So sad to inform you of the death of 95 year old Stephanie Heller, twin, wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and remarkable witness to history. Stephanie is a Holocaust Survivor, who endured the death camp of Auschwitz, one of the last people to have known Dr Josef Mengele and to be able to describe - though never to understand - his sadism and brutality.
Stephanie Heller’s extraordinary survival story, along with that of her twin Annetta Able, appears in our new book Just Add Love. I only know these two wonderful, warm, wise women because of this book, another of the privileges of this project.
If you have the book, you can prepare some of their dishes in her honour. As my tribute, I would like to feature her story again here. I last saw Stepa, as she was known to friends and family, when she and Annetta came to our Melburne book launch this May. This photo of the two women warmed my heart, as did the presence of so many members of their families.
If I feel sorrow, I cannot even imagine how bereft Annetta is - she often signed her emails ‘Stepannetta’, to signal it was from both of them, and also they were almost one person. They knew they were not the same person, of course, and Annetta was a more cheery personality than Stepa, but they were identical twins who endured so much together, and kept each other alive in Auschwitz. They were each other’s North Star for more than 9 decades. After a few years of separation, in the 1960s both migrated to Australia so they could live in peace, side by side - and then did just that, living around the corner from each other in Balwyn in Melbourne for more than half a century.
In 1985, they travelled to Jerusalem to give evidence to an international inquiry that found that Mengele should stand trial for crimes against humanity. The two were listed by Guinness World Records as the oldest twins to have survived Mengele’s medical experiments in Auschwitz.
There were times no one could tell Annetta and Stepa apart – not their parents or teachers, when they were children in Prague; not patients or doctors when they worked as hospital nurses after the war; and pretty much no one, when they were young mothers pushing prams together.
“Even we have trouble when we look at old pictures, somebody salvaged some and sent them to us, and we don’t know who is who,” Stephanie confessed when I sat looking at albums with her in Annetta’s living room, where the above photo was taken.
“When we were young, we believed we were two bodies with one soul, only later we realised we are actually different,” Annetta added then, to explain why they sometimes quarrelled.
They shared memories, and often unsure which belonged to her and which to the other. Most importantly, they kept each other alive in the death camp of Auschwitz, during the dark days of World War Two.
“We relied on each other, it was our joint willpower that made us survive, plus the good upbringing we had from our mother. This is what she taught us: Be happy, there is always someone in a worse situation than you. Share. Give the bigger half to your sister,” Annetta explained.
“For my good luck, I was always with her, I couldn't have survived without her,” Stephanie said. “Our mother taught us to always look on bright side and it helped us in bad times. In the concentration camps I always felt it could be worse, it is better because I have my sister here.”
huntING FOR TWINS
Being twins literally kept the two women alive in Auschwitz. They arrived at the death camp in early 1944, when they were 20 years old. SS Haupsturmfuhrer Dr Josef Mengele was prowling the railway siding, on the lookout for twins (and also dwarves and giants) as trains arrived. Annetta and Stepa caught his eye.
Mengele was a doctor, but primarily a sadist, who conducted grotesque medical experiments on prisoners, torturing, maiming and killing them. These included operations without anaesthetic, removal of body parts, injecting twins with deadly viruses to see if they had different reactions, and killing patients to determine how diseases had spread.
After Mengele found Annetta and Stephanie, they were kept in a special section of the death camp with the other twins who were his human guinea pigs.
And yet they outlasted Dr Mengele by decades, living fulfilling lives with the families they built, around the corner from each other in Melbourne, Australia,
Despite phases of sorrow, Annetta and Stephanie remained lively, acute, warm, funny, tolerant and full of energy. Their new families expanded till they had grandchildren – and later great grandchildren. And for 95 years, until 11 September 2019, they had each other.
This is how Stephanie answered the question of whether Annetta was a good cook: “I think that her chicken soup is much better than mine. I don’t make it because hers is better. She always says my goulash is not spicy enough. So maybe hers is better than mine too.”
“I cook with love. I put my love in it, my heart in it,” Annetta said.
