In January 1985, I was assigned to cover what turned out to be the most emotionally challenging story in my career as a journalist. It was an event organized by a group called CANDLES—Children of Auschwitz Nazis’ Deadly Lab Experiment Survivors—Jewish twins who had survived medical experiments carried out by Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death.” It coincided with the 40th anniversary of the concentration camp’s liberation by the Red Army.
Mengele conducted his inhumane genetic research on 1,500 sets of twins in Auschwitz. Only about 200 individuals survived, according to the Auschwitz Museum. CANDLES was eventually able to locate 122 of the surviving twins living in 10 countries spread over four continents. They came to rely on one another for emotional support.
Almost all the children deported to Auschwitz were immediately sent to the gas chambers upon arrival. But Mengele selected twins whom he considered “useful” for his experiments related to the hereditary basis of diseases and creating a master Aryan race.
But the term “useful” when it comes to survival of a truly horrific, traumatic event is a very loaded and complicated word. Especially when misused by Greg Gutfield of Fox News when talking about the Holocaust.
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On the eve of my visit to Auschwitz, I interviewed one of the twins, Vera Kriegel, of Dimona, Israel, who survived with her mother and twin sister, Olga. Both of them had remained behind in Israel rather than relive the horrors of returning to Auschwitz. “I have a mission because I survived to go back to this hell and build a bridge to a better future by showing the world what Auschwitz was,” Kriegel said.
Kriegel was only 5 years old in 1943 when her family was taken from their village in Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz. Her first encounter with Mengele was on the ramp of the railway platform inside the Birkenau extermination camp, part of the Auschwitz complex. With a flick of the finger Mengele sent her father to the gas chamber. The twins and their mother were transferred to Mengele’s laboratories because he was interested in their genetic features—she and her sister had blue eyes.
“Mengele was like a monster,” she said. “We were given all kinds of injections and every inch of our bodies was marked for his experiments. Later large amounts of blood were taken from us for wounded German soldiers. … I remember terrible things like a pit of fire into which children were thrown alive. I thought maybe I was in hell and all the Nazis were devils.”
As Soviet troops neared Auschwitz, the SS guards forced thousands of prisoners to march 2 miles through the snow in a “Death March” from Birkenau to the Auschwitz slave labor camp. Kriegel said bullets were flying over their heads as they ran for their lives until the guards suddenly fled and there was an eerie silence. The prisoners found themselves abandoned in a vast snowy field.
Kriegel settled in Israel where she married and raised two children. But she had difficulty holding a steady job and ran a nursery for plants. She said she still suffered from anemia, spinal problems, blood and urinary tract infections, and fits of depression. “Doctors don’t even have any effective treatment for us, because we still don’t know what Mengele pumped into us with his injections,” she said.
gutfeld’s major gaffe
And that’s why I found Fox News host Gutfeld’s recent remarks about the Holocaust totally offensive, not just in the abstract but personally. I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau multiple times when I was a news correspondent in Poland in the 1980s. If Rupert Murdoch had a shred of decency in his 92-year-old body, he would at the very minimum suspend Gutfeld until such time as he visits the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in the southern Polish town of Oswiecim and then issues an on-air apology.
Gutfeld made his remarks on the Fox News talk show “The Five” on July 24 when he was defending the indefensible: Florida’s new African American history curriculum, which includes teaching students that slaves “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
A member of the panel, Jessica Tarlov, said that as a Jewish person she found that this provision in the new standards made her uncomfortable. Tarlov then asked: “Would someone say about the Holocaust, for instance, that there were some benefits for Jews, right, while hanging around in concentration camps, you learned a strong work ethic … maybe you learned a new skill?”
Gutfeld then proceeded to completely misinterpret a 1946 book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” written by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian Jewish psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor. He said: “Vik Frankl talks about how you had to survive in a concentration camp by having skills. You had to be useful. Utility. Utility kept you alive.”
