Yuri huddled under a woolen blanket with her sister, Eva, in the back seat of the black sedan. The windshield wipers strained against the pelting snow as frost collected in the corners of the windows, obscuring an unfamiliar landscape flashing by in the morning light. Yuri welcomed the wool’s comfort, despite the pungent odor of mildew. She was warmer than she’d been in months. Three months, Yuri guessed. She could be mistaken, of course, as the trauma had numbed hermind.
Yuri closed her eyes and tried to force the terrifying images from her consciousness. Still, the visions replayed—the Nazi SS breaking down the door to their home in the dark of the night, shooting her mother and father when they protested, and dragging Yuri and Eva to the brickyards like animals.
Then the marching. The marching and the bitter cold. The bitter cold and the bone-jarring hunger. Her mind couldn’t erase the shallow, vacant eyes of the dead along the road. Starvation or exposure had taken many of them, while others were executed for seemingly random and merciless reasons. Visions replayed of the elderly man with the kind eyes who’d handed them a thick wool coat, blessed them in Hebrew, and ran toward the trees only to be cut down by machine-gun fire from a nearby SS officer, and the grandmother who shared her moldy bread and a piece of sausage with them, only to collapse and die of starvation two days later.
Yuri couldn’t banish the monsters haunting her nightmare—the young German soldiers who sneered and shot insults at the continuous line of her people, and the guards who laughed at their misery, as they forced the captive multitude forward with the butts of their guns and snarling dogs. Six weeks of endless trudging through the snow to Austria, stepping over the countless dead. Numb with cold and exhaustion, Yuri had no tears except when her unyielding consciousness projected images of her parents lying dead in their own blood. Only then did tears pry their way throughher frozen psyche.
Papa. Mother. Their friends had tried to protect them, but someone had ratted them out.
Yuri’s eyes snapped open to the harsh voices of the two Nazi SS soldiers in the front seat who argued over which road to take. The soldiers had driven all night after they’d pushed and shoved Yuri and Eva into the automobile without an explanation. Otherwise, their escorts had ignored them for the most part. The ranking soldier in the passenger seat chain-smoked, and his agitated speech slurred more and more as he took slug after slug from a silver flask.
The sisters had a rudimentary understanding of German, but through an unspoken mutual pact at the beginning ofthe journey, they chose to stay mute. They concluded the driver didn’t appreciate heading into harm’s way with two Jewish girls while the Russians advanced on the Eastern Front. Yuri had pieced together that their destination was Poland to meet a doctor in a work camp called Auschwitz. But it remained a mystery why the Germans had singled them out.
Yuri tightened her embrace around Eva’s shoulder as her sister rested her head in the crook of Yuri’s neck. Because they frequently sat together in this position with Eva on the left and Yuri on the right—probably the way they’d grown in utero eighteen years ago—their mother had often joked that they acted more like Siamese rather than the identical twins they were. Yuri, the protector, was younger only because their father believed she’d pushed Eva out of the birthing canal ahead of her. Yuri winced at the pain in her groin. She had to urinate so badly; she couldn’t hold it much longer—afraid to speakup, afraid to soil the car. It had been eight hours since the Nazis had stopped the sedan and forced the girls to squat and pee like dogs while they stood over them.
A train clattered on the tracks alongside the road. Yuri distracted herself by counting the cars—fifty, all identical, similar to the livestock trains that had passed near their home in Budapest. It must be headed to a slaughterhouse.
Through the veil of the snowstorm, she could make out a massive complex looming in front of them. The driver shot a glance at the girls in the rearview mirror as they approached an iron gate, and he slowed the sedan. Yuri ducked her head to read the inscription. ARBEIT MACHT FREI.
The drunken ranking soldier caught her gaze and read the sign aloud, “Arbeit macht frei,” he sneered and motioned as if working the ground with a hoe.
