NEW YORK - The emotions are still raw and the images of horror are still vivid for Peter Somogyi more than 75 years after he survived the Holocaust.
The 88-year-old, who lives in Westchester County, was only 11 when he arrived at the Auschwitz concentration camp in July 1944. The ink is still visible from the prisoner number A-17454 that was tattooed on his arm at arrival. That's also when he first came face-to-face with notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.
"He didn't save me," Peter said. "He just kept me alive for himself."
"Mengele came around and asked for twins. My mother first didn't know what to say, second time 'no,' third time she said 'yes,'" Peter added. "Immediately, two adjutants grabbed us and we never had a chance to say goodbye."
Peter, his twin brother Thomas, their 13-year-old sister Alice, and mother Elizabeth had all unknowingly been in line for the gas chambers when the twins were plucked aside. They never saw Alice or Elizabeth again.
"The moment we got into the barracks, the man who was in charge, we asked him, 'When can I see my mother?' The first question. He said, 'Just look outside there' — flames," Peter said. "And then we understood that we would never see my mother again."
Mengele was young, charming, and outwardly pleasant — a facade that masked unspeakable evil. He was known as the "Angel of Death," often personally administering the 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 a fascination with twins.
Through Zoom, we spoke with Thomas, who changed his last name and now lives in Toronto.
"I think his aim was to find some kind of an algorithm or something to help German mothers to conceive and to bear twins or triplets or whatever to increase the German population," said Thomas Simon, Peter's twin brother.
He and Peter were so young when they met Mengele and his cohorts that they never really understood what was being done to them. They remember doctors drawing blood from their arms and measuring their heads.
"The one that I recall vividly, which was the most unpleasant, was taking an impression of my teeth — basically, somebody packed what I figured must've been gypsum, calcium sulfate, in my mouth," Thomas said. "I had to keep my mouth open. It was very unpleasant, I was choking — you know, gag reflex."
"Luckily there weren't brutal experiments like what was done before because we were just about the last arrivals," Peter said. "After us, only another pair came."
Peter and Thomas arrived at Auschwitz about six months before the camp's liberation. They were part of a massive group of more than 400,000 Jews packed into cattle cars and deported from Hungary in just 54 days.
A lot of children who came to the camps were killed right away because they weren't strong enough to work. Thomas said he is sure that he and his brother survived because they were twins.
"It's absolutely certain. There's no two ways about it," he said. "I would not be alive today if I hadn't been a twin."
Peter said that one day, another Nazi officer selected them for the gas chamber.
"We were taken out from the barracks into another room, locked inside and we waited for the truck to take us to the gas chamber," Peter said. "Except somehow or other, Mengele got wind of it and said, 'No, I will decide, not another officer.' And that officer apparently angered Mengele and he was sent to the Russian front."
Mengele is the reason the boys are alive — a dark irony.
After liberation, Thomas and Peter made their way to Israel, then London, and then 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 locations throughout Budapest.
The twin brothers worked hard in their new lives and raised beautiful families. Their father, Jozsef, survived the Dachau concentration camp and lived to be 105. Peter and Thomas know 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, there will be no survivors. We are all dying off sooner or later," Peter said. "There will be no survivors alive who were eyewitnesses."
Thomas has a plea to future generations.
"As far as I'm concerned, it was the greatest crime in human history," Thomas said. "And it must not be forgotten."