From Long Island to Auschwitz

After the locomotives lurched to a final stop at Auschwitz, after the whistle shrieked and the doors rolled open, after the bewildered masses tumbled out of the boxcars and onto the ramp, above the tumult of their own fear and the incessant barking dogs, all of them heard one word, and they heard it shouted twice.

One word shouted twice could help Jews live even as those next to them were sent to the gas chambers. One word shouted twice would link the crimes of Josef Mengele to a war against the weak waged by the eugenics movement worldwide — from the hills of Virginia to the gas chambers of Poland.

As the SS passed through the trembling crowds lining up for the gas chambers, they cried out for all to hear:

Zwillinge! Zwillinge!

Twins! Twins!

Lea Lorinczi: “When we got off the trains, we could hear the Germans yelling, ‘Twins, twins!'”

Lea and her brother were spared.

Moshe Offer: “I heard my father cry out to them he had twins. He went over personally to Dr. Mengele and told him, ‘I have a pair of twin boys.’…But we didn’t want to be separated from our mother, and so the Nazis separated us by force. My father begged Mengele…As we were led away, I saw my father fall to the ground.”

The Offer boys lived. Their parents disappeared into the selection.

Hitler and his henchmen victimized an entire continent and exterminated millions in his quest for a co-called “Master Race.” Mengele’s madness was part of that quest.

But the concept of a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed master Nordic race was not Hitler’s. The idea was created in the United States two to three decades before Hitler came to power, the product of the American eugenics movement.

Eugenics was the racist American pseudoscience determined to wipe away all human beings except those who conformed to a Nordic stereotype. The philosophy was enshrined into national policy by forced sterilization and segregation laws, as well as marriage restrictions, enacted in 27 states. Ultimately, eugenics coercively sterilized some 60,000 Americans, barred the marriage of thousands, forcibly segregated thousands in “colonies,” and persecuted untold numbers in ways we are just learning.

Only after eugenics and race biology became entrenched as an American ideal was the campaign transplanted into Germany, where it came to Hitler’s attention.

Hitler studied American eugenic laws and rationales and preferred to legitimize his innate race hatred and anti-Semitism by medicalizing it, and wrapping it in a more palatable pseudoscientific façade — eugenics. Indeed, Hitler was able to recruit more followers among reasonable Germans by claiming that science was on his side. While Hitler’s race hatred sprung from his own mind, the intellectual outlines of the eugenics Hitler adopted in 1924 were strictly American.

Eugenics would have been so much bizarre parlor talk had it not been for massive financing by corporate philanthropies, specifically the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune. They were all in league with America’s most respected scientists hailing from such prestigious universities as Harvard, Yale and Princeton. These academicians faked and twisted data to serve eugenics’ racist aims.

The Carnegie Institution literally invented the American movement by establishing a laboratory complex at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island. From Cold Spring Harbor, eugenics advocates agitated in the legislatures of America, as well as the nation’s social service agencies and associations.

Eugenics was born as a scientific curiosity in the Victorian age. In 1863, Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, theorized that if talented people only married other talented people, the result would be measurably better offspring.

In an America demographically reeling from massive immigration upheaval and torn by post-Reconstruction chaos, race conflict was everywhere in the early 20th century. Elitists, utopians and so-called “progressives” fused their smoldering race fears and class bias with their desire to make a better world. They reinvented Galton’s eugenics into a repressive and racist ideology. The intent: populate the earth with vastly more of their own socioeconomic and biological kind — and less or none of everyone else.

The superior species the eugenics movement sought was not merely tall, strong, talented people. Eugenicists craved blond, blue-eyed Nordic types. This group alone, they believed, was fit to inherit the earth. In the process, the movement intended to subtract Negroes, Indians, Hispanics, East Europeans, Jews, dark-haired hill folk, poor people, the infirm and really anyone classified outside the gentrified genetic lines drawn up by American raceologists.