Work makes you free? Yuri had heard rumors of the work camps but still didn’t understand why she and Eva had received such special treatment—placed into a warm automobile while soldiers crammed the rest of the Hungarian Jews into railcars. The Nazis forced many Jewish women to make German uniforms, and although Yuri and Eva could sew, this effort made little sense to her.
The driver stopped at the gate and rolled down the window. A snow-covered guard leveled a machine gun at them. Icicles hung from his nostrils, and his breath froze in the wind as he demanded to see their papers.
The ranking soldier leaned toward the open window, voiced his displeasure at the delay, then motioned to the girls in the backseat. The guard ducked his head through the window, showering the driver with snow, then shined a flashlight in their faces, first Eva, then Yuri, and back again.
The guard’s smile surprised Yuri as he ordered the gate arm raised, then barked instructions and the go-ahead. The driver rolled up his window, and Yuri adjusted the blanket around Eva’s neck. A loud whistle cut through the blustery air as the train that paralleled the road pulled into the same complex— adding to the mystery Yuri was at a loss to solve.
Like a city, the camp expanded for miles in all directions, and the driver navigated around an endless number of two-story brick buildings along with a series of checkpoints. But unlike any other city, razor wire surrounded this one.
Men in blue-striped canvas clothes wandered in groups around the yards, straining under loads of lumber or pushing wheelbarrows full of bricks. Yes, this must be a work camp.
In another section of the complex, women in filthy gray dresses tied at the waist marched in formation—four abreast with hundreds in each line. The stomp of their wooden clogs resounded through the closed automobile windows even as they plodded through the snow that rapidly accumulated. The desperation draped across their faces sent a shiver up Yuri’sspine, but their shaved heads were the strangest sight.
The sedan rounded a corner, and a terrible stench filled the car, assaulting Yuri’s senses and making her gag. It remindedher of when she had accidentally caught Eva’s hair on fire with a candle, but this smelled much more foul. Even theNazis winced. When the ranking soldier reached to click off the heater, he turned, smiled, and nodded at her. Yuri looked away.
Up ahead, a brick building with a massive stack bellowed the putrid smoke that changed falling snow to a dirty gray. Yuri almost said something in German but caught herself and faked a cough. Eva’s head burrowed deeper into her neck, and Yuri tightened her protective grip around her shoulder.
At the next checkpoint, the driver turned through an entry in the middle of an elongated structure. A watchtower satover the entrance with two large machine guns pointed outward. The train had pulled perpendicular to the building, and to Yuri’s horror, the guards unloaded people, not livestock. Their escorts also seemed surprised to see hundreds, if not thousands of human beings, get off the train. Yuri had many questions, but no one to ask. The guards were in ananimated discussion. She listened and understood their debate centered on how they would get past the mob to the German soldiers gathered at the far end of the rail yard. With train tracks on both sides of the road, they would have to walk through the crowd.
The driver placed the sedan in park, opened his door, and jumped from his seat. He flung open the rear door. “Schnell, schnell,” he waved for them to exit the automobile. As they stepped outside, the man pulled the blanket off their shoulders and tossed it into the back seat. The frigid air was as shocking as the silent mass of people. Curt orders from the German guards, the incessant bark of ferocious dogs, and the raspy caw of three crows sitting on the top of the watchtower echoed off the buildings. Yuri looked up at the birds that tucked and bobbed in excitement over the arriving trains.
The ranking soldier stepped out of the car, lit a cigarette, and pulled the collar of his heavy overcoat around his neck. He surveyed the crowd and shrugged. Then, like the parting of the Red Sea, the mass of people split in two, men on the left, women and children on the right.
Their escorts shoved Yuri and Eva forward through the open pathway. But after they’d taken a few steps, a guard dog with fierce dripping fangs jumped in front of them, stopping them in their tracks with its bark and growl. Yuri turned Eva away as the shepherd snapped ferociously at her chest. A guard with a machine gun in one hand held the dog back with the other and ordered them to stop. Warmth ran down Yuri’s legs as her bladder emptied.
