Decades later, Rene and Irene Guttmann are some of the last “Mengele twins” still alive
ho is the master of this world?”
Rene (Aharon) Slotkin was a seven-year-old in Auschwitz when the question occurred to him. His father had disappeared years before, a Nazi guard had torn his mother away, and his twin sister Renate had been sent to an all-female barracks. The only people who could answer his question were his fellow inmates in the men’s barracks at Auschwitz’s Block 10. So who was the master?
“Hitler,” the inmates told the little boy. “Hitler is the master.”
Decades later, the memories of those years are murky for Rene. He was so young when the nightmare began that he didn’t have any clear frame of reference for normal life. Maybe the dark bread and once-daily soup rations were normal. Maybe disappearing parents were normal. Maybe wagons filled with corpses were normal. Maybe the regular visions of Nazis mowing down prisoners into a nearby pit were normal. And maybe the regular summonses to the camp “hospital” — where he was constantly weighed and measured and volumes of blood removed — were normal too. How was he to know?
With the benefit of hindsight, Rene was later able to piece together the unusual story of his survival. Along with about 1,500 other sets of twins, Rene and his sister, later to be called Irene, were selected as members of what Irene calls “the most exclusive club in the world.” Membership was determined by Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor obsessed by a maniacal desire to increase the Aryan “master race.”
Mengele harbored a grotesque fascination with twins, guessing that there might be something in their bodies or genetic makeup that could expedite his quest. When trainloads of Jews or Gypsies disembarked at Auschwitz, he had the guards separate any sets of twins and bring them to the medical barracks, where he’d use them for cruel, torturous experiments. The vast majority of the twins died. By war’s end, fewer than 200 had survived.
Mengele used a particularly sadistic method; he had one twin tagged as the “control,” and the other as the “subject.” The controls were constantly weighed and measured and had their blood tested, but other than that, they were left alive and even received occasional extra rations. Their twins, however, were tortured — subject to deadly injections and made to endure horrific surgeries and experiments without anesthesia. In most cases, these inmates died. When that happened, the “control” twin would be killed as well for the purpose of simultaneous autopsies.
Soon enough, the twins who were subject to the experiments grew aware of their peculiar value both to Mengele and to their siblings. As long as they could endure his experiments, Mengele would keep them alive. And as long as they could stay alive, they were effectively guaranteeing their twins’ survival as well.
The Ruse Dissolves
Rene and Renate Guttmann were born in Teplice-Ŝanov, Czechoslovakia in 1937. Even then, their parents Herbert and Ita were on the run, trying to flee the Germans.
Rene has very few memories of those early years. He cannot conjure up his father’s face, a fact that causes him untold grief and frustration. But he does remember throwing his twin Renate’s doll out the window of their apartment in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
Soon enough the Nazis gained power and occupied Czechoslovakia. In 1941, Herbert Guttmann was caught and sent to Auschwitz, and Ita Guttmann and her twins were transported to Theresienstadt.
Since the Nazis used Theresienstadt for propaganda purposes, the conditions there were only slightly better than in other camps. The twins were placed together with their mother in an area designated for small children.
“I don’t recall what my mother did, but we felt her presence and we were together, more or less,” Rene says. He also still remembers the smell of her rough woolen dress as he and Renate were directed to lean over her shoulders and pose for a postcard photograph mailed to families to “confirm” that Theresienstadt was a good place. To the little boy, the smell of that rough dress carried the sensation of security, the knowledge that his mother was present and loved him. But a closer look at that long-ago photo reveals the fear in his eyes.
At the very end of 1943, the Guttmanns were rounded up and sent on a transport to Auschwitz along with thousands of other Czechoslovakian Jews. Rene’s memories of that nightmarish train ride are distilled into disjointed terror-filled scenes: grasping his mother’s hand, the crowding and screaming in the cattle cars, squatting near the floor and seeing a sea of legs.
When the doors finally opened he saw snow and felt fresh air. Initially, there was relief.Then the Nazi guards began barking at the Jews to exit the trains.
“I held on to my twin sister Irene and my mother,” Rene recalls. “They were my entire family, my entire world.” For some reason, the Nazis decided that the Jews from Theresienstadt should continue serving as propaganda tools, and so the Guttmann’s were given slightly better conditions. Their barracks were given the title “Family Unit,” where families were placed together and children weren’t separated from their parents.
By March of 1944, however, the ruse of the “Family Unit” had fully dissolved. Ita Guttmann was forced away from her children and sent to the gas chambers. While Rene remembers very little of his mother, he remembers their forced parting and the ensuing sense of aloneness. He could not have comprehended that he and little Irene, barely seven years old, held special significance to their Nazi captors. As twins, they were valuable prey to Mengele and were brought to Block 10, the medical complex that housed the sadistic doctor’s notorious laboratory.
Rene was sent to the men’s barracks, bewildered and bereft. Irene was sent to the women’s barracks, from where she would be summoned to the laboratory for injections and procedures that could have spelled a painful death — or a ticket to life for both her and Rene.
