is the master of this world?”

Rene (Aharon) Slotkin was a seven-year-old in Auschwitz when the question occurred to him. His father had disappeared years before, a Nazi guard had torn his mother away, and his twin sister Renate had been sent to an all-female barracks. The only people who could answer his question were his fellow inmates in the men’s barracks at Auschwitz’s Block 10. So who was the master?

“Hitler,” the inmates told the little boy. “Hitler is the master.”

Decades later, the memories of those years are murky for Rene. He was so young when the nightmare began that he didn’t have any clear frame of reference for normal life. Maybe the dark bread and once-daily soup rations were normal. Maybe disappearing parents were normal. Maybe wagons filled with corpses were normal. Maybe the regular visions of Nazis mowing down prisoners into a nearby pit were normal. And maybe the regular summonses to the camp “hospital” — where he was constantly weighed and measured and volumes of blood removed — were normal too. How was he to know?

With the benefit of hindsight, Rene was later able to piece together the unusual story of his survival. Along with about 1,500 other sets of twins, Rene and his sister, later to be called Irene, were selected as members of what Irene calls “the most exclusive club in the world.” Membership was determined by Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor obsessed by a maniacal desire to increase the Aryan “master race.”

Mengele harbored a grotesque fascination with twins, guessing that there might be something in their bodies or genetic makeup that could expedite his quest. When trainloads of Jews or Gypsies disembarked at Auschwitz, he had the guards separate any sets of twins and bring them to the medical barracks, where he’d use them for cruel, torturous experiments. The vast majority of the twins died. By war’s end, fewer than 200 had survived.

Mengele used a particularly sadistic method; he had one twin tagged as the “control,” and the other as the “subject.” The controls were constantly weighed and measured and had their blood tested, but other than that, they were left alive and even received occasional extra rations.

Despite what the inmates in Auschwitz had once told the little boy, it turned out that Hitler was not the master of the world, and despite the utter devastation he wreaked upon the Guttmann family, he didn’t have the final say

Their twins, however, were tortured — subject to deadly injections and made to endure horrific surgeries and experiments without anesthesia. In most cases, these inmates died. When that happened, the “control” twin would be killed as well for the purpose of simultaneous autopsies.

Soon enough, the twins who were subject to the experiments grew aware of their peculiar value both to Mengele and to their siblings. As long as they could endure his experiments, Mengele would keep them alive. And as long as they could stay alive, they were effectively guaranteeing their twins’ survival as well.

The Ruse Dissolves

Rene and Renate Guttmann were born in Teplice-Ŝanov, Czechoslovakia in 1937. Even then, their parents Herbert and Ita were on the run, trying to flee the Germans.

Rene has very few memories of those early years. He cannot conjure up his father’s face, a fact that causes him untold grief and frustration. But he does remember throwing his twin Renate’s doll out the window of their apartment in Prague, Czechoslovakia.

Soon enough the Nazis gained power and occupied Czechoslovakia. In 1941, Herbert Guttmann was caught and sent to Auschwitz, and Ita Guttmann and her twins were transported to Theresienstadt. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 695)

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