The guard restrained the dog when the ranking soldier stepped forward and spoke. Since they’d arrived in the camp, Yuri had heard a name repeatedly throughout the checkpoints, Mengele. Hauptsturmführer Mengele. Doktor Mengele.
The guard pointed to the head of the line and restrained the dog to let them pass, but the animal continued to snarl and bite at the air, inches from Yuri. Even their escorts seemed intimidated, but this time they took the lead and motioned for the girls to follow them to the front of the line.
Yuri looked from side to side. She was shocked to see so many people, garbed in their everyday clothes, men in suits, women in dresses: grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers, mothers, and children of all ages. Some shot Yuri and her sister scornful glances as though they had cut in line at the movies. She couldn’t help but notice that they all had one thing in common—a Star of David pinned to their chests. They were all Jews. Jews whose pride, along with their clothes, hung dejectedly on their hollow frames.
A gunshot rang out to her left, and she jumped. A soldier pointed the smoking end of a pistol at a man who’d tumbled into the snow. Crimson blood instantly pooled by the victim’s head as two men in striped suits ran to the body,picked it up, and carried the corpse away. Yuri wondered what crime he had committed.
As their escorts arrived at the front of the line, they stopped where SS guards huddled in groups of twos and threes, smoking—waiting anxiously. Not one guard acknowledged the girls or their escorts.
Men in the canvas outfits instructed the Jews to straighten their lines and reminded them to remain silent. “If you coop- erate, you will soon be warm and well-fed!” one man shouted in Hungarian.
Are all these people Hungarian, like me? Yuri wanted to ask the woman standing next to her, but before she found the courage to speak, a large automobile pulled up. The SS guards tossed their cigarettes into the snow and stood at attention. The chauffeur quickly exited, opened the back door of the sedan, and snapped a salute. Out stepped an immaculately dressed man in his Schutzstaffel uniform. He wore no overcoat and seemed unfazed by the frigid temperature and fallingsnow. He placed his officer’s hat over slicked-back dark hair, threw his cigarette to the ground and crushed it with the toe of his shiny black boot—slow and methodical, in no hurry, as though enjoying a Sunday stroll.
The guards remained at attention as a hush fell over the frightened crowd. The intimidating officer took his time as he walked to the head of the multitude, periodically striking the side of his boot with a leather riding crop.
If Yuri’s bladder hadn’t emptied earlier, it would have now. But the man did something entirely unexpected. As he approached, he whistled—softly at first and then louder. Schumann or Strauss, perhaps. The soldiers stood rigid, but he ignored their formality. Instead of a salute, he stretched his neck, surveyed the crowd of soldiers and Jews, and nodded in acknowledgment.
This officer frightened and fascinated Yuri. His eyes scanned the organized chaos, not missing one element. He has done this before. With meticulous attention to every detail, he focused on the girls’ escorts in the space between the menand women. The officer pursed his lips in question, then moved his head from side to side to get a look at them. His cropsmacked hard against the top of his boot.
He squinted as he walked directly toward Yuri’s now so- bering guard, who stood erect and saluted with the rest of the soldiers. The guard’s legs flexed nervously as the man in charge approached with his jaw set and fury in his eyes. The officer unleashed a litany of verbal abuse at Yuri’s escorts, but paused when one motioned to Yuri and Eva.
The ranking guard stuttered—something about Hungary, something about twins, and something about their eyes. Asfast as the officer’s rage had manifested, it departed. He took a step back and slid the riding crop through his black leatherbelt.
When he approached Eva, her knees buckled, and Yuri supported her entire weight. As gently as a father, the officer removed Eva’s headscarf and ran his fingers through her silken blond hair. Then he pried her eyelids open to look into her eyes. He turned to Yuri and examined her in the same manner. His whistling had been unexpected, but he surprised Yuri when his face softened, and his mouth broke into a wide smile. Yuri didn’t know why he seemed pleased, but noticed the large gap between his front teeth. She thought it an odd anomaly for such an impeccable man.