The Guttmann children were too young to understand their special status. But other twins, older and more knowledgeable, realized the chilling truth. Slowly they discovered that everyone in their barracks was a twin. They also started noticing that not everyone was tortured; not everyone was administered the mysterious injections that made them deathly ill.
They’d see children returning to the barracks in inhuman pain, just out of surgeries performed without anesthesia. Mengele, who was fascinated by the genetic code of the “Aryan features,” tried removing all his subjects’ blood, then transfusing them with new blood supplies. He even tried experimenting with eye color. Some of his victims would die that same day.
Suddenly, All Gone
Like Rene, Irene doesn’t remember all the specific details of her ordeal. She remembers the summons to the laboratory, the injections, an encounter with a scalpel and a bout of fever. The main thing she remembers, and the sensation that she can still summon up in a heartbeat, was the isolation. Just seven years old, she had no one in the entire barracks who cared for her. Once, she made a late-night trip to the latrines, and on her way back grew disoriented. She couldn’t remember which side of the barracks held her bed. She approached bunk after bunk, feeling for her bed — only to be pushed away again and again. “This is not your place,” the little girl kept hearing. Close to dawn, one inmate finally displayed a bit of compassion and pulled the lonely child into her bed.
The twins saw each other just once during their stay in Birkenau. It was across a barbed wire fence that separated their two lagers. They didn’t exchange a word, but each recognized the other. Seeing that their twin was still alive must have ignited a small measure of resolve to survive.
Then one morning, the Jews woke up and saw that the Nazis were acting strangely. Planes were flying overhead — not German planes but those of the Allies. The Nazis’ reign of terror was nearing its end.
“They woke us up hastily, told us to stand for roll call and then loaded us up on trucks,” Rene says. “We were terrified that they were going to kill us, and indeed, that was their plan. But then, out of nowhere, Mengele appeared on his motorbike and shrieked at the soldiers, ordering them to take us off the trucks immediately.
“The startled soldiers did as he said. Today I can say with certainty that the cursed Mengele saved my life. But really, HaKadosh Baruch Hu did it! Why? So that there would be someone to tell the story, so that the next generations would know what the Nazis did to us.”
Later that day, the Nazis commanded all surviving Jews to embark on the infamous Death March. Whoever fell or who looked weak was summarily shot by the Nazis, who waited for no one.
Then the Nazis disappeared. “Suddenly they were all gone,” Rene remembers. “There were no more guards, no soldiers. The Nazis had fled. Then we saw in front of us different soldiers, the soldiers of the Allies, Russian soldiers on horses with badges on their uniforms. We realized that the war was over and we were free to do whatever we pleased.”
A Russian soldier brought the emaciated survivors to a warehouse full of food. “I grabbed a can and started rolling it around. It turned out to be sauerkraut,” Rene says. “I still remember the taste.”
The Russian liberating forces transferred Rene to the Red Cross hospital in Auschwitz’s main camp. The staff there traced his tattoo number (169061) to a transport from Czechoslovakia and therefore decided to repatriate him to a Czech convalescent home and hospital. The director, a Jew named Dr. Kalina, decided to place Rene in his own home, as his personal ward.
Rene’s new life included weekly church attendance and religious instruction from the local priest. But every week after church, a band of hooligans from his school would always be lying in wait for Rene and the few other Jews. Rene remembers running very fast.
With the Communist takeover, Dr. Kalina was forced to flee his home and to leave Rene. He decided to move to Israel, and he transferred Rene to the care of his sister, Mrs. Edith Mann.
That’s where the story should have ended. Rene would have stayed in Communist-controlled Eastern Europe, forever separated from his religious heritage and from his only sister, who had disappeared without a trace. But despite what the inmates in Auschwitz had once told the little boy, it turned out that Hitler was not the master of the world, and despite the utter devastation he wreaked upon the Guttmann family, he didn’t have the final say.
Irene had in fact survived. When a local Christian family took Irene to their home, she couldn’t turn down the “offer” because she was mute and badly frostbitten.
“Many Christians at this time felt that it was their duty to adopt child survivors and help them to ‘see the light,’ ” Rene explains. “Irene had completely forgotten her Jewish heritage, and accepted the religion of her adopted family.” Irene lived with this family in Oswiecim (next town to Auschwitz) until she was found by Rabbi Vorhand of the Agudah.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the world, the Rescue Children organization in America had embarked on a mission to locate and save Jewish children who, like Irene, had been taken in by Christian families and convents. After locating these Jewish orphans, they brought them to an orphanage in France. Somehow, they were made aware of Irene’s case and they brought her to the French orphanage as well.
With her long curls and delicate features, Irene was the perfect poster child for the rescue organization. Along with a fellow child survivor named Charlie Karo, she was brought to America for a ten-day tour intended to raise publicity and funds for the organization. There the organization celebrated the return of the two children, inviting photographers to capture images of their first meal of white bread and cornflakes and their trip to Macy’s Department Store.
