"If not for her, I wouldn't be here."
Helen Rapaport declares this in a heavy Yiddish accent, looking over at her identical twin sister, Pearl Pufeles. The two eighty-six-year-olds are sitting side by side in a Chicago hospital lounge on a patterned sofa. Helen is wearing a green floor-length hospital gown and medical bracelet—unexpectedly, she was kept overnight for some cardiac tests, so our interview has to take place here. She is frustrated that we're not meeting in her home in Buffalo Grove, as planned. “I cooked all day yesterday,” she says ruefully.
“She made kugel,” offers Pearl, who is dressed in a purple ensemble—purple polyester pants, purple top with flower appliqué on the left shoulder—and cream-colored orthopedic sneakers.
Both twins fold their hands in front of them when they talk. They don't look nearly as identical now as they do in the black-and-white pictures from their youth; in those, they are indistinguishable, wearing identical outfits well into their twenties. What remains similar about them today is their thinning hair, their drooping eyelids—which give their faces a soft kindness that reminds me of my late grandma Esther—and the blue numbers tattooed on their arms: Helen is 5080; Pearl is 5079.
I thought I'd have to ease gingerly into their memories of Dr. Josef Mengele—the monstrous Nazi doctor who experimented on twins in Auschwitz. But they start talking about him right away.
“You've heard about him,” Pearl says. “He was the one who called out when we got off of the train.” She refers to the cattle car that transported prisoners to the camps. “He called out, ' Zwillinge austreten,' which means 'Twins, step out.' And we were pushed aside. I don't know, there were about seventy sets of twins.”
“More,” Helen corrects her. “More.”
In his 1986 book, The Nazi Doctors, Robert Jay Lifton describes how Mengele, who had a Ph.D. in genetics, “embodied the selections process” for many survivors, who remember him always at “the ramp” when the transports arrived. “...He frequently went to the ramp when not selecting in order to see that twins were being collected and saved for him,” Lifton writes. “Mengele could exploit the unique opportunity Auschwitz provided for quick and absolute availability of large numbers of these precious research subjects.”
“They took the twins to a different barracks,” Pearl continues. “And we didn't know what was waiting for us.”
“We didn't know first if we should tell him we were twins,” Helen recalls.
“We didn't know what they were going to do with us,” Pearl repeats.
“But we were so identical, they would have known anyway,” Helen explains. “So Pearl said, 'Let's just step out. Whatever will be with one will be with the other.' So that's how we wound up in the barracks with other twins.”
They had been herded, at the age of twenty-three, from their home in Czechoslovakia, along with their father, Isaac Herskovic—“a top tailor,” Pearl says—and a brother, Morris, an older sister, Miriam, and Miriam's husband and three children. (Their mother, Hannah, had died years earlier of a stroke, and their four other siblings were already in other parts of the world by the time the war began.)
The train journey was gruesome. “Terrible.” Helen shakes her head. “They piled us up; I don't know how many. There was no air, no water.”
“And kids crying,” Pearl adds. “There was no food.”
“It was locked,” Helen continues. “No washroom, nothing. A pail in one end and a pail in the other. You have to relieve yourself in front of the whole car. It was degrading, terribly.”
“My sister had an onion,” Pearl recalls. “And she passed it around to have a lick. Just a lick. And her kids cried and cried.”
“Miriam said, 'I only want to live as long as I have food for the children,' ” Helen adds.
“Mengele wasn't beating us or killing us,” Pearl says. “He was kind to us. And how could you hate him, when he was so handsome?”
“And she went right away,” Pearl says flatly, meaning Miriam was killed almost as soon as she arrived at the concentration camp. “The ones who they pushed to the left,” Helen explains, “they were doomed. Straight to the crematorium.”
“They gassed them,” Pearl says.
“They gave them a towel,” Helen chimes in, “and a soap to make believe they were going for a shower, and then when they were inside—”
“—instead of water,” Pearl interjects.
“—the Zyclon gas came down.” Helen's hands are in a fist against her belly.
“That's how my father and my sister and her children died,” Pearl says. “We never saw them anymore.”
The twins didn't understand their relatives' fate at first.
Pearl: “There were women in the barracks from Poland.”
Helen: “They had been already years there.”
Pearl: “They told us.”
Helen: “We asked, 'When will we be reunited with our loved ones?' And she said--”
Helen starts to weep.
Pearl: “They took us by our hand and opened the barracks door—”
Helen: “—and showed us the chimneys. We were a couple feet away from the crematoriums. 'There is where they are,' they said.”
Pearl: “'You will never see them again.' And we started crying.”
Helen: “We didn't believe it; we said, 'How is that possible?' They told us, 'No, you won't see them.' The Polish people were already there like four or five years; they knew how everything worked. So we cried and cried and hugged. And that was it.”
