Thursday, June 18, 2009

Children of the Flames by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel

Dr. Josef Mengele, an SS doctor at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, performed gruesome medical experiments on twins and others and earned the nickname "Angel of Death" for his stance during the selections when each train carrying Jews and others persecuted by the Nazis arrived at the camp. He would stand in his white medical coat with arms spread, indicating who would die and who would be spared with a flick of the wrist. Mengele's field of interest was genetics, and he singled out twins, dwarfs, and Jews with "Aryan" looks, among others, for his experiments, wooing the children with candy and special privileges one minute and injecting them with unknown substances (and worse) the next.

In Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz, several of the twins who managed to survive the experiments (despite a grim 90 percent mortality rate) tell their stories. For some, it was the first time they publicly discussed the loss of their families to the gas chambers and the horrors they endured at the hands of an arrogant and evil doctor. Lucette Matalon Lagnado, a journalist, and Sheila Cohn Dekel, writer and widow of a Mengele survivor, piece together the lives of the twins before, during, and after the war through interviews. One of the twins, Eva Mozes Kor, helped reunite the twins through the organization she established, CANDLES, or Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors.

Quotes from the twins are inserted into a biography of Mengele, showing parallels as well as distinct differences in the lives of the twins and the life of the Nazi doctor. Mengele lived a privileged life, and he was well known and well liked in the town of G├╝nzburg. The twins also had happy lives with their families before the war, but when the war ended, the twins were forced to pick up the pieces of their broken lives without their parents, children, or other relatives and sometimes without their twin siblings. Not only did they lose their loved ones at the hands of the Nazis, but they also were left with horrible memories of the experiments they endured.

While the twins were left suffering emotionally and physically and unable to lead normal adult lives, Mengele fled the country to South America, first to Argentina, then to Paraguay and Brazil. He lived in the company of other Nazis who fled Germany and used the money sent from his father to invest in businesses and buy nice homes and cars, etc. How Mengele managed to elude the authorities is detailed in the book, based on his personal diaries, an autobiographical novel he wrote in exile, letters he wrote to his family, and interviews with numerous people who helped him along the way. It was especially hard to read about his later years in Brazil when he was the most-wanted war criminal, and he was complaining about family not writing to him and how he had to remain in hiding after openly flaunting his identity in previous years. The fact that he died without ever being convicted for his evil actions or indicating even a smidgen of remorse for all the deaths and grief he caused makes me sick to my stomach.

Children of the Flames is a hard book to read, but I believe it is important for the Auschwitz twins to have a voice and for us to remember and learn from their stories. Here is a quote from one of the twins that really affected me. He is talking about dealing with people who wonder why the Jews didn't fight back.

"The Jews who were brought by cattle car to Auschwitz weren't told they were going to a death camp: they believed they were going to be working. They had not worked in years. They were hungry, and they wanted to eat. They thought that by working for the Germans, they would have food and money, and they'd be able to survive until the war ended.

That's why they went quietly -- that's why they didn't cry, or shout.

And then Dr. Mengele would tell them, 'Please take off your clothes because you need to take a shower.' And off they went into the gas chambers, very quietly. Everything was done very quietly. When was there even time for an uprising?

There were people inside the camps who found ways to smuggle out letters to relatives and friends describing what the Germans were doing.

But absolutely no one believed them." (Menashe Lorinczi, page 195)
Children of the Flames isn't for the faint of heart, but I highly recommend it if you're interested in a different kind of Holocaust story and are curious about the hunt for Nazi war criminals. Be prepared to cry and get angry at the injustice of it all. While I can't say I "enjoyed" the book given its subject matter, Children of the Flames was powerful, informative, and eye-opening.


Children of the Flames is the 12th book I've read for the WWII reading challenge I'm co-hosting at War Through the Generations.

Disclosure:  I purchased my copy of Children of the Flames.


Jeane said...

