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The Twin Children of Auschwitz-Birkenau: Unique Survivors

The twins' special situation and a conference on Nazi medicine

The twin children who experienced and survived the horrific medical experiments conducted in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by Dr. Josef Mengele are often overlooked in the relevant literature. My first contact with this special group was in 1984 when I met several of the twins in an informal setting. I later accompanied them and others to the camps to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and to Yad VaShem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial and Educational Institute (Segal, 1985).  This event was organized by CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz’s Deadly Nazi Experiments Survivors). Most recently, I attended a conference on Nazi medicine held in October 2012, at Yeshiva University in New York City.

I will first briefly summarize the moving story of one of the pairs of twins. After that I will provide some highlights from the conference and comment on the status of twin research today. A longer, more comprehensive article on this subject is forthcoming in the journal Twin Research and Human Genetics (Segal, 2013). More about twin research is available in Segal (2012) and references therein. 

Rene and Irene

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Rene and Irene were born on December 21, 1937 in Czechoslovakia. Upon arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau at age five, the twins were separated fro each other and from their mother whom they never saw their mother again. Twins were systematically identified at the Auschwitz-Birkenau railroad ramp and housed separately from the other prisoners. Irene received a series of painful treatments, while Rene was measured and had his blood continually analyzed. The twins saw each other only one time during the thirteen months they were in Auschwitz.

When the camps were liberated in January 1945 Rene was brought to Czechoslovakia by a physician, Dr. Kalina. Irene was cared for by a Polish woman who raised her as a Catholic. Irene then entered temporary a home and an orphanage for Jewish children in France. She remained there until 1947 when she was chosen by Rescue Children to visit New York City.  She was told she would return to the orphanage, but she was eventually adopted by a loving family in Long Island.  When her new family found out that Irene had a twin brother they began to search for him. Rene was found through a lucky twist of fate—his new father (Dr. Kalina) who was out of the country saw a Life Magazine article that chronicled Irene’s trip to New York City. He realized that this little girl was the twin sister of the little boy he was raising. That news was ultimately responsible for the twin’s reunion when they were twelve years old: “We were kind of at a loss for words—it was anticlimactic—there was no big kiss, but I knew it was my brother.”

Conference on Nazi Medicine  

A one-day conference, “Out of the Ashes: Jewish Approaches to Medical Dilemmas Born out of the Holocaust,”was held in New York City on October 21, 2012. The meeting was organized by Yeshiva University’s Medical Ethics Society student members. Various scholars examined the played by physicians in establishing Germany’s racial hygiene program, as well as the nature of experimentation involving twins and non-twins. The ethical issues posed by the possible use of Nazi medical data today were also discussed. Among the distinguished speakers were Dr. Michael Grodin of Boston University, Dr. Michael Berenbaum of the American Jewish University of Los Angeles, and Dr. Dieter Kuntz of the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.  Please see the conference link for further information: yumedicalethics.

Twin Research Today

Nazi experimentation reflected a serious misuse of twin methodology and a seriously flawed agenda. Above all, the twins were not consenting or informed volunteers, but helpless children forced to participate in a horrific program of pseudo-scientific research procedures. Their psychological and physical status completely disqualified them as being representative of the normal human condition. There were also multiple failings in the experiments such as not distinguishing between identical and fraternal twins, and including some pairs of individuals who were not truly twins. Furthermore, any body of work that tries to show the biological superiority of one group of people over others (a Nazi goal was to demonstrate Aryan superiority over others) is poorly informed and theoretically misguided.

Current twin research has the goal of detecting the genetic and environmental bases of individual differences in human behavioral, medical and physical traits. It is also dedicated to understanding the unique situation of growing up as a twin, as well as the parenting and educating of twin children.  Both of these goals are critical given the rise in twin births from 1/60 in 1980 to 1/30 in 2009 (Martin et al., 2012).  Given the proliferation of twin research in many disciplines and at many levels of interest, it is succeeding admirably along both these lines.

References

Martin et al. (2012), Three decades of twin births in the United States, 1980-2009. NCHS Data Brief, No. 80, January 2012. 

Nancy L. Segal, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Twin Studies Center, at California State University, Fullerton.

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