Annetta and Stephanie Heilbrunn were born into a secular Jewish family in the majestic Czech capital Prague in 1924. Growing up, the girls attended state schools and felt very much a part of their society.
“We knew we were Jewish but we were above all patriotic Czechs,” said Stephanie. “I won a prize for an essay I wrote on the Czech Republic, and I was chosen to parade in front of our first President, Tomas Masaryk, carrying the national flag. This made me very proud! Being Jewish was part of our life, but we didn't feel different.”
The teenage twins were aware that elsewhere in Europe Jews were being attacked during the 1930s, but didn't think that would affect them.
“That was far away, we are a democratic republic, it won’t happen here – that’s what we thought,” Stephanie explained. “We were part of the community. I didn't feel like an intruder or that I didn't belong. Only when Hitler came we were made to understand that we are not the same.”
German troops occupied Czechoslovakia in March 1939. They met no resistance and Adolf Hitler arrived to mark the conquest the following day.
Anti-Jewish laws were enacted almost immediately.
“We were not allowed to go to cinemas or theatres, parks were forbidden to us, we were not allowed to sit at the front of the tram, we couldn't walk down some streets and couldn't go to the city centre. We had separate ID, stamped J for Jew, and our rations also stamped with J,” Stephanie recalled. “We had Christian friends who might have helped but our policy was not to ask, because our mother didn't want to harm anyone. She was careful not to be seen with her Christian friends, so as not to endanger them.”
Jewish property was confiscated and the twins’ parents lost their jobs. Annetta and Stephanie, now 15, couldn't do any further study. Their little sister Elizabeth, had to stop going to school at the age of 9.
“Life was uncertain, we didn't know what the next day would bring, and this made it very miserable,” Annetta said.
In 1941, the twins found work in a Jewish orphanage, which provided them with accommodation and food. Later that year, their parents and their little sister were ordered to leave, on the first transport of Czech Jews out of Prague. Jews were told to gather at the city’s Exhibition Centre with two suitcases, to be taken east.
No one knew what that meant, but when the twins heard their parents were leaving, they went to join them. At 17, they felt too young to be separated from their family. But they were not allowed inside the Exhibition Centre.
“We were standing outside, crying when an SS man came and asked what was wrong,” Stephanie recalled.
They told him they wanted to join their parents. He said they should go home, get their suitcases and return in the morning, when they would be able to go too.
“We were so we were happy, so we got our small possessions together, we didn't have suitcases, and the next morning we went to the meeting point and no one was there any more. They were sent away in the night. So we never saw them again. I remember the last moment we saw them, the last glimpse we had, that was the last time,” said Annetta, eyes full of tears.
While the twins returned to the Orphanage, their parents and sister were being taken to the Jewish ghetto of Lodz in Poland. The only thing that eased their desolation at being separated from their parents was being together.
They returned to work, and realised that was another balm, as was being surrounded by young people. A handsome newcomer called Egon Kunwalder appeared and soon he and Stepa fell in love. They decided to marry, though since they were just 18 years old, this required special permission. That only arrived some months later. March 1942 was not an auspicious date for a Jewish marriage in Europe, but they held their registry office wedding. Stephanie remembered being sad that her mother didn't know she was married.
They were married for only 2 months when they received more bad news.
In May 1942, Annetta was to be on the next transport of Jews out of Prague.
Annetta’s destination would be Theresienstadt, a concentration camp the Nazis set up in the Czech fortress town of Terezin.
It was a transit camp for holding Jews before moving them on to the death camps, and also functioned as a “model” ghetto, in order to dupe the Red Cross about conditions for Jews held by the Nazis. That propaganda project was successful, although tens of thousands died at Theresienstadt, some killed outright and others from malnutrition and disease. More than 150,000 Jews were sent from there to their deaths at Auschwitz and Treblinka.
Below, Czech Jews being deported to Theresienstadt, between 1941-1943
The twins didn't know any of this. They wanted to stay together, so Stephanie and her new husband Egon volunteered to go with Annetta to Theresienstadt.