“Wie alt bist du?” he asked.
Yuri understood he asked their age but feigned ignorance and shrugged, wary of any trouble once their escorts discov- ered they spoke German.
The officer called the other guards over, displaying Yuri and her sister like prized animals. The guards inspected their eyes and touched their blond hair.
The lengthy discussion the officer had with their escorts confused Yuri. Finally, the officer patted their driver on the shoulder, reached into his pocket, pulled out a velvet pouch, and handed it to the ranking escort who opened it and poured the contents into his palm: diamonds, rubies, and emeralds.
At that moment Yuri understood this was their final destination. The name at all the checkpoints led to this man. Mengele. Doktor Mengele just bought us. But it made no sense. Why us, out of all these people? Yuri tried to understand. The doctor then ordered his men to escort the girls to his sedan.
Once inside the warm car, Yuri and Eva shed their coats. The driver handed them each a piece of sausage and cheese, followed by a rare treat, even at home—chocolate.
As they watched from the automobile, Mengele separated the people in the line, waving them in one direction or the other: old men and women, and women with children to the left, healthy men and women to the right.
What a kind man, Yuri thought.
* * *
Yuri shivered and slipped her bare feet into the examination stirrups, wishing she had something to cover her nakedness. Her body quaked. It was not the cold that ignited her uncontrollable shaking, but fear.
Others had not been as kind as the doctor. After Mengele sorted the large crowd, he had taken Yuri and Eva to a two-story brick building marked with a small placard, BLOCK 10. Yuri’s frozen feet had barely carried her up the five steps. As soon as she entered, terrifying sights and sounds enveloped her. But she didn’t have time to dwell on them as a snarling woman wearing a Star of David grabbed her and Eva, brutally stripped off their clothes, and covered them with a caustic spray that burned their eyes. She teased them with terrible stories of what happened in this place. Where has this woman’s humanity gone? In one breath, she informed the girls that they would never leave Block 10, and in the next, she whispered a rumor that the Russians would soon liberate thecamp.
When a guard escorted Yuri and Eva to the second-floor ward, Yuri understood that the awful woman was not making up stories. Two women arrived on stretchers and writhed in pain from injections in their private parts—their groans and cries reverberated throughout the room.
The cruel woman woke Yuri at dawn with a strike on the top of her head from a riding crop. She led her by the arm to an exam room, then ordered her to undress and lie on this cold metallic table.
Now, a merciless woman in a German uniform tossed supplies on a stainless-steel tray with a clatter—dreadful-looking items that Yuri had never seen—a metal instrument that reminded her of a large duck’s bill and other tools, more appropriate for a carpenter’s shop. The Nazi woman arranged a variety of syringes and colorful solutions on the back table. Yuri had rarely been sick in her life and only remembered a doctor visit twice, but never for a female examination. As she was still a virgin, there had been no need.
“You’d better behave, mein Jüdin,” the woman warned. “You smell your fellow Jews roasting in the ovens today? You will be next if you don’t open your legs to the good doctor.” She forced Yuri’s knees apart and stood between them, daring her to resist.
Yuri had learned in the last few months not to look directly at a German, but she stole a glance at this woman who acted with such cruelty. Yuri had to see if life existed behind the cold, dark eyes, but her daring glance did not go unnoticed. The woman drew her pistol from its holster and brought the gun barrel down on Yuri’s forehead, followed bytwo lashes with the riding crop to the side of her head. Yuri whimpered, eliciting two more strikes from the whip.
“If you ever look at me again, you won’t make it to the ovens,” she hissed between her teeth and cocked the hammer on the gun.
“Maria!” a man’s voice shouted, sharp and authoritative. The woman quickly holstered the pistol and returned the whip to her belt.
Yuri recognized the tall man in the doorway. Mengele. Modesty and fear made Yuri close her legs and cover her chest with her arms, then recoil when the awful woman cocked her riding crop.
