The notorious doctor of Auschwitz, Josef Mengele, has become an enigma of the twentieth century. Mengele's handsome physical appearance, fastidious dress, and calm demeanor greatly contradicted his attraction to murder and gruesome experiments.
Mengele's seeming omnipresence at the ramp as well as his fascination with twins have incited images of a mad, evil monster. His ability to elude capture had increased his notoriety as well as given him a mystical and devious persona.
But in May 1943, Mengele entered Auschwitz as an educated, experienced, medical researcher. With funding for his experiments, he worked alongside some of the top medical researchers of the time. Anxious to make a name for himself, Mengele searched for the secrets of heredity. The Nazi ideal of the future would benefit from the help of genetics: if Aryan women could assuredly give birth to twins who were sure to be blond and blue eyed - then the future could be saved.
Mengele, as he learned while working for Professor Otmar Freiherr von Vershuer, believed that twins held these secrets. Auschwitz seemed the best location for such research because of the large number of available twins to use as specimens.
Mengele took his turn as the selector on the ramp, but unlike most of the other selectors, he arrived sober. With a small flick of his finger or riding crop, a person would either be sent to the left or to the right, to the gas chamber or to hard labor. Mengele would get very excited when finding twins. The other SS who helped unload the transports had been given special instructions to find twins, dwarfs, giants, or anyone else with a unique hereditary trait like a club foot or heterochromia (each eye a different color). Mengele's seeming omnipresence on the ramp stemmed not only from his selection duty, but his additional appearance when it was not his turn as selector to ensure twins would not be missed.
As the unsuspecting people were herded off the train and ordered into separate lines, SS would shout "Zwillinge!" ("twins!"). Parents were forced to make a quick decision. Unsure of their situation, already being separated from family members when forced to form lines, seeing barbed wire, smelling an unfamiliar stench - was it good or bad to be a twin?
Some parents did announce their twins. Some relatives, friends, or neighbors would announce the twins. Some mothers tried to hide their twins. The SS and Mengele would search through the surging ranks of people in search of twins and anyone with unusual traits. While many twins were either announced or discovered, some sets of twins were successfully hidden and walked with their mother into the gas chamber.
Which was the right decision - to announce or not to announce their twins? I don't think there necessarily was one. Approximately three thousand twins were pulled from the masses on the ramp, most of them children; only around two hundred survived.
When the twins were found, they were taken away from their parents.
Once the SS guard knew we were twins, Miriam and I were taken away from our mother, without any warning or explanation.
Our screams fell on deaf ears. I remember looking back and seeing my mother's arms stretched out in despair as we were led away by a soldier.
That was the last time I saw her.1
As the twins were led away to be processed, their parents and family stayed on the ramp and went through selection. Occasionally, if the twins were very young Mengele would allow the mother to join her children in order for their health to be assured for the experiments.
After the twins had been taken from their parents, they were taken to the showers. Since they were "Mengele's children," they were treated differently than other prisoners. Besides the obvious, suffering through medical experiments, the twins were often allowed to keep their hair and allowed to keep their own clothes.
The twins were then tattooed. They were given a number from a special sequence.2 They were then taken to the twin's barracks where they were required to fill out a form. The form asked for a brief history and basic measurements such as age and height. Many of the twins were too young to fill the form out by themselves so the Zwillingsvater ("Twin's Father") helped them. (This inmate was assigned to the job of taking care of the male twins.) Once the form was filled out, the twins were taken to Mengele. Mengele asked them more questions and looked for any unusual traits.