“We assembled at the Exhibition centre, we were taken in and registered for the transport, they took our wedding rings, my husband’s hair was cut short and the next morning we were told we were not allowed to go,” Stephanie recalled.
Once again they learnt that Jews in Nazi occupied Europe could only be moved, they couldn't move themselves.
Annetta was deported without her sister. It’s a mark of the strong relationship between the twins that when Stephanie and Egon discovered 6 months later that they were also to be sent to Thereseienstadt, they felt relief.
The sisters were reunited in late 1942, and both found work in a children’s hospital, as carers in an infectious diseases ward.
“I was working with adults as well as children and that’s when I saw my first dead person. It was a great shock for me, her name was Theresa like my mother, and I started imagining my mother, and saying to myself, I don’t know where my mother is, is she alive, is she dead, it was dreadful,” Stepa recalled.
You can watch the interview that Stephanie gave in 1996 to the USC Shoah foundation – her ‘Spielberg interview’ – here.
Egon began to despair, confessing to Stepa that he didn't know if they could survive the brutal conditions in Theresienstadt. Stepa tried to encourage him, but then they received more bad news. They were to be moved on again.
In December 1943 Annetta, Stephanie and Egon were transported to Auschwitz.
They journey was by cattle truck. The girl who had written the winning essay about the Czech Republic and carried the flag in front of her President was leaving her homeland in a vehicle used for ferrying animals. Stepa was crammed in there with hundreds of others, including her twin sister and her husband.
There was no place to sit or lie, no light, just a tiny barred window at the top, which they couldn't open from inside.
“The toilet was one bucket. The worst thing I remember up to that moment in my life was that I had to go to the toilet on a bucket in front of strangers,” Stephanie said.
When the bucket was full, it had to be lifted up to the tiny barred window, and its contents flung out. After days, the train stopped and those who survived the journey were relieved to jump down. They couldn’t imagine they’d reached somewhere even worse.
Below, Jews arriving at Auschwitz, 1944
“On the platform, they shouted ‘Men and women have to separate’. I didn't even have a chance to say goodbye to my husband,” Stepa recalled.
It was cold and grey and they had no idea where they were. Confusion was part of the process.
People were being chosen for life or death, there on the platform as they arrived. Being twins worked in the girls’ favour, though they were older than the other twins Josef Mengele usually selected for his experiments.
He had special plans for the 19-year-olds from Prague.
Annetta and Stephanie were tattooed with a number on their forearms. All their possessions were taken away, and they were given one piece of clothing and one pair of shoes in their place. After that they were sent to Birkenau, where the main gas chambers and crematoria were situated. They were to be kept alive - for now - in the section known as the Family camp.
“My sister and I were put to work in a block which was like a sick bay. We didn't have much to give the patients, we fed them their ration, I don’t think we even had bedpans, just buckets at the back of the building. Not much to comfort them with,” Annetta said.
As part of their job in the sick bay, the twins had to carry out the corpses of those who didn’t survive their 'treatment'.
“Some of the people in the sick bay may have been twins who were operated on by Mengele. We didn't realise it. There were Dutch twins and one of them died. And when we had to take the body down, it was dreadful she had sores, and there were worms in her wounds already. And there was another woman who was pregnant when she came to Auschwitz, and at 6 months they aborted her, to see if a woman can survive an abortion at 6 months. She did survive. But afterwards she was sent to the gas chamber anyway,” Stephanie said.
“Every day people who died were piled up behind the barracks. They were mostly naked because their clothing was taken by other prisoners, in the urge to survive. The dead didn't need it any more,” Stephanie explained matter-of-factly.
“I remember one occasion very clearly. Annetta and I had to move a pile of corpses, it was dark and we had to take one the arms, one the legs, and heap them up on a lorry. Someone else was standing on the lorry, piling them up higher and higher. The sight of those corpses was terrible, they were skeletons, and sickly looking. You couldn't see if there was someone you knew, you wouldn't recognize them. I remember one corpse had half a face eaten by a rat.”
These are horrors most people find it hard to take in, but that’s how Annetta and Stephanie spent the year they turned twenty.