A day later, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum released a statement rebuking Gutfeld’s remarks. It read in part:
“While it is accurate to acknowledge that some Jews may have survived temporarily due to their perceived usefulness, it is crucial to remember that the Holocaust was a systematic genocide with the ultimate aim of exterminating the entire Jewish population. It would be more appropriate to say that some Jews survived the Holocaust because they were considered temporarily useful, and the circumstances of the Nazi regime’s collapse prevented their murder. We should avoid such oversimplifications in talking about this complex tragic story.”
Fox News has remained silent about Gutfield’s remarks, but the White House has not. The New York Times reported: “A White House spokesman, Andrew Bates, released a statement on [July 25] condemning Fox News for broadcasting Gutfeld’s comments, calling them ‘a horrid, dangerous, extreme lie that insults the memory of the millions of Americans who suffered from the evil of enslavement.’ He added, ‘There was nothing good about slavery; there was nothing good about the Holocaust.’”
But let’s return again to the idea of people being “useful.” About 75%-80% of the people who were deported to Auschwitz were sent immediately to the gas chambers after the initial selection process, according to The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
And here’s what happened to those men and women deemed able to work as slave laborers in the sprawling complex that included factories run by German companies to support the war effort. The Museum of Jewish Heritage explained that “living beyond the first SS selection did not guarantee survival. … Prisoners of Auschwitz had an average life expectancy of a few weeks or months from the time of their arrival at the camp.” Prisoners “were executed, or died of starvation, exhaustion, torture, disease, pseudo-scientific experiments, or the harsh conditions of daily life and slave labor in the camp.”
And even worse than Gutfeld are the neo-Nazis who can be found among the ranks of the MAGA cult. Who can forget the low-life Jan. 6 rioter who showed up at the U.S. Capitol wearing a hoodie that depicted the image of a human skull above the words “Camp Auschwitz” and the phrase “Work brings freedom,” a rough translation of the German slogan above the main gate to the Auschwitz concentration camp. On the back was the word “Staff.”
returning to the scene of the crime
Kriegel was among four sets of Jewish twins who returned to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1985 for the first time since they were liberated 40 years earlier. They wept as they stood on the railway ramp inside the gate of Birkenau where Mengele and other SS officers separated them forever from their parents, other siblings, and grandparents.
“Mother, here I am with my sister and our children,” said CANDLES co-founder Eva Kor, of Terra Haute, Indiana, wiping away tears as she recalled the day in 1944 when she and her twin sister Miriam, then 10 years old, arrived at Auschwitz. “We have finally come to say good-bye to you. We have never forgotten you, and we will never let the world forget what was here.”
The plan was for the twins to take journalists on a tour of the camp and share memories of what they endured at Mengele’s hands. But some had an emotional breakdown on the ramp and couldn’t go on. Others had hardened themselves to such an extent that they showed little emotion as they described horrific events in a matter-of-fact tone as we trudged down a snow-covered path.
As a steady snow fell, the twins and several dozen friends and relatives reenacted the “Death March,” carrying electric torches and singing Jewish songs as they walked the same 2-mile route from Birkenau to the main camp at Auschwitz that they took in January 1945. Back then they could hear explosions in the background as the SS blew up the crematoria in a futile effort to cover up their crimes against humanity.
Kor, who was born in a village in Romania, walked arm-in-arm with her twin sister. Kor said she never could have imagined walking the same streets as a “free human being.” They then marched under the main gate to the camp that still bears the inscription in German of the Big Lie: “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Makes You Free”).
Mark Berkowitz, of New City, New York, a CANDLES co-founder, said, “We are not survivors yet, we are still victims. We are here because we owe it to the little guinea pigs who did not make it and to children in the future so they may never know the suffering that we have gone through.”
After the war, Mengele escaped from Germany and eventually settled in South America. The twins believed he was still living there and wanted to bring him to justice. But in June 1985, U.S., Brazilian, and West German scientists exhumed a skeleton from a graveyard near Sao Paulo and determined it was Mengele’s body, The New York Times reported. The findings confirmed reports that Mengele had drowned off a beach near Sao Paulo in 1979.
auschwitz, through a camera’s Lens
After the war, the Auschwitz camp was turned into a museum. The collection includes grim reminders that this was a site where nearly 1.1 million people died over five years, the vast majority of them were Jews, as well as prisoners of war, LGBTQ+ individuals, the physically and mentally disabled, Romas, Poles, and other Slavic peoples. There are display cases filled with deportees’ shoes, suitcases, kitchen utensils, artificial limbs, and striped prisoner uniforms.
