MISCHLING by Affinity Konar

Mischling
Most of us are aware of the horrific policies implemented by the Nazis during the Holocaust, but one area that seems further and further beyond the pale in terms of their barbarity and horror is in the realm of medical experiments.  The name that comes to the fore when thinking of such perverse behavior is that of Dr. Josef Mengele who conducted experiments on about 1500 pairs of twins in his laboratories at Auschwitz, of which maybe 200 survived the war.  Mengele was obsessed with the behavior and genetic makeup of twins which forms the infrastructure of Affinity Konar’s new novel, MISCHLING.  Mischling in German means “mixed blood” or “half breed,” and was the legal term employed by the Nazis to denote people with Jewish or Aryan ancestry.  There were different categories as delineated by the 1935 Nuremberg Blood Laws that the Nazis developed to determine whether a person was a Jew or of mixed blood.  This determination affected Jews on many levels and for far too many led to their ultimate extinction.

Konor develops her story through the eyes of Pearl and Stasha Zagorski, twin girls who at the age of twelve are seized and transported to Auschwitz in the fall of 1944.  Konor alternates her narration between the twins and begins with Stasha as she describes a white coated man walking over to the girls and their mother and grandfather as classical music plays in the background.  The man known as “Uncle” throughout the novel is Dr. Josef Mengele and after examining the girls separates them from their mother and grandfather and sends them to the Zoo, the name for the facility for Mengele to conduct his research.

Konor’s novel draws heavily on CHILDREN OF FLAMES by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel, and THE NAZI DOCTORS by psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton.  Despite her reliance on these works Konor is able to create two personalities that are hauntingly real as it is expressed by the continual dialogue between Pearl and Stasha, and their narration upon their separation from each other.  At the outset it appears that the twins are special and have a certain status, but once the experiments begin they are tossed aside just like any other Holocaust victim.  They may live longer, but if one of the twins happens to die, the other will follow almost immediately.  It was uncanny how Pearl and Stasha shared each other’s pain.  Pearl could be undergoing a certain experiment on one part of her body, and unbeknownst to Stasha she would feel pain in the same part of her anatomy.  Pearl would curse herself because her veins stood out and it made it easier for Mengele to inject what germs, viruses or poison he desired.  As awareness of what was occurring to them became evident the twins developed a new maturity and in Pearl’s case she went from being the more outgoing of the sisters before their incarceration, to becoming more methodical, and focused on her memories to survive each day; while Stasha grew feistier and more cunning in trying to cope with the evil that surrounded her.

The girls had been inseparable in their previous life, now found that as they grew apart they were no longer as devoted to each other.  It is heart breaking to visualize Pearl, who believed she was dying from the medical experiments that were conducted, tried to push Stasha away so she would not be so dependent; so when Pearl would eventually die, Stasha could move on.  The pain and anguish is palatable on each page as each of the twins feels less than whole, as each believes in their own way that their better half has been stolen from them, and they are surviving in a vacuum.  The experiments that were conducted were bizarre and the concoction of a demented mind; sewing twins together so they could not see each other, placing one twin in a cage and allowing the other to survive in the laboratory, and on and on.  Konar’s research allows her to reconstruct an alternate reality that was Mengele’s world and can only bring tears to the reader.

The second half of the book is not as focused as the first half and at times comes across as a bit disjointed.  The story revolves around the approach and the final arrival of Russian troops to liberate Auschwitz.  From there we follow the twins on their journey with a number of projections into the future.  Konar drills down into actual events and how the Russians treated the newly freed victims and follows Pearl and Stasha’s different paths.  We witness the Nazi attempt to destroy all evidence of what they had perpetrated.  The emotions and feelings of the newly released seem straight out of Robert Jay Lifton’s work as they suffer from “without self,” “survival guilt,” and other diagnostic terms.  The Soviets make a propaganda film of what they find in the camps and Pearl wonders what is actually taking place.  Stasha and Feliks, another survivor are committed to seeking revenge and travel toward Warsaw in the hope of killing Dr. Mengele.  We also experience the story of Dr. Miri, a Jewish doctor forced to assist Mengele’s work and how she seeks redemption and tries to deal with her guilt.

Overall, MISCHLING is a difficult read.  It is the type of novel that must be taken in small doses.  Though it reveals nothing new in terms of what we know of Mengele’s tortuous work, imagining what has occurred through the eyes of twin sisters and their perceptions separates Konor’s effort from much of the material that has appeared before.  If you choose to tackle Konor’s novel be prepared for the world you about to enter.

 

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