After a week or so in the barracks, the Herskovic twins received a grisly assignment.
“They needed some workers to volunteer,” Pearl recalls. “And Helen and I said, 'Well, maybe if we get out of the barracks, we'll see our brother. Let's volunteer wherever they are taking us.'”
“So we volunteered,” Helen continues. “Two SS men came with dogs and brought two pails and some disinfectant, and they took us to a big warehouse, and we thought we were going to do some work. And then they opened the door and we almost fainted. Oh my God.”
“There was a mountain of bodies,” Pearl recounts. “Dead bodies. We almost fainted, both. Because we never saw dead people before. In the Jewish religion, they didn't display dead bodies; always the casket was closed.”
“So one—the SS man with the dogs—he said, 'Oh, you'll get used to it,'” Helen says.
“We'll see it in our minds until we die,” Pearl says quietly. “Just a big, big mountain. And our job was to first pile them—the Germans were very correct with making everything perfect. So when they dumped the bodies out after they were gassed, they scattered. It wasn't a neat mountain.”
The young women were told to make a neat stack of corpses. “We had to lift them onto the pile,” Helen explains, “wash the floor where the bodies had been, then pile them back on the clean side and wash the other. And the worst thing was that we saw children.” She starts to weep again.
“Because we were looking,” Pearl remembers. “Thinking, Maybe we'll see our nieces.”
“The mouths open,” Helen recounts, “and blood was still coming. They must have been gassed a few hours before.”
“That was Mengele who was doing the selections,” Pearl recalls. “He was waving his wand—whatever you call it. To the right, you still have a chance of living. To the left, all the elderly, the sick, the little ones, they all went to the left and those were taken straight with the towels.”
I ask Pearl to describe Mengele, and her eyes light up. “He was the most handsomest—”
“Like Clark Gable,” Helen interjects.
“He was tall and the most handsome guy,” Pearl continues. “He should have been an actor or something and not killed Jews. His boots-—they were so shiny that instead of a mirror, you could have used his boots.”
The boots clearly made an impression. “They were cleaned like three times a day,” Helen goes on. “And he changed always his uniforms. He was the most handsomest guy. I don't think Clark Gable was as handsome as he was.”
“No,” Pearl says definitively. “Walking around with a little—what is it called? Swagger?”
“Even the prisoners,” Helen says. “Some of them fell in love with him.”
The twins cleaned the warehouse for twelve days.
“Then Mengele needed us for his experiments,” Pearl says.
“Toward the end, you didn't know it was bodies anymore,” Helen says dully. “I said to Pearl, 'Pretend it's a sack of potatoes. Or a sack of onions.' To this day, if we go shopping and we want to pick out some oranges...” She pauses. “To this day, sometimes if I pick up an orange and I see it sliding, I'm right back in Auschwitz. Or potatoes or pumpkins. Anything that's on a pile. You can't help it.”
They keep focusing on the fact that at least they had each other. “We had to do the job,” Pearl says. “But we were together. We were always together.”
Did they talk to each other a lot while they worked?
“We were quiet,” Helen replies.
Their memories of the Nazi doctor are incredibly benign. “Mengele wasn't beating us or killing us,” Pearl says. “He was kind to us. And how could you hate him, when he was so handsome?”
He took their medical history and measured them meticulously. “We were sitting like Pearl and I are now, and he was in the middle,” Helen recounts. “We were always nude.”
“No clothes,” Pearl confirms.
“Because he measured us,” Helen explains.
“Every single thing,” Pearl adds.
“Even our hair was counted,” Helen marvels. “The eyelashes. He was measuring Pearl; then he came to me, and vice versa. Everything was written down.”
Mengele left the injections to his nurses. The sisters don't know what the needles contained, but they do remember blood being drawn constantly. “They were taking our blood every single day,” Pearl says, “and so Helen asked one of the nurses, 'How much blood can they take?' And she said, 'Endless. You have plenty blood.'”
“'You always make more,' ” Pearl recalls the nurse explaining.
“One nurse was taking blood from one way; the other was injecting us with monstrosities that we don't know.” Helen shakes her head. “To this day. And we never will find out, because all the records are gone.”
But Mengele himself was never cruel to them?
“Never,” they say in unison.
They said he was almost fatherly. “We knew he's not going to harm us. We knew it.”
“Because he was so handsome,” Pearl says. “You forgot about anything.”
“He was like an angel,” Helen adds.
“We were like friends with him,” Pearl says. “Really.”
“He was very smart,” Helen says. “People were falling in love with him; I'm not kidding.”
Their report is consistent with those of other twin survivors who said Mengele was their protector as much as their persecutor. The twins weren't treated any better than other prisoners in terms of being fed or clothed, but they were rarely outwardly harmed—in order to keep their bodies intact for comparisons—and they were allowed to keep their hair (so Mengele could measure and analyze it), which preserved a shred of humanity. Mengele prized the twins as case studies for investigating genetics; some say it was to understand how to engineer a master race with ideal traits; others say it was to devise a way to mass-produce twins to repopulate Germany. His laboratory had to be spotless, and his assistants were often Jewish prisoners.