“Well we were more or less like robots. We had seen so many dying and handled so many dead ones, I can’t count. For me at that time it was just work we had to do, and we had to push our emotions back. It wasn't a question of thinking this might have been a person who used to look nice, we couldn't think like that, we just had to be robots. Because if we’d sit down and cry, we’d collapse,” Stephanie explained.
Annetta said that she still can’t get those images out of her mind, all this time later.
“Loading up the truck with dead bodies was a horrible task for girls our age. We tried not to look at the person because we might have seen somebody we knew. That was only way we could get through you know. And I can’t forget the smell of the chimneys where the people were burned. We were told it was place where we would finish, too. Luckily we didn’t.” Annetta paused. “That’s why I enjoy each day which starts peacefully and ends peacefully, and brings the fruit of the life.”
Stephanie didn't see her husband for some time. But she heard he was still alive. When he was given a delousing job, which involved him going from block to block across the camp, they had the chance to meet.
“He was a very depressed young man, still tall and handsome but not the same personality. He said ‘We are not going to survive this.’ I couldn't do anything, I just tried to tell him that I am optimistic and that this won’t last long, and we will stay together, but I think that was the last time I saw him,” Stephanie remembered sadly.
“FOR ME AUSCHWITZ IS MENGELE”
In that living hell, unimaginable even as you listened to them describe it, Annetta and Stephanie saw themselves as having been lucky. They had not been sent to the gas chambers, they were alive, and were being fed so they would remain alive - for Dr Mengele.
Below, left, Dr Josef Mengele, and in centre of photo, with Auschwotz SS colleagues, right
“He was the master of our lives. We were just like dogs waiting until he whistled, to be taken here and there to be examined or to do this and that. We knew he held our lives in his hands. He was a person that you could think he was nice, if you wouldn’t have met him there, if you wouldn’t have known what he was doing there. He was always whistling, he liked music, we knew he had a wife and a child in Germany. You can’t understand it," said Stephanie.
One day in late July or early August 1944, Mengele took Annetta and Stephanie to to see the camp where the gypsies were held.
“He took us only us two, I don’t know why,” says Annetta.
Some 23,000 Gypsies (Roma) were imprisoned in Auschwitz, since they were another group the Nazis targetted for annihilation. By this time there were about 3,000 gypsies remaining. (Another account has the number as high as 4,500.)
Below, Gypsy (Roma) families at Auschwitz. Less than 10 per cent of the Gypsies deported to Auschwitz survived.
Both girls noted with surprise that conditions in the Gypsy camp were different. Men and women stayed together, along with their children. They had also been allowed to keep their musical instruments.
“Mengele who was a cultured man and a lover of music made them play for us,” Stephanie recalled.
The twins listened to the wonderful impromptu concert. It was so different to their normal, terrible days that it remained etched sharply in both their memories.
Annetta recalled that after the children sang and played their violins, one little boy ran after Mengele.
“He was like his protégé, he always ran after him, and he called him Uncle Josef. And we both thought that the people there were much better off than us because they had family and children. But the next day we found out that they had been all sent to the gas chamber. All of them! And that little boy was also taken with his parents.”
Of the 23,000 Roma held at Auschwitz, it's estimated that only 2,000 - less than ten per cent - survived. Mengele also conducted his lethal medical experiments on these prisoners.
“Why did Mengele take us there?” Stepa wondered when she told this story. “Maybe he wanted to show us that if we co-operate with his experiments, we will be better off. I don’t know. He didn't say anything to us.”
“After that we knew that what had seemed like his kindness to bring us there and see them so happy was just a cruel game,” was Annetta’s summary.
Mengele’s plan was to mate Stepa and Annetta with another set of identical twins, so they would reproduce and he could conduct tests on their babies.
“We didn't hear anything, we didn't know anything, we thought we’d been selected for special type of work, we didn't know it would be experiments on human beings,” said Stephanie.
The Nazi team found 2 male twins from Poland who were the right age.
