Friday, December 27, 2013

Book 122: Children of the Flames

While I was in DC with my parents in October (my dad and I ran the Army 10 Miler for the first and possibly only time - separately, but together), we visited the Holocaust Museum.   Since I had already had a chance to visit it on a previous occasion, I decided to avoid the deep dark pit of depression that would have followed the visit, and opted to spend my time in the gift/book shop, where I discovered this book about the twins that survived Dr. Mengele's experiments in Auschwitz.
It was a fascinating read, and it made me realize that as much as I read about the Holocaust, I really am not always that aware of the lives of the perpetrators.  For example, I was honestly under the impression that Dr. Mengele had escaped to South America, and we still had no idea what had happened to him.  This book showed that while he was never captured, since his death, people have very much discovered what his fate was.
The book covers a large time frame, and alternates between the stories of the surivors and Mengele's biography.  He was never a brilliant student but he was ambitious and hardworking.  In fact, the authors suggest that all the horrible experiments that Mengele did weren't even his brainchild but done for his mentor, showing once again the utter banality of evil.  Mengele is portrayed as both charming and intellectual, and cruel, cunning and paranoid throughout the book, having two very distinct sides to his personality.  Since so many of the notes and the bodies of his victims were destroyed, it is impossible to say what he was even trying to do with his experiments, though the science and his methods were certainly crude and not in line with the scientific method at all.  Not even the Jewish nurses and doctors forced to assist him or the twins themselves had any idea what Mengele was trying to achieve, since there was no rhyme or reason they could discern.  One certainly gets the idea that the German "scientists" of the Holocaust were less interested in proving anything as much as they were interested in seeing how much pain they could inflict before the body just gave up.
The twins of the narrative are in an odd position.  The book mentions that of 3000 twins, only 160 survived at the hands of Mengele.  Death was basically the goal and end result of the experiments, and yet, they survived because of Mengele.  Many of the twins in the book were young enough where they probably would have been sent straight to the gas chambers - in fact some of them talk of being pulled out of the line headed for the furnaces.  As I read, one thing became very noticeable about the surviving twins - many of them were Hungarian and arrived in Auschwitz in the summer of 1944, both things which make lots of sense.  While Hungary supported Germany, they didn't deport their Jewish population until 1944, when Germany really stepped up its extermination rates even though (or because) the writing was on the wall and it was obvious they would not win the war.  Additionally, given that only 160 twins survived, it makes sense that most of the survivors would have been later arrivals.  If the twins had arrived much earlier, they too would have been added to the death toll as a result of the experiments and surgeries conducted on them.  However, given the timing of their arrival at Auschwitz, Mengele's obsession with twins made him their savior rather than their killer.
The book then follows the aftermath of the Holocaust, and explores the lives of the children that survived as well as chronicling the world's reaction and, in some cases, lack of reaction.  Dr. Mengele's name didn't become synonymous with evil until a few years after the Holocaust, overshadowed by men like Eichman and Himmler in the immediate aftermath.  As a result, many opportunities to catch him were missed since he stayed in Germany for a while before escaping to Argentina and was in constant contact with his family, to the point where they asked him to stop writing so many long letters.  I'm not entirely sure how I feel about Mengele's life after World War II.  He was miserable because for a long time he still felt that he should be able to continue his life (his mentor did) and didn't feel like his brilliance was properly acknowledged.  On the one hand, if this man, whose name has come to serve as the equivalent of evil, wasn't going to be punished in court, of course I want him to be miserable.  However, it is hard to reconcile the idea of true evil simply fading away, living life as a grumpy old curmudgeonly man.  Certainly, the surviving twins have a hard time thinking of him in this way, imagining him as a looming shadow, a mastermind, laughing at the world's inability to find him (some of them are quoted as saying they believe he is still alive and that the death was fake - this book was published in the '90s).
Obviously, this isn't the type of book one enjoys, but I thought it was well-written and informational and would certainly recommend it to others interested in the Holocaust and Auschwitz (also, Auschwitz: A New History - which was an incredibly well-written history of the camp).  I don't think there is anyway the Holocaust will ever truly be understandable but it is a topic to which I continue to return.  Since I mentioned Hungary specifically in the review, I'd also just like to make a push for The Invisible Bridge.  While the narrative spans several countries, it is one of the few WWII novels I have read that deals with Hungary, and it is incredibly powerful.

1 comment:

Anna said...

I read this one several years ago, and I still remember bits and pieces of it. I thought it was interesting how Mengele's story was woven throughout, and it certainly was a sad and thought-provoking book.