Did Josef Mengele Alter This Survivor’s Genes?
The Holocaust altered Eva Kor’s body forever in a way that she still doesn’t fully understand.
When she was ten years old, Kor and her twin sister, Miriam — along with 1,500 other sets of twins — were test subjects of Dr. Josef Mengele, a Nazi physician who used fraternal and identical twins at Auschwitz in very much the same way that scientists use rats in experiments today: He’d measure and inject them, cut them open, stitch them up and in some cases sew them together to advance Nazi medical research and figure out how to alter the human genome to produce a dominant “Aryan” race.
But the twins never knew what exactly was in Dr. Mengele’s needles, and they never asked.
In her 20s, Eva Kor had two miscarriages followed by two high-risk pregnancies. In her 60s, she developed tuberculosis, and later pericarditis, an inflammation of the outer layer of the heart. And in her 70s, she got eosinophilia, a rampant autoimmune disease similar to leukemia.
Now she’s 81 and still searching for answers.
Eva and Miriam, the only survivors of their Romanian-Jewish family, spent one year in Auschwitz hoarded together with 200 to 300 other twins. After arriving from their farm in Romania, they were separated from their parents and two sisters within 30 minutes. “When we got to the selection platform, they were yelling ‘Twins!’” Kor told the Forward. The twins had their own barracks and a fenced-in area.
Some days, Eva and Miriam were kept in a room with 30 or 40 other sets of twins, naked, as Mengele and his colleagues took detailed measurements of just about every part of their bodies — three hours on an earlobe, four hours on an arm — to see how close the young prisoners were to the Nazi’s Aryan ideal.
On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the twins went to what Kor called the Blood Lab, where Kor would receive up to five injections. “The rumor was that they were germs, diseases and drugs, but the contents of those injections we didn’t know then or today.”
What they did know, though, was that when one twin would disappear, the other followed a week or two later. “If I had died, Miriam would’ve been killed immediately with an injection to the heart so that Mengele could do a comparative autopsy to understand how to create multiples and see how the germs worked,” said Kor, who now lives in Terre Haute, Indiana.
After one session of experiments, Kor became ill with a very high fever. As the fever climbed, her arms and legs swelled and red spots covered every surface of her body. On her next Blood Lab visit, Mengele’s colleagues measured her fever and transferred her to the hospital in another barrack, which was less a healing quarters and more a dreaded final destination. “Nobody ever came back from the hospital.”
Mengele marched in with four other doctors to check up on the 10-year-old Kor. “He never examined me; he just looked at my charts and, laughing sarcastically, he said, ‘Too bad she only has two weeks to live,’” Kor remembered. “I knew he was right, and I refused to die. This is where I resisted. I remember those two weeks crawling on the barrack floor because I couldn’t walk. I’d fade in and out of consciousness and wouldn’t let go of dear life.”
Kor described the twins’ relationship to Mengele as one of the most complicated human entanglements: As a Nazi, Mengele was responsible for sending the twins’ families to their deaths, but simultaneously, he was also the twins’ savior. “I never liked Mengele, but I also understood that I was going to be alive as long as he wanted me to be alive,” Kor said. “And obviously he didn’t want me to be alive that long,” she added, “because he injected me with something that was supposed to kill me.”
Two weeks later, her fever broke.
Kor, who is among the 250 individual “Mengele twins” who survived the Holocaust (he used a total of 3,000 individuals in his experiments), later wondered whether she had been injected with Spotted Fever, an epidemic that ran through the camp. “It would very much help many people to at least know what was injected into our bodies,” said Kor. “There were worries among the Mengele twins still alive today that their children would somehow be deformed, because nobody knew what the experiments were. The [Mengele survivors] also suffer from all different problems — there was a lot of cancer among the twins, kidney diseases, and now there is some mental disorder and depression.”
But it’s unclear whether these issues stem from old age and life in general, if they are a result of the experiments or if they are the effects of the profound trauma experienced during the Holocaust. So Kor can only theorize about her long list of health problems.
“I know that my tuberculosis had to be from Auschwitz because they had tested us in school after we got back and I was TB positive, but I never had TB before that,” she said. “What I’m assuming, because I don’t really know, is that I had to have been injected with it, and that they then injected us with antibiotics for the TB not to develop, just to have latent TB. So the dormant tuberculosis injected in me at Auschwitz was never cured.”
Having more information about Mengele’s experiments could have saved Kor’s twin sister, Miriam, who died of kidney failure in 1993. Miriam’s kidneys had never grown past the size of a 10-year-old’s.