How? By identifying so-called “defective” family trees and subjecting them to lifelong segregation and sterilization programs to kill their bloodlines. The grand plan was to literally wipe away the reproductive capability of those deemed weak and inferior — the so-called “unfit.”

Eighteen solutions were explored in a Carnegie-supported 1911 “Preliminary Report of the Committee of the Eugenic Section of the American Breeder’s Association to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population.” Although point eight was euthanasia, the breeders believed it was too early to implement this solution. Instead, the main solution was the rapid expansion of forced segregation and sterilization, as well as more marriage restrictions.

The most commonly suggested method of eugenicide in America was a “lethal chamber” or gas chamber.

Beginning in 1940, thousands of Germans taken from old-age homes, mental institutions and other custodial facilities were systematically gassed. Between 50,000 and 100,000 were eventually killed.

Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, a hero in American eugenics circles, functioned as a head of the Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics in Germany. In 1935, Verschuer left the Institute to form a rival eugenics facility in Frankfurt that was much heralded in the American eugenics press. Research on twins in the Third Reich exploded, backed up by government decrees mobilizing all twins. At about that time, Verschuer wrote in Der Erbarzt, a eugenics doctor’s journal he edited, that Germany’s war would yield a “total solution to the Jewish problem.”

Verschuer had a long-time assistant. His name was Josef Mengele.

On May 30, 1943, Mengele arrived at Auschwitz. Verschuer notified the German Research Society, “My assistant, Dr. Josef Mengele [M.D., Ph.D.] joined me in this branch of research. He is presently employed as Hauptsturmführer [captain] and camp physician in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Anthropological testing of the most diverse racial groups in this concentration camp is being carried out with permission of the SS Reichsführer [Himmler].”

Mengele began searching the boxcar arrivals for twins. When he found them, he performed beastly experiments, scrupulously wrote up the reports and sent the paperwork back to Verschuer’s Institute for evaluation. Often, cadavers, eyes and other body parts were also dispatched to Berlin’s eugenics institutes.

Rockefeller executives never knew of Mengele. With few exceptions, the foundation had ceased all eugenics studies in Nazi-occupied Europe before the war erupted in 1939. But by that time the die had been cast. The talented men Rockefeller and Carnegie had financed, the great institutions they helped found, and the science it helped create took on a scientific momentum of their own.

Auschwitz was the last stand of eugenics. The science of the strong almost completely prevailed in its war against the weak. Almost.

After the war, eugenics was declared a crime against humanity — an act of genocide. Germans were tried. Their American collaborators were not. Verschuer himself escaped prosecution. He re-established his connections with American eugenicists who had gone underground and renamed their crusade “human genetics.” Soon, Verschuer once again became a respected scientist in Germany and around the world. In 1949, he became a corresponding member of the newly formed American Society of Human Genetics, organized by American eugenicists and geneticists.

In the fall of 1950, the University of Münster offered Verschuer a position at its new Institute of Human Genetics, where he later became a dean. In the early and mid-1950s, Verschuer became an honorary member of numerous prestigious societies, including the Italian Society of Genetics, the Anthropological Society of Vienna, and the Japanese Society for Human Genetics.

Human genetics became an enlightened endeavor in the later 20th century. Hard-working, devoted scientists finally cracked the human code via the Human Genome Project. Now every individual can be biologically identified and classified by trait and ancestry. Yet even now, leading voices in the genetic world are calling for a cleansing of the unwanted among us, and even a master human species. Newgenics has wracked the insurance and employment world. At press time, America’s first genetic anti-discrimination legislation has passed the House and Senate. Yet most informed observers believe that because globalization now dominates genetics, no nation’s law can stop the abuses.

It ended in Auschwitz. But it began on Long Island. Can it ever return?

Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling author of the award-winning “IBM and the Holocaust” and the just-released “War Against the Weak” from which the following is an edited excerpt. He can be reached via