I can understand why twins fascinate scientists. Watching them can reveal much about how personality develops, whether nature has more of an influence than nurture. But I feel for them, too. They’re children, not test subjects. At least, they shouldn’t be test subjects, which is what happens to Pearl and Stasha Zagorski in Affinity Konar’s troubling novel, Mischling. When the Zagorski family arrives at Auschwitz-Birkenau, they make a deal with Josef Mengele. In exchange for putting the twins in his “zoo,” he will spare the lives of the girls’ mother and grandfather.
While most novels with multiple protagonists have converging plots in which the protagonists join together to accomplish a goal or defeat an enemy, Mischling tells the story of two twins who grow further apart. At the beginning of the novel, Pearl and Stasha finish each other’s sentences and feel each other’s pain. They divide up the world so that one takes responsibility for remembering the past while the other is in charge of keeping hope for the future. But as Mengele’s experiments begin to take their toll, the girls’ different methods of coping with the twisted laboratory environment cause them to lose their close connection.
Stasha’s method of coping is to study Mengele and medicine, to become like the so-called doctors so that they might pass over the Zagorski sisters. Her delusion that she can understand Mengele and his people slowly detaches Stasha from the world—to the point where it’s clear she’s not living in quite the same reality as everyone else. Pearl, in contrast, becomes pragmatic and cynical. She lives in the zoo with her eyes wide open to Mengele’s lies and the cruelty around her. Near the end of the book, it’s clear that the girls have lost their connection as twins. Konar, for a long time, leaves the question of survival open so that I had to wonder if the twins would ever re-connect.
Mischling is one of the most disturbing pieces of Holocaust literature I’ve ever read. It provides a close look at what Mengele was up to in his laboratory at Auschwitz, which is chilling enough. But what really makes this book stand out is the way that we see how Mengele and the Nazis attacked the Zagorski twins’ minds. It wasn’t enough for them to conduct pseudo-scientific experiments on their bodies. The pressures of living in the zoo, in the middle of a death camp, break the girls’ spirits in irreparable ways. They might survive technically, but they will always have a part of them that was lost forever.