“We were taken to the lab, where Mengele measured us, he had an interpreter, and a girl who was making sketches. There were also x-rays, gynaecological exams, injections; I can’t remember all the tests. They wanted to establish if we were identical and when they found we were,” Stepa explained.
“We were told we would have to copulate with those boys and eventually we would get pregnant. And then eventually they would have killed us to find out what we carry, they wouldn't have kept our children, they didn't want us or the children, they just wanted the guinea pigs,” said Stepa.
“Mengele’s aim was to find out how to make the German population increase in size as quickly as possible. He wanted to know if identical twins mate with identical twins, will their children will be twins again, if it’s in the genes? I don’t know how much scientific knowledge he had, or how much sense there was in this. It seems to me that it was pointless on many occasions,” Stephanie said.
In pursuit of dubious scientific results, Mengele is believed to have experimented upon 1,500 sets of twins. Only an estimated 180 to 250 individuals survived.
In late 1944, Annetta and Stephanie were taken back to the lab. Each woman to a room with 2 beds.
“One for a male twin, one for one of us.”
All four were given blood transfusions, from one to the other – in fact, a blood swap. The purpose of this is not clear. But one thing is certain: it was painful, and dangerous.
“It was also frightening, because it was big amount of blood and a big needle, and not much hygiene there, no local anaesthetic, and it was not compatible blood. We had a very bad reaction,” said Stepa.
The girls were very sick. They didn’t know the fate of the boys. They were not allowed to talk to each other, and anyhow couldn't communicate as the boys spoke only Polish and Annetta and Stepa spoke Czech.
The twins speculated that their illness was the reason Dr Mengele postponed stage two of the experiment – the mating.
“Perhaps he wanted to find other twins for us? We don’t know. But it was fortunate, because we had been in Auschwitz one year by then,” Stephanie recalled.
It was now the end of 1944 and Allied forces were nearing the camp. Mengele couldn't continue his experiments and suddenly one day he was gone.
“Our block BII-B was liquidated, we were sent to the women’s camp for a few days and then the whole of Auschwitz was emptied,” Annetta recalled.
Every prisoner who had not been killed was marched out, while the Nazis destroyed records, and tried to cover up evidence of what they'd done out at Auschwitz, ahead of the advancing Russian troops. When Soviet soldiers reached the camp 9 days later, they found the corpses of thousands of prisoners the SS had executed before their depature.
Some 60,000 prisoners were marched out of Auschwitz in the freezing January of 1945, Annetta and Stephanie among them. SS soldiers forced exhausted underfed people to walk miles through the snow at gunpoint.
“We thought this would be march to freedom, but it wasn't, it was the Death March,” Stepa recalled. “What was intended was that people should die along the route, as many as possible, because we weren't given food. We had guards with dogs behind us and if you couldn't continue and stopped, even to relieve yourself, you were shot.”
Annetta remembers melting snow in their hands for water.
“We saw many dead bodies along the way. If they didn't shoot you and you were left behind, you could freeze to death.”
Some 15,000 prisoners died on that march, from exposure, exhaustion, illness, or being shot for falling out of line. After days of walking the prisoners didn't know where they were. Some women, including Annetta and Stephanie, were sent by train to Germany, to the women’s camp at Ravensbruck, north of Berlin.
Over-crowding was extreme, as there were prisoners from all over Europe. The twins were lucky to be among those moved on to a sub-camp called Malchow.
“There we had better food and warm water where we could wash our clothes. Unfortunately Annetta got typhoid, not badly, but there was no medication. Somehow she survived," Stephanie recalled.
"We had a positive attitude then too. We always saw behind the door the sunshine. In Auschwitz, one day in the summer a weed grew in that sea of mud and death. It was one of those with a yellow flower. We were so happy to see it. We said to each other one day we will have a garden, we will live again in a place where there are flowers," Stephanie smiled and then began to cry.
One night it was quiet they were not called out for roll-call. The German guards disappeared. For Annetta and Stephanie, it was the end of the war.
They left Malchow, mingling with the German population who were running from Allied bombing of their towns. American troops took them to a tented camp they’d set up where refugees could be looked after. After a long series of journeys, later in 1945 they finally returned home to Prague.
