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Holocaust survivor risked life to save children from concentration camp
25 January 2013
Royal Holloway, University of London
To mark Holocaust Memorial Day, researchers from Royal Holloway university have revealed more of the extraordinary story of Zvi Spiegel, a Holocaust survivor who risked his life to save other prisoners.
At the age of 29, Zvi was one of the oldest of the male twins in the concentration camp Auschwitz. Experimented on by Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele, whose mission was to create a master race, Zvi was spared from execution by being appointed as supervisor of the younger twins.
In spite of the huge risk to his own life, Zvi lied to the doctor about the age of two brothers, György and István Kun, claiming that they were twins when they were not.
He also used his position to ensure that young twins were not chosen to be taken to the gas chamber. On one occasion, he broke out of the barracks and ran to the guards’ station, where he demanded to talk to Joseph Mengele. Zvi then alerted him to the fact that some of the twins were to be sent to the gas chamber, and the doctor called off the selection.
Zvi became a father figure to dozens of twins, mostly aged between nine and 15, who were the subject of Nazi medical experiments. He watched and guarded them whenever he could and also educated and comforted them, giving them hope that they would escape unharmed.
Following the liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945, Zvi’s dedication to the twins did not wane and he led 35 children on the journey back to Hungary. This was no mean feat in the chaos of the war’s aftermath, and travelling on foot, by truck and by train for six weeks, all but one made it home safely.
Zvi died at the age of 78 in 1993. He first told his story in a Life Magazine article in the 1980s and was reunited with some of the “Spiegel boys”, by then men in their 50s.
His story has been the focus of research by Royal Holloway’s Holocaust Research Centre, the leading academic centre of its kind in Europe.
Lead researcher Yoav Heller, from the Department of History at Royal Holloway, has unearthed for the first time details of the twins’ route back home, covering thousands of miles across Poland and traversing Slovakia, Hungary, Carpatho-Ruthenia and Romania.
He said: “Zvi Spiegel’s story is a poignant reminder to us on Holocaust Memorial Day of the incredible acts of kindness and bravery that took place in the face of such adversity.
“Zvi acted in the darkest of realities on the highest of moral principles. It is my hope that his story and our research will contribute to a deeper understanding of the Holocaust and the strength of the human spirit.”
Professor David Cesarani, from the Department of History at Royal Holloway, and one of the world's leading scholars on the Holocaust, said: “Our team at the Holocaust Research Centre is exploring every conceivable dimension of the Holocaust, but the experience of the victims, exemplified by Zvi Spiegel's story, is central to our mission to better understand the origins and consequences of the catastrophe. Royal Holloway is unique in this respect, with an internationally recognised research facility for work in Holocaust Studies that is unrivalled anywhere in this country.”
The Centre is also marking Holocaust Memorial Day with a lecture by Professor Jan Tomasz Gross, from Princeton University, on Monday28 January. More information about this free event is available here.