Surviving the Angel of Death
By Naomi Scheinerman
Surviving the Angel of Death: The Story of a Mengele Twin in Auschwitz is a narrative of Eva Mozes Kor’s terrifying experiences as she and her twin Miriam struggled to survive Dr. Josef Mengele’s dangerous medical experiments during their internment at Auschwitz. The book is a quick read and provides an intimate look into the traumatizing experiences of a ten-year-old twin with a basic survival instinct and a beautiful soul.
Written as an adult with children of her own, Eva begins her story by relating her childhood during the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany as one of four daughters in the only Jewish family in her small village of Protz, Romania. The book recounts the common theme of disbelief and resistance to emigrating despite the deadly rise of anti-Semitism. within her village, even as her family was well known for its goodness and patriotism. Her fellow students turned on her and the teacher showed propaganda films such as How to Kill a Jew. Her father was arrested on the baseless charge of failing to pay his taxes, and her uncle and his family moved to Palestine. Eva’s mother refused to move, Protz was her home.
In 1943, the Nazis came for the family and relocated them to a ghetto in Simleul Silvanei before transporting them in a cattle car to Auschwitz. Eva and Miriam, aged 10, were immediately identified as twins and were separated from the family for experimentation. The rest of the family perished in the gas chambers.
At Birkenau, the twins lived with other twin girls. Fed two meager meals a day of bread and coffee, the girls lived in a filthy, lice-ridden barracks and slept snuggled together on wooden boards. During the day, they were marched to Auschwitz, where Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death, performed experiments on them. Mengele was trying to discover the secret of twinning using crude and repulsive methods, which Eva describes in detail. One common method used on the girls was the injection of a dangerous disease into one twin, followed immediately by the antidote, to observe the body's reaction. Eva also describes stories she heard while in the camp of twins being sewn together so that they would share the same circulatory system.
Early on, Eva resolved, “I could not think of myself as a victim – or I knew I would perish. It was simple. For me, there was no room for any thought except survival.” This determination to survive was a recurring theme throughout the book. When Eva got very sick from an injection and was sent to the infirmary, she discovered that if she died, Miriam would be killed and then both would be dissected to compare Eva’s disease-ridden and Miriam’s disease-free body to learn more about the disease. Eva resolved to show the nurses at the infirmary that she would get better so that she could be sent back to Miriam, so she faked her lowering temperature by shaking down the thermometer. Eva recounts many similar survival lessons, such as boiling water to clean it to avoid dysentery and volunteering to carry the soup from the kitchen so that she could steal potatoes.
The book contains other themes commonly found in Holocaust literature and presents them in an unambiguous and straightforward manner. She expresses the great regret of Jews’ compliant behavior. For example, she determines that she will not submit to the Nazi demands to have her arm tattooed and four men are required to hold her down to inject the identifying mark into her arm. She describes the rapid spread of anti-Semitism in her home village and the drastic effects it can have. When the Nazis came for her family in Protz, none of the villagers objected or attempted to help them. She expresses the basic need for affection she and Miriam had after liberation and the inability of grown Holocaust survivors to provide it. Lastly, she expresses the great passion and love for the Land of Israel and the sustenance and security it provided for Holocaust survivors. The Jewish homeland provided a long-needed home and place of belonging and acceptance for the twins and many other Holocaust survivors.
Eva writes the book many years after the Holocaust, yet her writing expresses great clarity and insight. She overcame the most perilous of circumstances due to her dependence on and commitment to her sister. Surrounded by death and hatred, Eva and Miriam’s love for one another proved the source of each other’s reason and ability to endure. Eva recounts many times that the reason she was not sent to the gas chambers in the first place was that she had a twin. When the Nazis evacuated the camp, she and Miriam stayed behind and hid. During this time Nazis rounded up the remaining Jews in Birkenau and marched them to Auschwitz. Amidst the crowded march, Eva and Miriam were separated. Panicked and terrified, Eva spent the entire day calling Miriam’s name and searching every barrack at Auschwitz. Eva recalls that when they did reunite, it was the most emotional experience she had ever had.
Eva and Miriam developed health complications later in life as a result of the experiments
. However, Eva concludes at the end of the book that forgiveness is good and that resolving to love one another and fight prejudice is the most significant thing one can do in life: a beautiful and poignant message from someone with an authoritative background on the subject.