But the sprawling Birkenau camp was left as it was on the day it was liberated by the Red Army. There were memorial plaques by the ruins of the crematoria the Germans had blown up, a lone cattle car, and wooden barracks in various states of disrepair.
That’s why my next trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau was both chilling and surreal. In June 1986, I was assigned to cover the filming of an episode of the ABC TV mini-series “War and Remembrance,” based on Herman Wouk’s novel.
For the first time ever, the Polish government had given permission for a major commercial film to be shot on location at Auschwitz and Birkenau. And it was eerie to see the camp come to life. There were flames and smoke rising from the chimneys of the fake crematoria. A train rolled down the tracks to the platform at Birkenau where I had stood the previous year. This time extras playing SS Guards lined the tracks holding snarling German shepherds straining on their leash as deportees were pulled from the train. The assistant director, Branko Lustig, who later won Oscars as a producer for Best Pictures “Schindler’s List” and “Gladiator,” was a Croatian Jew who survived Auschwitz as a child.
Off camera, the actors and foreign production crew could enjoy a fancy catered dinner in a barracks where prisoners once died of starvation. In another barracks, children in ragged clothes with a yellow Star of David played with the German shepherds. Director Dan Curtis defended the decision to film on what many considered sacred ground by saying he wanted to make the film as authentic as possible.
And this was the scene that was being filmed while I was there showing the characters played by Jane Seymour and Sir John Gielgud arriving at Birkenau:
a final visit with the orchestra
The last time I visited Auschwitz was in 1987 with conductor Zubin Mehta and members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra who were touring Poland for the first time during a thaw in Israeli-Polish relations.
Orchestra members had considered playing “Hatikvah” (“The Hope”) the mournful yet triumphant Israeli national anthem, but decided that it would be inappropriate to play any music. The members decided that the sounds of silence would be a more eloquent statement. At the international monument to the people killed there from 1940-45 by the ruins of the crematoria, Warsaw’s only remaining cantor (a Jewish leader who leads the congregation in singing or prayer) chanted a mournful psalm and led the musicians in reciting Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead.
“I’m numb, how many times can you cry?” said the Indian-born Mehta. “I’m certainly glad that there is no concert tonight. … Every Jew and friend of a Jew feels he is a Holocaust specialist, but until you really come here, you have no idea of what it was.”
The orchestra traces its roots back to the Palestine Symphony Orchestra formed in 1936 by the Polish-Jewish violinist Bronislaw Huberman to save the lives of European Jewish musicians from the oncoming Holocaust. In 1987, the orchestra members included both Holocaust survivors and the children of survivors.
For oboist Chaim Jouval, the visit was a particularly emotional experience. He came home from school in Brussels on Nov. 11, 1943, only to find that his parents had been taken away. He found out that they had been deported to Auschwitz. The teenager was hidden on a farm by the Belgian resistance. “I’m on a pilgrimage because my parents were exterminated here. … All my thoughts here are about their last moments,” Jouval told me. “Many things can be forgiven, but Auschwitz can never be forgiven.”
The orchestra performed the final concert of its tour at Warsaw’s Grand Theatre opening with stirring renditions of the Polish national anthem (“Poland has not perished yet”) and then “Hatikvah.” Guest soloist violinist Itzhak Perlman performed Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto in D Major.”
Mehta said the concert had a “supernatural dimension.” “The Jews finally played in Poland, and every Jew on that stage felt he was carrying a message back.”
After the concert, a few of the musicians invited me to join them for an unscheduled stop that was not on their official itinerary. After a short bus ride, we ended up at the Femina Theatre, a rundown movie theater that was located in what had been the Warsaw Ghetto. It had been rebuilt after the war from the ruins of the Ghetto.
The orchestra members and Perlman played solo or in small groups at their last performance in Poland, giving a heartfelt, impassioned impromptu concert unlike any I had heard before. They had not invited any audience but wanted to pay tribute to their predecessors—musicians of the Jewish Symphonic Orchestra who performed their last concert at the Femina Theatre on April 12, 1942.
