The way Chabad Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn heard of Jona Laks is a story in and of itself.
His friend Avraham Berkowitz, a Chabad rabbi in Moscow, happened to sit next to then Vice President Dick Cheney, his daughter Liz and his granddaughter at a ceremony in Krakow, Poland, that commemorated the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
When Liz Cheney asked Berkowitz to explain to her daughter the significance of the event, he deferred, instead inviting Laks to share. She did not say much, opting instead to roll up her sleeve and show Katy the number that Nazis had tattooed on her arm. Laks invited the girl to touch it.
“This is what this is all about,” she said, according to Mendelsohn’s account. “Hitler numbered us. Hitler thought of us as being people who had no value other than a simple number.”
And that was it.
The moment stuck with Mendelsohn. That and the fact that Laks was one of very few twins to survive the “experiments” carried out by Josef Mengele, dubbed the “Angel of Death,” convinced him he had to find her to share her story.
“I heard the story of this woman and how she so thoughtfully found a way to be able to teach a young child what the Holocaust means — to communicate that to such a young child to me was just so beautiful,” Mendelsohn said. “I felt that I have to find a way to be able to bring her out.”
After a handful of calls and Google searches in English and Hebrew, Mendelsohn found Laks, who is 89, and convinced her to come to Jackson to share her story. She is set to do so Thursday at an event organized by the Chabad Jewish Center of Wyoming.
‘The greatest tragedy’
“It’s vitally important to recall history so we don’t repeat it,” Mendelsohn said, “especially the greatest tragedy that has ever happened in human history.”
Laks was nine years old when Hitler invaded her home country, Poland, in 1939.She lived with her family in Lodz, due west of Warsaw, the capital. Though the Third Reich originally planned to move the country’s Jews to the north and east, which it had not yet annexed, Laks was confined to the Lodz Ghetto, where over 43,500 people died of hunger and disease.
After the Nazi government’s determination to systematically murder every Jewish person in German grasp, Laks’ parents were deported to the Chelmno extermination camp, where they were killed.
In 1944, Laks, her twin sister, Miriam, and their older sister, Chana, were deported to Auschwitz. There Laks was initially ordered to march to the crematorium. Her elder sister appealed to Mengele, mentioning she and her twin had never been separated, and an SS officer was sent to retrieve her and bring her into the camp.
What followed was unspeakable.
As Laks described in her address to the United Nations on Jan. 27, 2015, she and her twin became “guinea pigs” in Mengele’s “experiments”: injections that left some blind, surgeries that left others paralyzed, and other acts of torture that left countless others dead.
“It has been proven beyond any doubt that the experiments performed on twins in Auschwitz were not only cruel but also scientifically useless,” Laks said in an address to the United Nations. “It was just an additional way to torture.”
Laks and her twin were liberated May 8, 1945, the day after Germany’s unconditional surrender in World War II. The twins had spent four months on “death marches” from Auschwitz to the Ravensbruck concentration camp and, later, Malchow.
A survivor and messenger
Laks, who lives in Israel, is the founder and chairwoman of the Organization of the Mengele Twins, which, as Mendelsohn said, sought to be able to ensure that that story remains.”
“For us,” Laks said in her United Nations address, “the last surviving witnesses, the message is not to forget anything. But also that human life is sacred, and that we all must do everything in our power to preserve and prevent future major tragedies like the one that befell my people.”
In the light of recent shooting attacks on Jewish congregations in Pittsburgh and San Diego, Mendelsohn said it’s particularly important to hear Laks’ message now. He expects a strong showing from the Jewish community, but the event is open to the public and he hopes other people show up, too.
“It’s really important for us that the broader public understand the story,” he said. “It is so near and dear to our hearts because we want it to be near and dear to the human heart.”