Jona Laks was born in 1930 in Lodz, Poland. She was nine years old when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. On September 1, Jona and her family were returning to Lodz from summer vacation. They saw the Polish army as they were driving in and understood that war had begun. Jona and her family listened intently to the radio as the new German laws were announced, especially for the Jews. Jews were to identify themselves with a yellow badge. Jews could not be on the street past 5 pm. No Jews were allowed to attend a school or receive an education. Signs in all social places read, “Jews and dogs are not permitted to enter.”
Jona’s mother died of a heart attack. Shortly after, Jona and the rest of her family entered the Lodz Ghetto. In January 1942, the “final solution,” the elimination of all Jews, was put forth. Thus began the liquidation of the ghetto. Jona’s father feared that Jona and her twin sister Miriam were too frail to survive and proceeded to put the girls in a cupboard and pushed it against the wall. He covered the cabinet with bottles, and he went down to selection. His actions saved his daughters’ lives. Jona’s father and three sisters were deported to the Chelmno extermination camp in 1942. In 1944, Jona, Miriam, and their older sister Chana were deported to Auschwitz.
Due to starvation, the girls, especially Miriam, were underdeveloped for their age which led Chana to believe that Miriam wouldn’t survive selection. She pushed her to the back row and pinched her cheeks to look healthier. She also put her wooden shoes under Jonas’ shoes so she can appear taller. Unfortunately, her efforts were in vain. Jona was ordered to the left, which meant imminent death, while her other sisters were sent to the right. Jona was forced to run to the crematorium and undress. She could see the fire out the chimney and could almost feel the burnt flesh. She now understood that she was being sent to her death. To save Jona, Chana told Dr. Mengele that Jona and Miriam were twins and have never been separated. She begged to remain together. Chana was unaware of what this revelation truly meant for her sisters. The twins were to take part in cruel experimentation in the hands of the sadistic “Angel of Death” Dr. Mengele himself. When Dr. Mengele heard this, he ordered the officers to bring Jona back.
Jona was the last to enter the camp from all those in her transport to Auschwitz. All the other prisoners had already been deloused, shaved, and tattooed. Luckily, this late arrival saved her from losing her hair. She was, however, required to get a tattoo. The tattoo would be her new identity in Auschwitz. Jona joined her sisters in Birkenau. Chana was deported to a forced labor camp in Germany, leaving her sisters behind. Jona and Miriam endured painful experiments every other day of the week for their remaining time in the camp.
As Allied forces advanced, the prisoners were taken on a death march. The once white snow was now stained red with the blood of those who could not keep up. Because the Germans did not want any prisoners in Allied hands, they tried to get each one out of the region. The soldiers took Jona and Miriam to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Ravensbruck was overcrowded, and the girls were then sent to Malchow, a camp near Leipzig, Germany. The camp was so new that no medical equipment or medicine was available for anyone who was ill.
Jona recalls the following story: Upon leaving Auschwitz, prisoners rummaged through storage rooms in the camp to find anything they could carry with them. She and Miriam were small and weak and decided not to take anything. Miriam did manage to take a small bottle of medicine and had it with her throughout her journey. When the twins arrived in Malchow, Jona was so ill that she was thrown onto a dead body pile. Miriam alerted the prisoners that she saw Jona speaking, and Jona was removed from the stack and placed in a separate room. Miriam would visit her sister every day but was sent away each time. The prisoners told Miriam that Jona was dying and there is no medicine to help her. Miriam remembered about the bottle she had taken when departing Auschwitz. The treatment Miriam had kept with her saved Jona’s life.
Once again, the Allies were advancing. The prisoners now found themselves on another death march. This time they were to be drowned in the Baltic Sea. Every night, bombs were heard in the distance, giving them hope that the Allies were near. One night, the prisoners had decided to break open the doors and saw the German soldiers fleeing. They took off their uniforms and discarded their weapons. They thought they were finally free, but the Allies had not yet liberated that part of the country. The first thing the survivors did was to try and find something to eat. They ate whatever they could. Many died since they could not digest the large quantity of food. Jona and Miriam joined a group of nine girls and together began to walk. Some did not remember their home addresses and did not know where to go next. Not knowing their address became a problem when the town mayor announced that any non-German citizen should leave Germany and return from wherever they came. Lines of survivors began to march, leaving Germany.
The group of nine girls eventually reached Lodz, Poland. The lack of a Jewish organization to aid displaced survivors required Survivors to figure out their next move independently. Since some did not remember where they lived, Jona offered for them to stay in her home. They had no money, clothes, or belongings. The girls went to the address Jona remembered and rang the bell. After the third time she rang, they heard a shout, “you hooligans, what do you want?”. Jona explained that she lived there. They had had nowhere else to go. A woman came down, opened the door, and said, “you remained alive?” Frightened, the group ran away and never came back. They were once again homeless and hopeless. Suddenly, Jona and Miriam heard someone call their names in Polish. It was one of their teachers before the war. Graciously, she led them to an abandoned cellar. Although it was not much, the girls were happy to have a place to stay.
Every day at 5 pm, a train would come into Lodz with displaced Survivors aboard. All the Jews would run to the station in hopes of finding a relative who may have survived. After returning from the train with no luck, a man asked them if they had seen their sister Chana. He ran to stop the train before Chana could disappear. Chana managed to get a job in a hospital in another town and was forced to accompany an injured soldier to Lodz. She believed that her sisters were no longer alive. Chana had locked herself in the train, refusing to disembark to return to her new home. The Polish police were finally able to open the locked door, and behind it stood Chana, crying. Jona and Miriam heard this commotion and ran to inquire what was happening. The sisters were finally reunited. After the bloody Kielce pogrom took place, it became too dangerous for them to remain in Poland. The sisters were taken to London and taken care of by Jewish families.
In 1948, Jona settled in Israel. She married a fellow survivor who was also the sole survivor from his family. They had three children. Jona promised herself that if she survived the camp, she would tell her story. She founded and served as the chairwoman of the Organization of the Mengele Twins.
Who will be accompanying you on this journey?
My granddaughter Lee will be joining me to this delegation.