Eva Kor has been on a four-decade quest to find out what happened to her body at Auschwitz. But so far, it’s been nearly impossible. In 1991, she traveled with her twin sister and three other Mengele twins to Gunzburg, Germany, the town where Mengele grew up, and where his family had a farm equipment factory. “I wanted to understand what kind of a place created a Josef Mengele, to see if we could make some connections,” Kor said. “I wanted to talk to the director of the factory, but I was told if we dared tried to reach him, he’d send dogs to greet us.”
A decade later, Kor began her search for the physical files. Despite the fact that the Nazis were notorious for keeping meticulous notes on every facet of their operation, only 10 to 15 % of Nazi files from Auschwitz still exist today: Nazis destroyed much of the documentation of their crimes at the war’s close.
There were allegedly two sets of files for every set of twins: One set apparently remained with Mengele, and the other was supposedly kept at Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Society (now called the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science), which was the institute in charge of Mengele’s experiments.
But when Kor made her way to the Max Planck Society in 2001, she was told that every single file was gone. “My effort in trying to find out who had the files was fruitless,” Kor said. “But the number one question is, would Mengele have destroyed this major project that he worked on? And my response to that is absolutely not. And if he didn’t destroy the files, they have to be somewhere. So the question is: where?”
This summer, Kor traveled to Auschwitz to testify as a witness in the trial of 94-year-old Oskar Groening — the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz” recently found guilty of accessory to murder of 300,000 people in the camp and sentenced to four years in prison — Kor wanted to ask Groening how much he knew about what was going on in the Mengele experiments. No luck.
“Groening did not know a thing,” Kor told the Forward. “He knew no details. He said that he knew who Mengele was, but that he himself was a very low-ranking guard who was basically involved in taking the loot from the cattle cars, and he didn’t think Mengele even knew who he was.”
The surviving twins will likely never be able to gain a solid understanding of what was added to their bloodstreams. But Kor continues her hunt for answers not only for her own peace of mind, but also for her family. The experiments certainly affected Kor herself, but there’s a possibility that they may have affected her children as well.
While Miriam’s daughters and grandchildren are healthy to date, Eva’s son, Alex Kor, was diagnosed with advanced-stage testicular cancer at age 26, followed by skin cancer. Did his ailments have anything to do with his mother’s suffering? “There’s no way to say it’s in any way from my mom’s experience,” he said.
But Dr. Rachel Yehuda, a New York-based researcher focusing on trauma survivors and their offspring, has done studies that suggest that certain environmental exposures and traumatic experiences leave a chemical mark on a gene, which in turn could have a major impact on how one’s genes are expressed. This area of research is called epigenetics.
“It’s very possible that a traumatic experience like the Holocaust or being experimented on during the Holocaust would change the way your genes function,” Yehuda, who works at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the James J. Peters Veterans Affairs Medical Center in the Bronx, said. “And they can endure into the next generation, potentially.”
Although nobody knows what was in Mengele’s needles, it is certainly possible that his shots could have altered the twins’ genes, Yehuda said, similar to the way that Agent Orange affected Vietnam veterans and their families. Veterans exposed to Agent Orange — a chemical herbicide used by the U.S. to destroy enemy resources, forests and crops during the Vietnam War — later experienced severe health issues including cancer, tumors, neurological problems and skin diseases. In many cases, their children suffered birth defects, too.
“So the effect of chemical exposures and toxins can be very longstanding and diverse,” Yehuda said. “Although we can’t say for sure without a study what causes what, it’s pretty clear that there’s a there there.”
“There’s enough evidence from research that suggests that it is possible and likely that experiences that occurred to mothers may have had enduring effects in the offspring or may have been expressed in a child,” added Yehuda. “But whether a specific expression in a child comes from a specific environmental exposure [experienced by the parent], we don’t know yet.”
There is some cruel irony in the fact that it would require experiments to find out precisely what Mengele’s experiments did to the twins. But with only roughly 50 Mengele twins still alive, it would be impossible to draw reliable scientific conclusions from any of their anecdotes. They have lived in different environments and countries, so there is no controlled way to conduct research.
But if there were a way, Kor would be open to it. In fact, Kor now lectures extensively to doctors, medical ethics groups and hospital research groups. She emphasizes that when experiments are done, it’s crucial to keep in mind that research is performed not for the sake of advancing science, but rather for the sole purpose of helping human beings.
“I would find it very ironic, but I’m not against human experimentation — I see the value in it,” she said, explaining that her son survived testicular cancer because he was part of a medical trial. “The difference is: My son entered voluntarily, with informed consent; I did not.”
Alexandra Levine is a Forward Summer Fellow. Contact her at [email protected]