Accompanying a Holocaust survivor to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp where she was tortured and the Nazis murdered 1.1 million people, including her family, was nearly incomprensible for two former rural Arcadia men.
“It’s just very sobering to be faced with the reality of the physical evidence of an industry that existed basically to kill people,” said Dr. Eric Steenlage, who attended the 70th anniversary commemoration of the camp’s liberation Jan. 27 with his brother, Keith.
“You can’t wrap your mind around it,” he said. “You almost feel guilty — it’s challenging to put it into words.”
The Steenlages attended the ceremony near Krakow, Poland, in a group led by Eva Mozes Kor of Terre Haute, Ind., who survived at the camp only because she and twin sister Miriam became guinea pigs in Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments on twins.
As the Jewish Mozes family stood on the selection platform in 1944, a guard asked their mother whether the 10-year-old girls were twins, Keith said.
“‘Is that good?’ she asked. The guard said yes,” she confirmed that they were, and the girls were separated from other family members, who were sent immediately to a gas chamber to be killed, Keith said.
A 1991 book quotes Kor’s recollection of the incident: “Once the SS guard knew we were twins, Miriam and I were taken away from our mother, without any warning or explanation.
“Our screams fell on deaf ears. I remember looking back and seeing my mother's arms stretched out in despair as we were led away by a soldier. That was the last time I saw her,” according to the book, “Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz.”
“Standing there with her where she last saw her mom was very powerful and hard to comprehend,” Keith said. “I’d be lying if I said I could fully explain it.”
Mengele, often referred to as the “Angel of Death,” performed experiments such as daily massive blood draws, painful injections in spines and surgeries without anesthesia, including organ removal, castration and amputation, according to historical accounts. Sometimes, one twin was infected with a lethal disease and the other was not so that Mengele could kill the survivor and compare the results.
A historical account of Mengele’s experiments includes Kors’ recollection of one incident: "I was given five injections. That evening I developed extremely high fever. I was trembling. My arms and my legs were swollen, huge size. Mengele and Dr. Konig and three other doctors came in the next morning. They looked at my fever chart, and Dr. Mengele said, laughingly, 'Too bad, she is so young. She has only two weeks to live.' "
Although Kors proved him wrong, the Nazis killed an estimated 11 million people, including 6 million Jews, in the death camps in Adolf Hitler’s quest for a pure race. The Nazis also targeted Gypsies, homosexuals, Polish Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses and disabled people.
The Steenlages are history aficionados who became acquainted with Kor in 2013 at the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., when they and two other brothers sat at the same table with her.
She told them about her CANDLES initiative, which she founded in 1984 to help locate other twin survivors. CANDLES is the acronym for Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors, a name she chose to shed light on the massacres, especially in light of Holocaust deniers.
Kor, who managed to locate 122 Mengele twins in 10 countries across four continents, opened the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute in 1995. Many of the twins have struggled with health issues and many have died, including Miriam.
Eric, 46, an orthopedic surgeon in Atlanta, and Keith, 44, an attorney for Deere and Co. in Moline, Ill., are two of the eight children of Bob and Bobbi Steenlage of rural Arcadia. They became interested in the Holocaust as an outgrowth of their historical inquisitiveness, Eric said.
When people ask why the Holocaust intrigues him even though he isn’t Jewish, he said, “Holocaust history always has been very interesting to me as a human rights issue.”
Eric first visited Nazi extermination and concentration camps when he was doing knee reconstruction surgery research in Berlin 10 years ago. Keith visited him there, where Eric also was working as a doctor for an NFL Europe team, and they explored the camps together.
Their encounter with Kor intrigued them more, Keith said, especially when, during a trip to Auschwitz, they saw a photo of her among prisoners that a Soviet Army photographer took at the time of liberation — as well as the fact that she has taken the controversial position of publicly forgiving her Nazi tormenters.
“Eva’s message is somewhat controversial in general and in the Holocaust movement, but she decided to free herself from the influence the Nazis had over her. Many survivors can’t get out from under it,” Eric said.
“The good thing about her position, in my opinion, whether you agree or not, is it promotes discussion,” he said.
During the anniversary celebration, the 81-year-old Kor said, “As I observe 70 years of my liberation from this hell on earth called Auschwitz, I am glad that I forgave the Nazis. I have forgiven everybody who has ever hurt me — not because they deserve it, but because I and all victims deserve to live free of the pain imposed on us.
“As I look at the world today, we face many problems, such as the rise of terrorism,” she said. “We owe it to ourselves and the memory of Auschwitz to defend human life and decency.”
The reason that the 70th anniversary was an important milestone rather than waiting for the 75th “is very simple math,” Eric said. “Very few of these people will be alive in five years.”
People need to learn from the survivors while they are here so the tragedy they endured is not lost to memory or amid some factions’ denials that the Holocaust took place, he said.
“For better or for worse, the Germans were amazing record keepers,” leaving ample evidence of the death camps even though many records were destroyed, Eric said. “It boggles the mind that deniers of the Holocaust get any traction at all.
“It’s not just the Holocaust massacre of Jewish people,” he said. “It’s a human problem. It’s not a human thing for humans to kill other ones. The magnitude of it demands more attention than it’s getting.”