When Peter Somogyi arrived at Auschwitz in July 1944, his mother made an unlikely choice that would save his life.
Peter and his twin brother, Thomas, had spent three miserable days in a cattle car with their mother, Erzsebet, and their sister, Alice, riding the rails to the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Whilst children were normally sent straight to the gas chambers – as part of the Nazis’ campaign of mass murder which led to the deaths of six million Jews in the Holocaust – the Hungarian twins were spared by their mother’s actions.
When the infamous ‘Angel of Death’ Dr Josef Mengele – known for the horrendous experiments he carried out on inmates – came around to examine the new arrivals, he asked if there were any twins.
Knowing that her choice might be her sons’ only hope of survival, Erzsebet reluctantly opted to step forward. Along with her daughter, the mother was murdered soon after being separated from her sons.
Peter, who is now 88, recalled: ‘They threw us out of the cattle car, I saw a lot of German soldiers with guns drawn, and I saw the prisoners and guards already.
‘And that’s when we lined up, along came Mengele asking for twins, behind him were two other soldiers.
‘Three times Mengele came around; the first time my mother didn’t say anything, the second time she didn’t say anything, but the third time she said she had twins.’
Mengele was intrigued by the Somogyi because they were so young being but so big. He also appreciated that they spoke German – a language they had learnt from their nanny.
Incredibly, both Peter and Thomas escaped death having any brutal experiments performed on them, but instead had their bodies meticulously measured.
‘I was a very lucky one,’ said Peter. ‘We didn’t have the bad experiments that Mengele did at the beginning, but measuring the face, measuring our size, blood-taking, and mostly measuring every part of the body.’
When Peter and Thomas Somogyi (pictured with their sister Alice and mother and father ) arrived at Auschwitz in July 1944, his mother made an unlikely choice that would save his life. When the infamous ‘Angel of Death’ Dr Josef Mengele came around to examine the new arrivals, he asked if there were any twins – in the hope that he could carry out horrendous experiments on them. Knowing that her choice might be her sons’ only hope of survival, Erzsebet reluctantly opted to say that she did
Peter and his twin brother, Thomas, had spent three miserable days in a cattle car with their mother, Erzsebet, and their sister, Alice, riding the rails to the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland
Mengele was nicknamed the Angel of Death because of his role at Auschwitz deciding which new arrivals would be killed immediately and which would be kept alive to work. But he’s perhaps most notorious for his deadly experiments on prisoners – unnecessarily amputating their limbs and injecting them with disease. He was especially interested in twins
Born into a Jewish family in Pecs, Hungary, Peter and Thomas spent the early war years safe from the Nazis’ worst excesses, thanks to an uneasy alliance between Germany’s dictator Adolf Hitler and Hungarian regent Miklós Horthy.
THE HORRIFIC EXPERIMENTS OF THE NAZI ‘ANGEL OF DEATH’
Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele
Immaculately dressed, it was Josef Mengele who greeted doomed arrivals at the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz, in occupied Poland.
With a flick of his gloved hands, the supreme arbiter of life and death would consign terrified prisoners either to work or to death in the gas chambers.
But many were condemned to an altogether more diabolical fate; they became guinea pigs upon his operating table.
Most of his victims died in terrible pain without anaesthetic.
Captivated by oddities, victims of Mengele’s medical experiments were chosen based on different eye colours, growth anomalies such as a clubfoot or a hunchback, giantism or dwarfism, twins and gypsies.
A choice ‘specimen’ he sent to his lab for study was the head of a 12-year-old boy he was going to dissect.
Twins held a particular fascination for him and it’s estimated that he examined around 3,000 – but only 100 pairs survived.
Mengele once impregnated one twin with the sperm from a different twin to see if she would produce twins.
When there was only one baby, one survivor claimed he tore the baby out of the mother’s uterus and threw the child into an oven and walked away.
Mengele had a doctorate in medicine from Frankfurt University, but used his knowledge in a sickening manner at the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he performed experiments as an SS physician from 1943 to 1945.
Although prisoners transferred to his wing to be studied escaped the gas chambers and were well fed, they often ultimately met an even more painful death.
Mengele regularly performed surgery without anaesthetic and would obtain bodies to work on simply by injecting chloroform into inmates’ hearts while they slept, which would kill them in seconds.
He was most interested in heredity and once tried to change the colour of children’s eyes by injecting chemicals directly into them.
Pregnant women were also singled out. He was known to have performed vivisections on them before consigning them to the death chambers.
The so-called Angel of Death was on the Allied commanders’ most-wanted list from 1944, but he escaped to South America and was never found, despite the best efforts of private investigators and the Israeli secret service, Mossad.
He died in 1979 after suffering a stroke while swimming and thirteen years later, DNA tests proved his identity beyond doubt.