A Jewish family was taken with the plight of these child survivors and asked Rescue Children if they could adopt Irene as a playmate for their daughter. They invited the little girl for a trial weekend, instructing her to play dolls and Monopoly with their daughter. Irene had no idea how to play; the idyllic childhood years of dolls and games had been stolen from her. Instead, she just cowered silently in the corner. The family told the rescue organization that they were no longer interested.
A different family, the Slotkins of Lawrence, New York, offered to adopt Irene instead. They enrolled her in the Hebrew Institute of Long Island (later to become HAFTR) and showered her with every form of security they could.
The heartwarming saga of Irene’s rescue was published in the November 17, 1947, edition of LIFE Magazine. Readers in every corner of the globe read about Irene’s war experiences and her subsequent rehabilitation in the home of her benefactors. Mention was also made of her lost twin brother, Rene.
A kiosk owner in Haifa who saw the article hung it up on the wall of his establishment. Dr. Kalina, who was now living in Israel, happened to read the article. He realized that he held the key to Irene’s unsolved mystery. He decided that he had to track down the Slotkins and connect them with his sister, Mrs. Mann, so that the circle could finally be closed and Irene reunited with her lost twin.
Policy of Silence
Rene is overcome as he relives the incredible joy at finding his only surviving relative, the sister whose fate has been so tightly bound to his own. “One day in Mrs. Mann’s home, I was told that there was good news for me: ‘We found your sister. She’s alive and well in America.’ It was as if someone had said to me, ‘Your family has come back from the dead.’ ”
But it took two long years for the Slotkins to gain Rene’s release from behind the Iron Curtain and to cut through all the red tape holding him back from his sister. They required the services of a private investigator, and a direct intervention by President Truman.
Eventually, Rene was brought to France, where he began to learn English and acquaint himself with American culture in earnest. During that time, the twins began writing letters — first through an interpreter, and then later, as Rene learned the new language, in English.
On March 29, 1950, a misty night, Rene disembarked from a plane at Idlewild Airport (now known as JFK), to be met by his new mother Dinah Slotkin.
The next morning, he saw Irene. They didn’t exchange any words; instead, they shared a look of deep understanding and identification. Now that they were together, the twins were able to recount some scant memories of their early childhood — Irene’s doll that Rene had thrown out of the window, Rene’s beesting that had traumatized them both. Neither mentioned anything of the war years to each other or anyone else.
That silence became a motif of their teenage years. The instructions they received — spoken and unspoken — were to make no mention of their wartime experiences. Maybe their adoptive parents hoped that ignoring the trauma would make it go away. Every spring and summer, Mrs. Slotkin used to help Irene apply heavy cover-up to her arm, so no one would see her concentration camp tattoo.
But the policy of silence may have worked against the two teenagers. There was no sensitivity to or awareness of their fragile status. After all, child survivors of the camps were so rare that none of the Americans in their community knew any other such survivors personally. The ignorance of the twins’ past was so absolute that a teacher once asked Irene during class, “If a majority of Americans would vote to kill every Jew, is that still called a democracy?”
Later, Rene joined the National Guard, achieving acclaim as the best marksman in his platoon. In 1960, his fellow soldiers asked him about the numbers on his arm. He couldn’t believe they didn’t know the grisly meaning of the tattoo. “This is how the Germans chose to relate to us,” he told them, “as numbers instead of people. This is how they showed they thought of us as subhuman.”
As the decades passed, both twins married, built families, and found jobs, Rene in the packaging business and Irene as a biochemist. Rene made his home in Manhattan and joined Congregation Ohab Zedek.
For the most part, he chooses to focus on the present and the future: The beautiful family he built together with his wife June, and the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchild that bring them pride and joy. Irene, too, married and was blessed with a family. The bereft little children from Block 10 have traveled a long and convoluted path, rife with loneliness and loss, but they’ve emerged from the journey with vibrant faith and family.
During those decades, the heavy silence and shame that had shrouded all mention of the Holocaust began to lift. In 1985 Rene and Irene attended a reunion of Mengele’s twins, held in Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem. The reunion included a mock trial of Mengele, complete with detailed testimony from the twins who had undergone his sadistic experiments. It was there that they realized the full extent of the monstrous operation, and the singular role they had been chosen to play. In the hotel between sessions, they finally began to talk about their memories of Auschwitz and to digest just how intertwined their fates had been.
As the subject of Mengele’s experiments, Irene will always bear more scars than her brother. With the passage of time, she developed multiple sclerosis and is confined to a wheelchair. Rene sometimes wonders if Irene’s medical condition is the result of all the injections she received; he knows that many of the surviving twins developed serious medical problems or rare diseases. “When I look at Irene like this,” he says, “I can’t help but think of the experiments… there are few records of what they put into her young body.”
Still, Irene’s condition hasn’t stopped her from giving talks and lectures about her wartime experiences. Sometimes Rene joins her, and the twins take turns sharing their memories and impressions of those cold, hungry days in concentration camps. Their affection and respect for one another is evident in their small gestures, the attentive silence, the easy way they transition from one account to the other.
They’re decades and miles away from the Mengele’s “exclusive club,” but in more ways than one, their destinies will always be bound together.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 695)