Twin Children of the Holocaust

Twin Children of the Holocaust

Psychology March 25, 2013 / By Nancy L. Segal
Twin Children of the Holocaust

The twin children of the Holocaust are a largely overlooked group of survivors, Their situation is examined with reference to a recent conference on Nazi medicine.

 The twin children who experienced and survived the horrific medical experiments conducted in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp (1943 – 1945) performed by Dr. Josef Mengele are often overlooked in the relevant literature. My first contact with this special group was in 1984 when I met several of the twins in an informal setting. I later accompanied them and others to the camps to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and to Yad VaShem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial and Education Institute (Segal, 1985).  This event was organized by CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz’s Deadly Nazi Experiments Survivors). Most recently, I attended a conference on Nazi medicine held in October 2012, at Yeshiva University in New York City.

I will first briefly summarize the moving story of one pair of twins. After that I will provide some highlights from the conference and comment on the status of twin research today. A longer, more comprehensive article on this subject is forthcoming in the journal Twin Research and Human Genetics, published by Cambridge University Press (Segal, 2013). More about twin research is available in Segal (2012) and references therein. 

Rene and Irene

Rene and Irene were born on December 21, 1937 in Czechoslovakia. Upon arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau at age five, these opposite-sex twins were separated from each other and from their mother whom they never saw again. Twins were systematically identified at the Auschwitz-Birkenau railroad ramp and housed separately from the other prisoners. Irene received a series of painful treatments, while Rene was measured and had his blood continually analyzed. The twins saw each other only one time during the thirteen months they were in Auschwitz.

When the camps were liberated in January 1945, Rene was brought to Czechoslovakia by a physician, Dr. Kalina. Irene was cared for by a Polish woman who raised her as a Catholic. Irene then entered a temporary home, and then an orphanage for Jewish children in France. She remained there until 1947 when she was chosen by Rescue Children to visit New York City.  Irene was told she would return to the orphanage, but she was eventually adopted by a loving family in Long Island.  When her new family discovered that Irene had a twin brother they began a search for him. Rene was found through a lucky twist of fate—his new father (Dr. Kalina) who was out of the country saw a Life Magazine article that chronicled Irene’s trip to New York City. He realized that this little girl was the twin sister of the little boy he was raising. That news was ultimately responsible for the twins’ reunion when they were twelve years old: “We were kind of at a loss for words—it was anticlimactic—there was no big kiss, but I knew it was my brother.”

Conference on Nazi Medicine  

A one-day conference, “Out of the Ashes: Jewish Approaches to Medical Dilemmas Born out of the Holocaust,” was held in New York City on October 21, 2012. The meeting was organized by Yeshiva University’s Medical Ethics Society student members. Various scholars examined the roles played by physicians in establishing Germany’s racial hygiene program, as well as the nature of the experimentation involving twins and non-twins. The ethical issues posed by the possible use of Nazi medical data today were also discussed. Among the distinguished speakers were Dr. Michael Grodin of Boston University, Dr. Michael Berenbaum of the American Jewish University of Los Angeles, and Dr. Dieter Kuntz of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.  Please see the conference link here for further information.  Also see the testimony given by the twins at a public hearing on Mengele’s war crimes (Grodin, et al., 2011).

Twin Research Today

Nazi experimentation reflected a serious misuse of twin methodology and a seriously flawed agenda. The twins were neither consenting nor informed volunteers, but helpless children forced to participate in a horrific program of pseudo-scientific research procedures. Their psychological and physical status completely disqualified them as being representative of the normal human condition. There were also multiple failings in the experiments such as not distinguishing between identical and fraternal pairs, and including some pairs of individuals who were not truly twins. Furthermore, any body of work that tries to show the biological superiority of one group of people over others (a Nazi goal was to demonstrate Aryan superiority over others) is poorly informed and theoretically misguided.

Current twin research has the goal of detecting the genetic and environmental bases of individual differences in human behavioral, medical and physical traits. It is also dedicated to understanding the unique situation of growing up as a twin, as well as the special features of parenting and educating twin children.  Both of these goals are critical given the rise in twin births from 1/60 in 1980 to 1/30 in 2009 (Martin et al., 2012).  Given the proliferation of twin research in many disciplines and at many level, it is succeeding admirably along both these lines.


Grodin, M.A., Kor, E.M., & Benedict, S. (2011). The trial that never happened: Josef Mengele and the twins of Auschwitz. War Crimes, Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, 5, 3-89.

Martin et al. (2012), Three decades of twin births in the United States, 1980-2009. NCHS Data Brief, No. 80, January 2012.

Segal, N.L. (1985).  Holocaust twins: Their special bond.  Psychology Today, 19, 52-58.

Segal, N.L. (2012). Born Together - Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Segal, N.L. (2013). The twin children of Auschwitz-Birkenau: Conference on Nazi medicine. Twin Research and Human Genetics (in press).

Featured image: Rene and Renate (Irene) with their mother.  Courtesy of the twins.

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