New York – Emotions are still raw and images of horror are still vivid for Peter Somogi 75 years after he survived the Holocaust.
The 88-year-old, who lives in Westchester County, was only 11 years old when he arrived at the Auschwitz concentration camp in July 1944. Ink is still visible from prisoner number A-17454, which was tattooed on his arm upon arrival. Even when they first came face to face Notorious Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele.
“He didn’t save me,” said Peter. “He just kept me alive for himself.”
“Menzel came around and asked for the twins. My mother first didn’t know what to say, the second time ‘no’, the third time she said ‘yes,'” Peter said. “Immediately, two assistants grabbed us and we never got a chance to say goodbye.”
Peter, his twin brother Thomas, his 13-year-old sister Alice, and mother Elizabeth were all inadvertently lined up for the gas chamber when the twins were pulled aside. He never saw Alice or Elizabeth again.
“As we got to the barracks, who was in charge, we asked him, ‘When can I see my mother? first question. He said, ‘Just look out there’ – the flames,” said Peter. “And then we understood we’d never see our mom again.”
Mengele was young, attractive and outwardly pleasant – a mask that hid unspeakable evil. He was known as the “Angel of Death”, often personally administering hydrogen cyanide gas to his victims. More than a million innocent men, women and children were murdered in Auschwitz alone. Mengele also conducted medical experiments on prisoners and had an affinity for twins.
Via Zoom, we spoke to Thomas, who changed his last name and now lives in Toronto.
Thomas Simon, Peter’s twin brother, said, “I think their aim was to find some kind of algorithm or something for German mothers to conceive and have twins or triplets or to increase the German population.”
He and Peter were so young when they met Mengele and his companions that they never really understood what was being done to them. He remembers the doctor drawing blood from his arms and measuring his head.
Thomas said, “The one that I remember clearly, which was most unpleasant, was taking the impression of my teeth—basically, what someone had packed would have been gypsum, calcium sulfate in my mouth.” “I had to keep my mouth open. It was so unpleasant, I was choking—you know, the gag reflex.”
“Luckily there weren’t as brutal experiments as before because we were about to arrive last,” Peter said. “After us, only one more couple came.”
Peter and Thomas arrived at Auschwitz about six months before the liberation of the camp. They were part of a vast group of more than 400,000 Jews who were packed into cattle cars and deported from Hungary in just 54 days.
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Many of the children who came to the camps were killed immediately because they were not strong enough to do the job. Thomas said he was sure that he and his brother survived because they were twins.
“It’s absolutely certain. There are no two ways about it,” he said. “If I hadn’t been a twin, I wouldn’t be alive today.”
Peter said that one day another Nazi officer selected him for the gas chamber.
“We were taken from the barracks to another room, locked inside and we waited for the truck to take us to the gas chamber,” Peter said. “Except one way or another, Mengele got wind of it and said, ‘No, I’ll decide, no other officer.’ And that officer clearly offended Mengele and was sent to the Russian front.”
Mengele is the reason the boys are alive – a deep irony.
After liberation, Thomas and Peter made their way to Israel, then to London, and then to Canada, where Thomas stayed and Peter eventually left for New York with his wife, Anna.
Anna and her family also survived the Holocaust by hiding in different places throughout Budapest.
The twin brothers worked hard in their new lives and raised beautiful families. His father, Josef, survived the Dachau concentration camp and lived to be 105 years old. Peter and Thomas know that their story is unique. And despite how painful it is to tell, they understand the importance of doing so.
“In about 10 to 15 years, no one will survive. We are all dying sooner or later,” Peter said. “No one will survive who were eyewitnesses.”
Thomas has a plea for generations to come.
“As far as I am concerned, it was the greatest crime in human history,” Thomas said. “And it must not be forgotten.”