Their parents and sister had not returned.
“I remember we were walking through the streets and there was a young girl and she looked like our little sister, Elizabeth. We called to her 'Lizzinka!' - that was her nickname - but it wasn't her,” said Stephanie, still heartbroken.
Their parents had died in the Lodz ghetto, but they only found out their sister's fate many years later. Elizabeth was taken to the Chelmno extermination camp, north of Lodz, in the "poison vans" - a kind of mobile asphyxiation chamber which the Nazis used to kill Jews in that area in 1943.
“When I think of that terrible end, of her gasping for air, I can' t bear it,” said Annetta.
Eventually Stepa found out from other survivors that her husband Egon hadn't survived either.
“Somebody told me he took his own life, that he threw himself on the electrified barbed wire at Auschwitz. I don’t know. All I know is that he didn't come back,” said Stephanie.
In Prague the twins did find friends from before the war and a Christian couple took them in.
“We lived like family. We called them mother and father. But we were adults. We were 21, I was a widow. So we decided we would do something with our lives, and we enrolled in a nursing course,” Stephanie said.
LOVE - ANNETTA
In 1947, the twins went to a dance in Prague to celebrate graduating from the nursing course.
A handsome man asked Annetta to dance. He said he knew her. George Able, who was 17 years her senior, said he remembered her from Auschwitz. Annetta wasn't sure, so he suggested that she lift her sleeve. ‘If your number is similar to mine, then we were in the same camp at the same time.’
Their numbers were close and suddenly Annetta did remember.
“He was the good looking one who came once to take the dead bodies from our block.”
Stephanie summarised it this way: "There was a romance and after that she married him, her husband who came to Australia, the father of her children, my brother-in-law who we met in Auschwitz."
LOVE – STEPHANIE
In 1949, Stephanie moved to Israel. Annetta and her husband followed. Stephanie believed that after losing Egon she would never find love again, but, one day in Tel Aviv, she met a tourist from Kenya. Robert Heller was actually a Jewish European whose family had been lucky to migrate to Kenya before the war.
It was love at first sight.
After they married, Stephanie moved to Kenya.
The sisters who had relied on each other for everything now lived apart. They wrote each week, but they longed for their families to grow up together, in a calm democratic tolerant place.
They applied to migrate to Australia.
Stephanie arrived first, travelling by ship in April 1962, with her children Naomi and John. Annetta came not long after. After 8 years apart, the twins were thrilled to be living around the corner from each other in Melbourne. They remained there for almost 60 years.
Annetta’s life philosophy has always been to be grateful for everything good that happens, especially after experiencing so much that was terrible.
“The other important thing, as well as gratitude, is to make other people happy, and when you fill their stomachs they are happy. It’s the secret to a good marriage,” she smiled. “And that’s why I cook for everyone.”
Annetta’s recipe for Goulash is available in our cookbook, Just Add Love. There’s also a recipe for the perfect accompaniment - home made Nockerl, a nubbly pasta also known as Nockedly or Spaetzele, depending on whether you are in Germany, Austria, Hungary or Czechoslovakia. The combination is delicious, as is Annetta’s recipe.
Hope brings you further
Last word to Annetta and Stephanie, about faith, hope and survival.
“I thought a lot about death as I saw it daily around me, but I didn't think I would be the one with death on my shoulder,” Stephanie explained. “I always believed that I would come out alive. I don’t know why I was so optimistic. Maybe it was the fact that Annetta and I were together, and could say to each other, ‘Tomorrow will be better.’ But we didn't philosophise. There was no time to think or talk, as we were always struggling to survive. Every minute of the day.”
Annetta says that she also believed they would come survive the War.
“We had hope. Somehow. We didn't think we would die. We were always optimistic otherwise we wouldn't be here. Hope brings you further.”
Rest in peace dear, brilliant Stepa. You affected each person you touched. Yehi zichra baruch - may your memory be blessed. For everyone lucky enough to know you, it already is.
Stephanie Heller 1924- 2019