Lifton writes that, by all accounts, Mengele was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde figure, who one minute was offering children sweets and a ride in his car, and the next minute driving those same kids to the crematorium. He was known to give a pat on the head but also to inject twins' eyeballs, cut off a twin's testicles, or kill one twin immediately after the other twin died, in order to contrast autopsies. “They wanted to compare if the insides were as identical as the outside,” Helen explains. Lifton describes how Mengele injected twins with chloroform to stop their hearts, and one incident when Mengele shot two of his “favorite” twin boys—eight years old—in the neck and autopsied them on the spot, in order to resolve a dispute with other doctors as to whether they carried tuberculosis. (They didn't.) In one infamous operation, Mengele is said to have sewed two Gypsy twins together to create conjoined twins.
Helen says she was “sick for years” after the war, but doctors were stymied as to the cause, and they kept sending her to psychiatrists. “They all think, if you're a survivor, there must be something wrong with your mind,” Helen says. “But I knew it was something drastically wrong with me. It wasn't my head.” Finally one doctor deduced that she had TB in the bladder. “He calls me up on a Monday morning; I'll always remember the day. He says, 'Helen, I finally know what's wrong with you and you're not crazy.' I started crying.”
After the sisters had spent a year in Auschwitz, in January 1945, it became clear that the Germans were losing the war. “The Russians were approaching and the Americans from the other side,” Helen recounts. “The Nazis evacuated the camps. They didn't want no evidence. But they left hundreds of people in beds who couldn't walk. Whoever was able to walk, they chased out. And we were in that death march that lasted from January to—when were we liberated?”
“May,” Pearl replies.
“April,” Helen corrects her.
“When they took us for the march,” Pearl goes on, “it was our birthday: January eighteenth.”
“I said to Pearl, 'We never will forget this day.'”
They marched in frigid temperatures. “There was no food, no water, nothing,” says Pearl, describing the march. “So wherever we were walking, the snow disappeared.”
“Because we ate up all the snow,” Helen explains. “We slept in sties and warehouses. No taking baths, no changing clothes. We were walking around like crazy people.”
Pearl says some of the German onlookers threw bread when their ragged convoy passed by. “When a prisoner ran toward the people that were throwing bread,” Helen says, “the SS shoot them right on the spot.”
They actually saw that happen?
“All the time,” Pearl replies.
“That was daily,” Helen states. “In that march, people were laying like flies all over. A lot of people couldn't take all that walking. I don't know, to this day, how I made it. I couldn't tell you. It was just—I don't know—God was pushing me.”
“You said, 'Let me lay down here,'” Pearl reminds Helen.
“Because I was very sick,” Helen says. “And I didn't want to go on. I didn't have shoes. My feet were wrapped in rags. No clothes. And we were freezing. And I just wanted to give up. I couldn't walk anymore.” She looks at Pearl. “So she dragged me.”
“If you can picture a skeleton,” Pearl tells me. “She was a skin-colored skeleton. And so many people were lying dead on the road; we were hungry and she couldn't walk. And she said, 'Just put me down here.'”
“'Let me die,'” Helen recounts.
“'And if you survive,'” Pearl continues, repeating her sister's words to her, “'you'll tell the world what happened to us.'”
Helen picks up the story: “Pearl said to me, 'You cannot die. Because if you die, I'll die.'”
“So I told her,” Pearl continues, “'Put your arms around my neck.' I couldn't carry her; I was skinny, too.”
“So she dragged me,” Helen says.
“She was holding on to me.” Pearl's voice breaks. “And we survived.” She leans over to kiss her sister. It's a little awkward to do over the tape recorder I've placed between them, but she doesn't let it get in her way, planting a little wrinkled pucker on Helen's cheek. Helen kisses her right back.
Sitting with these two, I am aware of one overriding thought: Twinship need not be layered or loaded. It can be simple. Every bleak day that these sisters survived the camps, they reminded themselves, At least we are together. And in a world of unimaginable horror, that was enough. More than enough: It kept them alive.
“We survived together,” Pearl goes on with wet eyes. “So we have two of us. We were never separated. Even when Mengele worked on us. We were always together. So we're lucky.”
Excerpted from One and the Same by Abigail Pogrebin Copyright © 2009 by Abigail Pogrebin. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Publishing, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. A Yale graduate, she has written for many national publications and has produced for Mike Wallace at 60 Minutes , Charlie Rose, Bill Moyers, and Fred Friendly. She lives with her husband and two children in Manhattan—as does her identical twin, New York Times reporter Robin Pogrebin.