The ten-year-old twins were even protected from tidings of war by their parents.
‘The only thing I knew about it was from reading a little bit of the newspaper,’ said Peter.
‘It was a little bit beyond my comprehension.’
But life changed overnight when the alliance collapsed and the Nazis occupied Hungary in March 1944.
‘First of all, my father, Josef, was immediately taken away,’ Mr Somogyi said.
‘Within a month we had to go into a ghetto, and within two or three months we were put into cattle cars and sent to Auschwitz.’
Less than an hour after the boys were separated from their mother, Peter learned that they had seen her – and their sister – for the last time.
‘The two soldiers behind Mengele grabbed us, put us into an ambulance and drove us into F-Lager in Birkenau,’ said Peter.
‘Mengele put one of the older twins, Zvi Spiegel, in charge of the twins.
‘And the first thing I asked him was ‘when can I see my mother?’
‘And he said “look outside over there at the chimneys” and he said “that’s where your mother is.”
‘Immediately I knew, I would never see her again.’
Mengele was nicknamed the Angel of Death because of his role at Auschwitz deciding which new arrivals would be killed immediately and which would be kept alive to work.
But he’s perhaps most notorious for his deadly experiments on prisoners – unnecessarily amputating their limbs and injecting them with disease.
Some witnesses described him performing vivisection without anaesthesia and even sewing people together. Twins were his favourite test subjects.
Peter and Thomas were lucky, however.
They arrived at Auschwitz late in the war and were mostly subject to blood tests and having their measurements taken.
Before they were parted, Erzsebet had advised the boys, then 11, to pretend they were only nine, hoping that their younger age would see the family kept together.
Although they escaped having any horrendous experiments conducted on them, they were far from safe.
‘Every night I went hungry,’ said Peter.
‘It was just enough food to keep us alive. We were not starving but I was constantly hungry.’
He continued: ‘One day, I think it was mid-October, another Nazi officer came around and they did a selection.
‘They selected us, and we were locked into another room, and waited for a truck to take us to the gas chamber.
‘Except Mengele got wind of it and says ‘no, I will decide when these people will die’.’
Mr Somogyi heard the other officer was sent to the Russian front as punishment.
Today, Peter is certain he wouldn’t have survived if he wasn’t a twin.
‘Definitely not,’ he said.
‘I would have been with my mother and my sister, together we would have been in the gas chambers within five minutes after arrival.
‘My mother, my sister, my grandmother, all my cousins – they were all in the same cattle car. They all perished within an hour. I would have also if I wouldn’t have been a twin.’
But he’s emphatic that Mengele isn’t the reason for his survival.
‘He was extremely polite. But you know, behind his politeness was the murders,’ said Peter.
‘He didn’t save my life. He just kept me alive for his own purpose.’
When Auschwitz was liberated, the twins began their long journey home.
Mr Somogyi recalled: ‘We started walking first, sometimes we got trucks, sometimes we got railroad cars, but it was months until we got somewhere.
‘I don’t know how I survived, really I don’t remember.
‘After liberation we went to Krakow, and every day we walked from house to house, knocked on the door and asked for a slice of bread.’
It took three days to reach Auschwitz from Pecs, but the return journey took two-and-a-half months.
Peter estimates that there were once a thousand Jewish children in the town, yet only themselves and one other returned.
Born into a Jewish family in Pecs, Hungary, Peter (right) and Thomas spent the early war years safe from the Nazis’ worst excesses, thanks to an uneasy alliance between Germany’s dictator Adolf Hitler and Hungarian regent Miklós Horthy
Peter Somogyi, left, and his brother, Thomas, right, with their sister, Alice, who was murdered at Auschwitz along with their mother
Peter’s prisoner tattoo from his time at Auschwitz is still visible on his arm but is now very faded. Today, Peter lives in Westchester County, New York, while Thomas lives in Toronto, Canada. They still see each other when they can
However, they were not the only survivors in their family.
Peter said: ‘My father survived Dachau and, at first, he didn’t want to come back because he thought that everybody was dead.
‘Somehow he found out that his twin boys survived.’
The twins never spoke with their father about their experiences, nor he with them about his.
But none of them were beaten by their ordeal.
Each of them made new lives for themselves, escaping communist Hungary in 1949 with the help of a Zionist organisation and settling in Israel.
From there, they moved to Surrey, England, staying for two years before moving to north America.
Peter and Thomas, sitting centre-left and centre-right respectively, with their children, grandchildren and other members of their family
The wider Somogyi family. Of those pictured, the only survivors were Peter and Thomas (in black, centre), their father (standing behind them) and their uncle (standing, far left)
Less than an hour after the boys were separated from their mother, Peter learned that they had seen her – and their sister – for the last time. Pictured: The Somogyi twins’ names in a German document from Auschwitz
Josef Somogyi remarried in 1947 and lived to be 105, dying in 2003.
