Konar, Affinity. “Mischling”, Lee Boudreaux Books, 2016.
It’s 1944 when twin sisters Pearl and Stasha arrive at Auschwitz with their mother and grandfather. The sisters Zagorski take refuge in their identical natures, comforting themselves with the private language and shared games of their childhood. The girls become part of Josef Mengele’s experiment on twins and as members of what came to be known as
“Mengele’s Zoo”, they experience privileges and horrors unknown to others. They also find that they have changed and that they are stripped of the personalities they once shared and that their identities have been altered by the burdens of guilt and pain.
That same winter, at a concert orchestrated by Mengele, Pearl disappears. Stasha grieves for her twin and holds on to the possibility that Pearl remains alive. When the camp is liberated by the Red Army, she and her companion Feliks, a young man who is determined to get vengeance because of his own lost twin, travel through the devastation that was Poland’s. They remain undeterred by injury, starvation, or the chaos around them and are motivated by equal parts danger and hope. They meet hostile villagers, Jewish resistance fighters, and fellow refugees and continue on their quest holding onto the idea that Mengele may be captured and brought to justice within the ruins of the Warsaw. As discover what has become of the world, they must try to imagine a future within this world that is so drastically changed.
The plot was inspired by the experiences of twins Eva and Miriam Mozes and while this is not an easy book to read because of its dealing with a terrible period of history, it is beautifully written as it deals with those who were forced to take part in Josef Mengele’s horrific human experiments. Pearl and Stasha show man’s inhumanity to man and the capacity to forgive it. It is difficult to think of anything that is more odious than what Mengele did to those in his charge but somehow this book is an
act of remembrance that is also a coming-of-age story about children who aren’t allowed to come of age. There is great power in author Affinity Konar’s words and there were times when I just had to stop reading because everything here is so real. It is a rough but very rewarding journey into the minds of Pearl and Stasha.
Konar set her novel in Mengele’s lab. When Pearl and Stasha arrive at Auschwitz in 1944, they soon find themselves faced with the man whose sole goal is to tear them apart. He admires their golden hair and their beauty but then labels them “mischlings” (a term they don’t understand, but which is used by the Nazis to designate children believed to be of Aryan and Jewish blood). He is kind to them and lets them call him Uncle Doctor. He also tells them that if they come with him, he will find a way for them to spend time with their mother who is also a prisoner at the camp. Pearl and Stasha become part of Mengele’s Zoo with other twins, triplets, an albino girl, a family of dwarves. They try, with the naiveté of children to outwit their tormentor. Stasha becomes Pearl’s protector because she is the delicate twin, especially, there is a fierce desire to protect Pearl who is taken from her during the experiments and there is nothing to say she is dead or alive. With the liberation of Auschwitz, Stasha and her friend Feliks escape from a group of prisoners being marched away from camp and head to Warsaw where they plan to find and kill Mengele. All Stasha has left is vengeance.
Konar unites the inherent evil of the situation with a wonderful response that tells of the deep and abiding kinship of the sisters and the fierce determination, love and pride that keep their hope alive in the most desperate of times.
The twins witness brutality and depravity that is very difficult to read about and Konar realizes that she is writing a book that others will have great difficulty reading. However, she does not write with a soft touch. She does not cover up what went on in Auschwitz and only those who have no sense of morality will be able to get through the pages with dry eyes. Yet this is a story that is infused with the kind of hope and striving for a better future that changes how we see Auschwitz.
Konar gives us the essence of what it is to be a human being who is able to walk away from the existential questions that can drive one towards the edge but who can then turn and walk towards the brightness of life still filled with awe and love. This is a story about strength even though we red of horrors that are hard to describe. The world continues even though the horrors of the past will never be forgotten. Neither will I ever forget Pearl and Stasha.