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Lagnado and Dekel, cover

"Behind Closed Doors"

Book Essay on:
Lucette Matalon and Sheila Cohn Dekel,
Children of the Flames:
Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz

(New York: Penguin, 1992), 320 pages.
UCSB DD247.M46 M38 1992

by Rachel Malin
March 14, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in German History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
$11 & searchable
at amazon

About Rachel Malin

I am a sophomore pre-sociology major, with a minor in education. I became extremely intrigued by the Holocaust when I was a young girl in my Jewish studies classes. I have studied the Holocaust extensively, from reading books and watching movies, to interviewing a Holocaust historian at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. I hope this summer to go to the concentration camps and other sites of Holocaust memories in eastern Europe. I chose this book because I have read quite a bit about Dr. Mengele, and wanted to know more about his life and experiments with the Jewish twins.

Abstract (back to top)

This powerful book is about the twins of Auschwitz and how Dr. Mengele used his perverse ways to experiment on them and give them emotional and physical distress. The book intertwines the experiences of some of the surviving twins with the biographical account of Dr. Mengele himself. My main point in my essay is how the twins overcame all that Dr. Mengele set out to destroy: their chance at a normal future, their pride, and most of all their daily lives.

Essay (back to top)

The Holocaust is a subject that most people feel uneasy talking about. The stories of mass murder and concentration camps seem almost too horrifying to discuss. At first, those who survived the Final Solution (Hitler’s plan to exterminate those not of pure Aryan heritage) could not bear to recreate the atrocities that they had witnessed. Most people stayed quiet for many years in regards to the ordeal they went through. But by and by, more people began to come out with their stories. One of the more recent stories to be heard about is the account of twins living in Auschwitz. Most of the twins remained silent for years, too terrified to talk about their stay at the death camp, as most of them were just little children at the time. Not only did these twins lose most of their families in the gas chambers, but they also lost their childhood. These “unique” children were only saved from the gas because of one man: Dr. Josef Mengele. The “Angel of Death,” as he was known at the camp, was the main doctor of Auschwitz. He sent hundreds of thousands to their deaths by the flick of his finger: left or right. But Dr. Mengele had more of an obsession with scientific experiments, and the twins were his favorite subjects. In the chilling story resonated in Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz, personal testimonies from surviving twins speak about the virtually unknown experiments that went on behind Dr. Mengele’s closed laboratory doors. The book also gives insight into Dr. Mengele’s life through a biography, while at the same time, showing how the twins lived through the camp and attempted to move on with their lives. Although the twins suffered a severely traumatic experience, they overcame many obstacles over the years, thus finally enabling them to live happy and peaceful lives.

Children of the Flames begins its story with an introduction of all the characters, as there are about 13 sets of twins telling their stories, plus the overall story of Dr. Mengele. The prologue of the book gives a monologue of one of the twins, and how his life has never been the same since Auschwitz. Chapter one begins with the childhood of Dr. Mengele, showing how he lived his life comfortably, and how his parents had influenced him greatly. Throughout the book, the twins’ voices are interwoven into Mengele’s biography. When the book discusses Mengele’s childhood, the twin’s childhoods come into play throughout the chapter. Like Mengele, most of the twins had immensely happy childhoods. Most of the twins recall how comfortably they lived, and all the privileges they had. The book follows chronologically, and gives both Mengele’s biography and the twins’ accounts throughout their stay at Auschwitz and their liberation, followed by their lives after the war. The most chilling part of the book are the chapters on the experiments performed on the twins, as well as their lifestyle at Auschwitz. The twins’ “bunk” was located near one of the gas chambers and the Gypsy camp. This allowed for the children to see virtually everything that came their way, thus haunting their dreams for years to come. But what the children witnessed around the camp was nothing compared to what they saw in the laboratories. Dr. Mengele had certain obsessions, one of which was eyes. The goal of these experiments was to find a way to create blond hair and blue eyes in future offspring. Mengele ordered his assistants to use eye-drops to “insert chemical into the children’s eyes” or sometimes they would just use needles (65). Children would go days without being able to see from these procedures. The more normal procedures that the children would go through, however, were blood tests. Assistants would poke the children’s arms and fingers for large quantities of blood. However, the youngest children suffered the most because their blood was drawn through their necks (62). Mengele performed other experiments in search for a way to make the “perfect” Aryan race. He believed that twins held the secret to unlocking this genetic problem. After their liberation in early 1945, the twins were anxious to go home and find their families. However, most of the children found that hardly anyone from their towns survived, much less their families. Heartbroken and disappointed, many twins left their hometowns to live with distant relatives who survived the genocide. The rest of the book shows how the twins came to live their lives under Communism, and some in the new state of Israel, while Dr. Mengele lived the rest of his life in hiding from Nazi hunters.

Many contemplate whether the twins were the lucky ones of the millions who perished in Auschwitz. On one side, the children were taken “good care” of compared to the other inmates. They were allowed to keep their hair and their clothing, and did not have to participate in the many selections that determined whether a person would keep on living or die in the gas chambers. But on the other hand, the children witnessed and were a part of something much worse, and many twins did not survive the experiments. About 3,000 twins were subjected to Mengele’s perverse treatments, while only an estimated 160 survived. The impact of some of the experiments left a child either severely disabled or deathly ill. One child remembers his twin being subjected to a large amount of procedures because Dr. Mengele showed a great interest in him. Moshe Offer recalls that one surgery had left his brother Tibi completely paralyzed, and another surgery that took all of his sex organs. After four operations, Moshe never saw his twin brother again (71). Most of the children have subconsciously tried to forget anything that happened in the laboratories. Vera Bleu tells of watching her twin sister Rachel being wheeled in and out of the operation room; however, Rachel could never seem to remember what had just happened to her (70). These twins were completely robbed of their childhood, some just infants when they arrived at Auschwitz. The children had to grow up quickly in order to survive, not only in the camp, but in their future lives.