Peter married a fellow Holocaust survivor, Anna, and today the couple have a son and a daughter, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Thomas also married and has three children and five grandchildren.
Today, Peter lives in Westchester County, New York, while Thomas lives in Toronto, Canada.
They still see each other when they can.
Both continue to tell their story, hoping that the memory of the past can prevent history repeating itself.
‘I hope it never happens again, that’s all I have to say,’ said Peter.
‘It should never happen again.’
Mengele escaped to Argentina in 1949 and lived out his days in South America.
He drowned aged 67 in 1979. He was never prosecuted for his crimes.
The Nazis’ concentration and extermination camps: The factories of death used to slaughter millions
Auschwitz-Birkenau, near the town of Oswiecim, in what was then occupied Poland
Auschwitz-Birkenau was a concentration and extermination camp used by the Nazis during World War Two.
The camp, which was located in Nazi-occupied Poland, was made up of three main sites.
Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a combined concentration and extermination camp and Auschwitz III–Monowitz, a labour camp, with a further 45 satellite sites.
Auschwitz, pictured in 1945, was liberated by Soviet troops 76 years ago on Wednesday after around 1.1million people were murdered at the Nazi extermination camp
Auschwitz was an extermination camp used by the Nazis in Poland to murder more than 1.1 million Jews
Birkenau became a major part of the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’, where they sought to rid Europe of Jews.
An estimated 1.3 million people were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, of whom at least 1.1 million died – around 90 percent of which were Jews.
Since 1947, it has operated as Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which in 1979 was named a World Heritage Site by Unesco.
Treblinka, near a village of the same name, outside Warsaw in Nazi-occupied Poland
Unlike at other camps, where some Jews were assigned to forced labor before being killed, nearly all Jews brought to Treblinka were immediately gassed to death.
Only a select few – mostly young, strong men, were spared from immediate death and assigned to maintenance work instead.
Unlike at other camps, where some Jews were assigned to forced labor before being killed, nearly all Jews brought to Treblinka were immediately gassed to death
The death toll at Treblinka was second only to Auschwitz. In just 15 months of operation – between July 1942 and October 1943 – between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews were murdered in its gas chambers.
Exterminations stopped at the camp after an uprising which saw around 200 prisoners escape. Around half of them were killed shortly afterwards, but 70 are known to have survived until the end of the war
Belzec, near the station of the same name in Nazi-occupied Poland
Belzec operated from March 1942 until the end of June 1943. It was built specifically as an extermination camp as part of Operation Reinhard.
Polish, German, Ukrainian and Austrian Jews were all killed there. In total, around 600,000 people were murdered.
The camp was dismantled in 1943 and the site was disguised as a fake farm.
Belzec operated from March 1942 until the end of June 1943. It was built specifically as an extermination camp as part of Operation Reinhard
Sobibor, near the village of the same name in Nazi-occupied Poland
Sobibor was named after its closest train station, at which Jews disembarked from extremely crowded carriages, unsure of their fate.
Jews from Poland, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the Soviet Union were killed in three gas chambers fed by the deadly fumes of a large petrol engine taken from a tank.
An estimated 200,000 people were killed in the camp. Some estimations put the figure at 250,000.
This would place Sobibor as the fourth worst extermination camp – in terms of number of deaths – after Belzec, Treblinka and Auschwitz.
Sobibor was named after its closest train station, at which Jews disembarked from extremely crowded carriages, unsure of their fate
The camp was located about 50 miles from the provincial Polish capital of Brest-on-the-Bug. Its official German name was SS-Sonderkommando Sobibor.
Prisoners launched a heroic escape on October 14 1943 in which 600 men, women and children succeeded in crossing the camp’s perimeter fence.
Of those, only 50 managed to evade capture. It is unclear how many crossed into allied territory.
Chelmno (also known as Kulmhof), in Nazi-occupied Poland
Chelmno was the first of Nazi Germany’s camps built specifically for extermination.
It operated from December 1941 until April 1943 and then again from June 1944 until January 1945.
Between 152,000 and 200,000 people, nearly all of whom were Jews, were killed there.
Chelmno was the first of Nazi Germany’s camps built specifically for extermination. It operated from December 1941 until April 1943 and then again from June 1944 until January 1945
Majdanek (also known simply as Lublin), built on outskirts of city of Lublin in Nazi-occupied Poland
Majdanek was initially intended for forced labour but was converted into an extermination camp in 1942.
It had seven gas chambers as well as wooden gallows where some victims were hanged.
In total, it is believed that as many as 130,000 people were killed there.
Majdanek (pictured in 2005) was initially intended for forced labour but was converted into an extermination camp in 1942