“Maria, you’re excused,” Mengele ordered. “This one is very precious to me. You may not strike her again.”
The woman clenched her teeth. “Ja, Herr Mengele,” she said and snapped her crop. “Just another dirty Jew slut.”
“Oh, but that is where you are wrong, Maria.” The doctor took two more steps into the room. He had shed his military jacket for a white coat, and a stethoscope hung around his neck. “Have you seen her with her sister? They are identical,” he said.
“We have many twins.” Maria shrugged.
“Look at those eyes!” he said, emphasizing the point with his hands.
Yuri looked away when the woman frowned at her. The doctor had already made a big deal out of them at the selections when he saw that both Yuri and Eva had one blue eye and one brown.
The doctor grabbed Maria by the arm and spun her toward him. “This particular anomaly, heterochromia iridum, occurs in six out of a thousand births, and identical twins occur in only three out of one thousand births.” He rubbed his chin, calculated, and then smiled. “Together, this combination is scarce—eighteen out of a million children! The condition fascinated even the great philosopher, Aristotle.” He squeezed her arm harder. “The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft will rejoice when they receive the specimens. They may promote me to Sturmbannführer.”
The woman ignored his excitement, but his eyes darkened, and his knuckles turned white as he continued to tighten his grip on her arm. She first looked at his hand and then to the floor.
“Yes, Maria, you will take special care, won’t you?”
The woman snapped to attention and glared at Yuri one last time before walking out of the room.
Like the passing of storm clouds, the overcast darkness dissipated from the doctor’s face, and he turned to Yuri with a smile. “How is my Hungarian dove this morning? Well, I hope. Did you sleep soundly and get plenty to eat?” He stepped to the table and placed a warm hand on Yuri’s knee and smiled.
It was true. She’d eaten a portion of meaty soup with a piece of bread that filled her more than her shrunken stomach could hold. With a mattress and warm blanket, she’d slept a deep, dreamless sleep even among the cacophony of moans in the room.
Yuri didn’t know if the doctor wanted an answer or not.
His gaze lingered on her body, and he licked his cracked lips. “Exquisite, my dear. Where have you been hiding all this time?”
Yuri understood he didn’t expect her to reply, but courage rose inside of her. She spoke without thinking, “My sister, where is my sister?”
Any kindness in his eyes vanished, and darkness overshadowed his face once again. He squeezed her knee to the point of pain.
Yuri’s body trembled.
“She is well cared for, of course. Do not worry your pretty head.”
“Doktor Mengele, could you come here please?” a voice called from beyond the doorway. “It’s urgent.”
The doctor hesitated but released her knee and left the room.
The door clicked closed, and Yuri’s eyes searched the room. Her body shuddered with fear and uncertainty. If she could only cover her nakedness. Is there no way to escape? Why am I ensnared in this madness? She lay back and closed her eyes.
Yuri shook her head to clear the memory of the night before the SS broke down the front door to their home. Yuriand Eva were celebrating the first night of Hanukkah with their parents. Papa carefully covered the first-floor windows before lighting the Shamash, the first candle of the menorah. All their other relatives—grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins— had either fled or were captured in the dragnet that forced all Jews into designated buildings, marked with the Star of David. Despite the visible signs of persecution of the Jews, Yuri’s German-born mother and Hungarian father couldn’t help their nationalistic squabbling on this night of the Festival of Lights and the memorial of freedom for the Jewish people. Instead of keeping the celebration joyful, her mother vehemently defended her German heritage: “My people could do no such thing,” she insisted when her father relayed the rumors swirling of death camps and Jews herded into abhorrent ghettos. Her mother would not accept the news of German families then inhabiting abandoned Jewish homes.
Papa, dear Papa. His anxiety was not overblown. He tried to stay calm and rational. Their hometown of Budapest continued as somewhat of a safe haven, but rumors swirled of persecution of Jews in other parts of Hungary, where the Germans had invaded from the west. Through Papa’s position at the bank, he’d secured false papers and went so far as tobuy crucifix necklaces for Yuri and Eva. He taught them how to cross themselves properly and recite the Christian prayers.
“Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name,” Yuri recited under her breath. She felt for the necklace butremembered she had traded it for a piece of stale bread.
She recalled their arrival in Austria and now understood why a kind, young doctor with blond hair had drawn Yuri and Eva out of the line of people boarding trains. He gave them bread, cheese, and a blanket, and put them in the sedan to Poland with the two SS guards.
She realized that it revolved around the random way they were born: twins, blond hair, and the anomaly their classmates had pestered them unmercifully about in school—their eyes of different colors. Even Papa had teased Yuri that she had stolen one of Eva’s eyes in utero because one of them should have brown eyes and the other blue instead of having one of each. That seemed to fascinate Doctor Mengele.
Yuri looked with shock at her naked body to see her pelvic bone so prominent, and her ribs protruding. She was not large-breasted to begin with, but since she had lost so much weight, her breasts had all but disappeared.
She pushed on her rumbling stomach when the doctor returned.
His face flashed anger, and his breathing came sharp and fast. He said nothing more to her, any compassion had evaporated. His hands trembled as he slid a glove over each one.
Then he forced Yuri’s legs open with his elbows and sat down on a stool with his face eye level to her groin. She jumped when he touched her and scooted away. He forcefully gripped her buttocks, pulled her to the edge of the exam table, and pushed her knees apart again.
Yuri’s heart raced. Why is this man doing this to me?
The doctor grabbed the duck-billed instrument from the tray. Yuri prepared for the worst and clenched her eyes closed. When nothing happened, she squinted and discovered the doctor staring at her. His kindness returned, and he said, “Mein yunges Fräulein, you are still a virgin?”
Yuri slowly nodded her head. She wondered why it mattered.
The doctor sighed, placed the instrument on the tray, and removed his gloves. “We should take care of that.” He stood,went to the open door of the exam room, then closed and locked it.
As he walked to Yuri, he removed his stethoscope and white coat and laid them over the instruments. Yuri closed her knees, but he put a hand on each and pried them apart. To look at him directly may get her killed, but she didn’t care. If he intended to violate her, he would have to look into her eyes— to remind him of her humanity. A girl from Hungary. A Jew. But his dark eyes filled with hatred and lust as he unbuckled his belt.
Yuri instinctively understood what was about to happen to her, but froze to the table. She pleaded with her eyes andtried to protest, but only a slight whimper escaped her throat.
“This is my gift to you, my dove.”
Yuri bit her lip hard, and the metallic taste of blood coated her tongue as the monster leaned over her.
He gripped the sides of the table, and her hands found his wrists, begging for him to stop. She tore at his sleeves to push him away.
His face turned red, and his breath deepened.
Yuri’s mind numbed. She had seen so much death and evil in the last seven months, her psyche wobbled on the edge of insanity.
Mengele pushed himself up and patted her on the head like a dog and smiled, showing the gap in his teeth. “Now, we can continue,” he said.
“Achtung, Achtung!” a male voice yelled from behind the door.
The doctor twisted toward the chaos erupting in the hallway and fastened his pants and belt.
A fist banged on the door. “Doktor Mengele. Die Russen kommen!” A man screamed. “Schnell! Schnell! Wir müssen evakuieren!”
The doctor turned to Yuri and slicked his dark hair back with his hand. His eyes widened, and he started to saysome- thing. He looked from Yuri to the door, then to her again. His shoulders drooped, and he slowly shook his head.“Mein Gott.” He walked to the door, and with his hand on the knob,
turned to take one more look at Yuri.
He opened the door to soldiers yelling and running in both directions. He nodded to her, walked out, and slammed the door behind him.
Yuri sat up and, with one hand, grabbed for the doctor’s coat to cover herself. In her other hand, she realized sheclenched onto a small item and brought it to her face. She fingered a gold cufflink. She turned it over to see two initials engraved in the gold: JM.