Many of these children faced psychological and physical problems due to the experiments and tests. Miriam Mozes, who along with her twin Eva Mozes co-founded the group CANDLES (the international organization of Mengele’s twins), suffered severe health problems that doctors believe is from the many experiments that Mengele subjected her to. Olga Grossman claims she does not remember anything from her stay at Auschwitz, and has been frequently institutionalized as an adult. However, Olga’s twin, Vera, claims to remember quite a lot about their internment in the camp (20). Some of these twins were so emotionally or physically distraught that they were held back from leading a normal life. Many suffered from extreme depression throughout their adult years caused by the atrocities that occurred behind Mengele’s closed doors.

Along with the emotional stress of being a survivor in the postwar era, many of the children did not feel safe in their old homes. Most of the twins moved from their original towns to “forget” about the memories. There was simply nothing left for the children anymore, no reason to live in a familiar, yet unfamiliar place. Eastern Europe was being taken over by communists, who were also very antisemitic. The children felt helpless, as if they could never be free. Many of them thought their only hope was the new state of Israel. Some of the children joined the Zionist movement that promoted Jews moving to Palestine. Some of them risked their lives by illegally crossing the border because they could not get legal papers. Yet this seemed to be the only option to finally be free.

Many of the women twins were afraid to have children. Women were afraid that they would have an “abnormal” baby, because of all the experiments done to them, according to Olga Grossman (188). Worse yet, after having children, many of the women twins suffered from great depression, and some had to be institutionalized (188).

Not only did the twins have to endure the heartache and pain that the camp had provided for them, but they all felt the need to keep silent. After the war, no one wanted to hear about the atrocities at the camps, and many people chose not to believe at all. Miriam Mozes stated that in the years after the Holocaust, it was “something shameful” to admit one was a survivor (186). Hedvah and Leah Stern tried to tell their friends what had happened in Auschwitz but no one believed them (185). Although most of the twins had each other to lean on and talk to, they still felt the need to voice their experiences. To suffer with the memories of the unspeakable is difficult, but not to be able to talk about what had happened, and keep all the memories inside, is excruciating.

Fortunately, most of the twins were able to overcome their emotional distress and many now live normal lives. Almost all of them went on to get married and have children, and most of them are now grandparents. They now focus on their present lives, which is filled with the happiness of their families. A couple of the twins have even lectured around the world about the Holocaust, and a set of twins has even created an organization dedicated to the twins of Dr. Mengele. Most of the twins have stayed by their siblings, and are extremely close. The twins were somewhat lucky in Auschwitz, as most of them were able to hold onto someone that understood and went through the same thing. These twins have an unbreakable bond, and although they have all endured extreme emotional and physical hardships since the war, they will always remain there for one another. This book offers much insight to what really happened in Mengele’s laboratories. It allows the reader to see exactly what kind of man Dr. Mengele was, and how the children coped with their nightmare. These twins witnessed and overcame so much, all during their childhood. Only the testaments of survivors can truly allow people to see the truths of the Holocaust and Auschwitz. All of these twins are extremely brave not only for surviving the Angel of Death, but for being able to speak about it to the world today.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/24/08)

Book Reviews

  • Pam Spencer, a young adult book author, states in the School Library Journal that the book offers “horrifying” and yet “spellbinding” testimony of the Holocaust. She felt that the “fascination” of the book was the fact that it followed both the lives of Doctor Mengele and the twins with their “readjustment” to life outside of the camps. Spencer felt that the story was a “gripping tale” that is “extremely readable and well documented.” (from amazon.com)
  • Gerda Haas, a Holocaust survivor at the Holocaust Human Rights Center of Maine, writes in Library Journal that the twins of Auschwitz’s stories were “moving and upsetting,” while portraying Dr. Mengele as a “Victor Frankenstein.” Haas finds the book well-written and well-researched, and says that it is "enhanced" by a scholarly list of sources on Dr. Mengele.
  • Hist 133d review of Lagnado and Deckel by Joanna Beattie


  • http://www.candlesholocaustmuseum.org/
    Gives information about the twins’ whereabouts and information on the actual museum, located in Indiana. This website also has a photo gallery and gives a history to the foundation of CANDLES, which stands for “Children of Auschwitz Nazi Death Lab Experiments Survivors”. This foundation was founded by Eva Mozes Kor, one of Mengele’s twins, whose experiences are voiced in the book.
  • http://www.mengele.dk/
    This website gives information on Dr. Mengele, provided with a biography. The website also has information on Auschwitz, Mengele’s experiments and his victims. The website also provides links and photographs.

Books and Articles

  • Posner, Gerald L. Mengele: The Complete Story. (Cooper Square Press, 2000).
    This biography is based on five years of research and access to the family papers about Dr. Josef Mengele. It shows Mengele’s entire life, and Posner tries to show the real facts instead of the worldwide rumors still circulating. The author also attempts to draw conclusions about Mengele was never found and tried for his crimes.
  • Spitz, Vivien. Doctors From Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans. (Sentient Publications, 2005).
    This book is the eyewitness account of a reporter who saw the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi doctors. She gives in detail the experiments that these doctors performed on innocent people in the concentration camps. She also writes about the judgments and sentences of these trials.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/23/08; last updated:
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