The musicians, many of whom had formerly played in the Warsaw Philharmonic, faced many obstacles, including the lack of musical scores and the confiscation of instruments by the Germans, yet they persisted. At their last concert they defied the Nazi edict that banned them from playing works by non-Jewish composers, performing a repertoire that included Mozart, Paganini, Mendelssohn, Anton Webern, and Poland’s Karol Szymanowski.
Just three months later, the Nazis began the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp. Among the 350,000 deportees who were killed in Treblinka’s gas chambers were members of the Jewish Symphonic Orchestra. Those deported to Treblinka, an extermination center, did not even have a chance to be “useful.”
History needs to be correctly taught so we are not doomed to repeat it. You know nothing, Greg Gutfield.
Despite the painful memories, Eva Kor devoted her life to educating people about the horrors of Auschwitz and the Holocaust. In 1995, she opened the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Indiana, in honor of her sister Miriam Zeiger, who died of kidney disease in 1993. Zeiger had developed kidney disease as a result of Mengele’s experiments, and Kor donated a kidney to her sister in 1987.
The museum was a place where groups of school children could view artifacts from Auschwitz and documents relating to Mengele. But in 2003, the museum was burned to the ground in a firebomb attack. Investigators found that a charred brick exterior wall had been spray-painted with the words, “Remember Timmy McVeigh”—Timothy McVeigh was the domestic terrorist convicted for the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building that killed 168 people, including 19 children. He was executed in 2001 at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute. Indiana was a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s.
Kor was determined not to let hatred win and the museum reopened in 2005. On the museum’s website, there is a quote from Kor: "You may have destroyed some photos, but you didn't destroy our story. You may have destroyed some exhibits, but you didn't destroy our spirit. You may have destroyed a building, but you didn't destroy our community. Light prevails over darkness, and love will always conquer hate."
Every year, Kor would travel to Poland with a group of young people to tour the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau. She died at age 85 on July 4, 2019, at a hotel in Krakow, not far from Oswiecim, while leading one last tour.
For decades, there had been efforts to include both Holocaust and African American studies in public school curriculum. In 1994, the Florida Board of Education mandated that African American studies be included in public school curriculum. Now Gov. Ron DeSantis has moved to whitewash African American studies by banning anti-racist books and restricting how topics of race can be discussed in public school classrooms. That included issuing new standards that included how slaves developed skills that could be applied to their “personal benefit.”
And there have been similar attempts to ban books about the Holocaust. A Tennessee school board banned Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus,” based on his father’s stories as a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz, from the eighth-grade curriculum. In the book, the camp inmates are depicted as mice and the Nazis as cats. A board member in McMinn County objected to “some rough, objectionable language” and drawings of naked mice in some parts. A graphic adaptation of “The Diary of Anne Frank” was removed from school libraries and classrooms in Texas and Florida for being sexually explicit.
And let’s not forget anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. who in January referenced Anne Frank in making an outrageous comment that implied that Jews had more freedoms during the Holocaust than unvaccinated Americans. Kennedy said: “Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps to Switzerland. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did.” After the Germans discovered the Amsterdam attic where the Frank family was hiding, 15-year-old Anne and her mother died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen in early 1945 just weeks before British troops liberated the concentration camp.
He later apologized for his remarks after a fierce backlash that included this tweet from the U.S. Holocaust Museum:
Making reckless comparisons to the Holocaust, the murder of six million Jews, for a political agenda is outrageous and deeply offensive. Those who carelessly invoke Anne Frank, the star badge, and the Nuremberg Trials exploit history and the consequences of hate.
In March 2022, Dr. Alex Kor spoke about his mother’s legacy at the opening of an exhibition dedicated to his mother at the Indiana Historical Society. He said:
“In attempting to solve some of society’s problems, my mom would demand that we show more respect toward our fellow man; simply tolerating someone is not enough. In addition, she would tell the world that we all need to prevent prejudice by judging people only on their actions and content of their character (not their skin color, not their religion, not their race). Unfortunately, we have much work to do.”
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