Peter Somogyi’s story is one that is hard for him to tell, but he hopes that in doing so he can help prevent what happened to him from happening again.
The Holocaust survivor spoke about his experience surviving Nazi experiments as a child imprisoned in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp during a Cornell Hillel event Oct. 21.
Peter was born in Pecs, Hungary in 1933, and said that he had a happy childhood until the Nazis invaded, where he and his family were forced to leave their home and spend months living in a ghetto. A few months later, Somogyi, his twin brother Thomas, his mother Erzsebet and his sister Alice were deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
While Peter and Thomas were taken away by the notorious physician Josef Mengele to be subjected to torturous Nazi experiments, Erzsebet and Alice were killed in the gas chambers and their bodies were burned.
“I asked [the man in charge of the twins] when I could see my mother. He didn’t say much, he just showed the outside, the burning chimneys, and said ‘That is where your mother is,’” Peteri said. “I would never see her again.”
Over the course of the war, Mengele experimented on over 3,000 children, including 1,500 sets of twins — infecting, disfiguring or otherwise harming many of them and measuring the effects of this treatment. Mengele targeted twins because he wanted to see how different harms affected genetically identical children. Only 200 of the children, including Somogyi and his brother, survived.
While Mengele frequently examined and measured Peter, and sometimes even took his blood, Peter said he was not subjected to the physician’s more deadly experiments — which he feels lucky to have not experienced.
Peter and his brother lived in crowded barracks with other twins and some people with dwarfism, who were also experimented on. Peter said he often smelled burning bodies from the incinerators and saw bodies on the road every time he was forced to walk from the barracks to Mengele’s office for experiments.
“Every day I saw dead bodies,” said Somogyi. “I could always see death all around me.”
Despite all these horrors, Peter remained determined to live. This courage helped him endure his time at Auschitz-Birkenau.
“I was always an optimist. I said I was going to survive,” said Somogyi. “That is what was driving me during those seven months.”
Russian soldiers eventually liberated the people imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau, including Peter and Thomas, but they had a difficult time getting home.
“It took us three-and-a-half months to get back, sometimes on foot, sometimes on a truck, sometimes on railroad cars,” Peter said.
Once back in Pecs, they stayed with one of their mother’s cousins. Their father Josef returned soon after. According to the Candles Holocaust Museum and Education Center, Josef had been sent to a labor brigade to assist the Hungarian army earlier in the war before the Nazis imprisoned him in the Dachau concentration camp, which he survived and was eventually freed from.
Peter and Thomas moved from Hungary to Israel in 1949 to live on a kibbutz, a cooperative farming-based community for a few years. Peter then joined the Israeli army. Eventually, Peter left the army, moving to England and later Canada, where he met his wife Anna, before moving to the United States.
Some members of the Cornell Jewish community had a personal connection to Peter’s story, including Cornell Hillel executive director Rabbi Ari Weiss, student executive board president Avi Kupperman ’21 and chair of cultural programming Jordana Socher ’23.
Weiss’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and so was Kupperman’s grandmother. While Socher’s grandmother and most of her grandmother’s family fled to Brazil from France during World War II, her grandmother’s brother stayed behind to join the French resistance and was killed by Nazis.
Weiss, Kupperman and Socher hoped that hearing Somogyi’s story encouraged people to learn more about the Holocaust and warned them about the dangers of anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice.
“People need to know what people are capable of doing to others when they are dehumanized and othered, and that this happened to Jews,” Weiss said.
While telling the stories of what he endured is difficult for Peter, he and his wife hope that the people who hear him pass his stories and their lessons onto future generations.
“In about 10 to 15 years from now, there will be no survivors, and a lot of people in the experiments did not survive the Holocaust itself,” Peter said. “We [survivors] really have to talk about it. We have to educate all of you young kids.”
Peter’s wife, Anna, hoped that those who attended the event would talk to others about what they heard.
“You can always say you saw or heard an actual survivor,” Anna Somogyi said. “It’s your responsibility, the second and third generation, to carry on and educate.”