Jan. 26, 2005
Heartbreaking, hopeful - and surprising


Among the plethora of Holocaust films at this month's New York Jewish Film Festival, which happens to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, director Gina Angelone's Rene and I stands out as among the most poignant.

In the documentary, Jewish twins who survived Josef Mengele's infamous experiments at Auschwitz tell the riveting story of their survival, their eventual reunification years after the war and their new life in America.

The tale, which includes anecdotes by some of the people who helped the siblings along, is at once both heartbreaking and hopeful - and surprising to the end.

In a recent interview, one of those twins, Irene Hizme, who now lives on New York's Long Island, shared a few more surprises with The Jerusalem Post about her life and her brother, Rene Slotkin.

Up until 1985, she said, when Mengele survivors gathered in Israel for a mock trial of the missing Nazi doctor, she said she had no idea any other children had survived his terrible experiments.

"I honestly thought that Rene and I were the only twins that survived," she said. "I was astounded. I just kept saying, 'Really? There's twins that survived?'"

In some respects, the little Irene knew of other child survivors paralleled her experience at Auschwitz, where she did not find concentration camp life unusually cruel or horrifying because that was all she knew.

"For many years I thought that Auschwitz was life - that was it," said Irene.

In one of the film's more heartrending moments, Irene explains with a sad half-smile, "I always tried to be good, because I wanted to be Dr. Mengele's favorite child."

Like many child survivors who later emigrated to the US, the admonitions Irene got from her adoptive parents not to talk about the numbers tattooed on her arm lasted well into adulthood. Even her own children did not know her Holocaust stories, she said.

Irene, more so than her twin brother, seems to have gone through more traumas than possible for a single person: losing her parents, being subjected to experiments by Mengele while seeking his approval, bouncing around from family to family in Europe after the war, getting sent to the US and then being rejected by successive American families.

But despite her multiple traumas - including a most surprising one toward the end, where we learn belatedly about one of the most remarkable aspects of this story - the portrait of Irene that emerges clearly is one of more than just another survivor. She and Rene turn out to be singular, wonderful people, both devout, both sweethearts, both observant Jews, both dedicated to others and to each other.

"I immediately fell in love with her," the director, Angelone, said of Irene. "She was so spiritual, so eloquent, so incredible."

But it took Angelone four years to convince Irene to agree to the film project.

"For years I said, 'Nah, leave me alone, I'm not interested. I don't want that kind of publicity,'" Irene said.

Rene was even more reticent.

But as Irene began opening up more and more about her experiences - on a trip to Dresden to inaugurate a new synagogue, at Holocaust Day speeches every year - Irene said she started to realize how important it was to tell her story.

"I was appalled by how little our young generation knows about the Holocaust," she said. "It's like some of them looked at me and said, 'Auschwitz- is that a brand of coffee?'"

Irene says she hopes the film will raise not only historical awareness, but money for a charity called Blue Card, which provides cash grants to needy Holocaust survivors.

Now that the full-length, 73-minute version of the film is complete and Irene is scheduled to speak about it to an audience in New York this week, she says, "I am excited, but I'm a little bit nervous also. I'm not that comfortable with so many people knowing about my life."

But it is a story that needs to be told continually, not only to people in America, but in the chaotic world at large, she says.

"Looking around the world today, sometimes it seems that we haven't learned anything."