Back in highschool I once did an extensive report on the Holocaust, and thus learned about Dr. Mengele and his experiments. I found the idea horrifying, and couldn't read more details about what happened. I think even now this would be a very hard book for me to read.

bermudaonion said...

I am interested in books like that but I have to be in the right mood to read them. Did you sob through the whole book?

Lezlie said...

Wow! Thanks to you, I just added this to my wish list at the library. It's right up my dark, disturbing alley.


Serena said...

you are really trucking along with these WWII books. You go girl...I can't believe how arrogant this man was....amazing...and to write his own autobiographical novel...sick.

Thanks for getting the Verse Reviewers button for your blog.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Sounds powerful, but I need to read more books on this painful subject; thanks.

The Reading Momster said...

How do you really get so many books :) :)
But this book, I am so unsure about it!

Darlene said...

I've never heard of this one-yet another I'll have to see if the library has. I can feel myself getting upset and angry just reading your review of it. At the same time I think these are all important books to read so people understand the horrors that went on and that they can't happen anymore.

Lenore Appelhans said...

Wow - that does sound like a tough read.

Tara said...

I have never heard of this - and I've read my share of books on the holocaust. This sounds tremendously sad and moving. I didn't realize that any twins had survived Mengele and how terrible that he was never punished.

Anna said...

Jeane: Thankfully, only a small portion of the book goes into detail about the experiments. Most of the book is devoted to the twins' after the war and Mengele in exile.

Bermudaonion: I didn't cry through the whole thing, but there definitely was a heaviness while I was reading.

Lezlie: I hope you get a chance to read it. I'd love to hear your thoughts. It's definitely dark and gets you thinking.

Serena: Yup, he was a very, very sick individual.

Diane: You're welcome.

Veens: I bought this one. ;) It's definitely not for everyone, but I found it to be a captivating, though sad and horrific, story.

Dar: I completely agree.

Lenore: Tough is putting it mildly, but I think it's a very important book. Definitely a worthwhile read.

Tara: That's what made me so angry...he got away with it. He's living it up in South America and the twins are forever suffering. It's just not right.

Neal Klein said...

I am not meaning to slam this book, but it's not a very good one. "Children of the Flames" does not set out to be a bad book. It tries to follow the experiences of several Mengele twins chronologically from before the War throughout the lives of the interviewees. The style of chronicling the lives of many people in this way might work for a newspaper series that is broken into stages over many days, but for a book, it doesn't quite work. Many of the people I spoke to who read the book find that they are referring back to the beginning of it to be sure they are reading about who they think they are reading about. It's as if the authors took a documentary style of storytelling and put it in print. For a subject with players from so many different places, you would think it would still work. It doesn't.

My own uncle is featured prominently in the book - Zvi the Sailor. The significant detail you need to know before you put down good money for this work is that it is not accurate. A prominent Mengele twin who greatly assisted in the creation of the book disowns it for its inaccuracies and poor writing. My father, Zvi's twin, was never interviewed for his account. In fact, the book contributed to a rift between the twins that did not resolve for many years. The irony is that one of the authors is a writer for the Wall Street Journal. With credentials like hers, you would expect better in this book.

Anna said...

Neal: Thank you for weighing in. As I was reading, I wondered why Zvi's twin wasn't interviewed. Interesting.

Neal Klein said...

Since posting my last comment, I have corresponded with co-author Lucette Lagnado regarding why she elected to not interview my father. She is a writer for the Wall Street Journal, and to her credit, she responded immediately even though she's on a book tour. Her answer was a poor defense of her choice to interview one twin and not another. She claimed to be unable to get in touch with my father. But my uncle, Zvi the sailor, clearly stated to her that he sent money to my father, implying that he had my father's address the whole time. It's lazy journalism, and for a Sami Rohr prize winner to take such an indefensible stance is disappointing.

Anna said...

~Neal: I'm sorry to hear that the co-author didn't have a better answer for not interviewing your father. Thank you for contributing to the discussion.