On Shabbos, July 9, René Slotkin, child Auschwitz survivor and Holocaust educator, passed away on Manhattan’s Upper West Side at age 84. He was buried the next day at Riverside Cemetery in Saddle Brook, N.J.
René Guttmann, and his twin sister, Irene, were born on December 21, 1937 in Teplice, Czechoslovakia. Their father, Herbert Guttmann, was arrested by the Gestapo in late 1939, never to be seen again. He was killed in Auschwitz in December, 1941.
The 4-year-old twins were deported with their mother, Ita Guttmann, to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942. In December, 1943 the family of three was transported by cattle car to Auschwitz/Birkenau and were placed in a special Family Camp 2b2. René and his sister spent their entire seventh year in Auschwitz. They regularly witnessed Jews dying and being killed, and always feared being sent to the gas chamber themselves. On July, 10, 1944, the twins were chosen by the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele to be experimented on. Their mother was sent straight to the gas chamber. Mengele experimented on over 3,000 Jewish twins. Only 160 survived.
René and his sister were separated from each other and placed in separate quarters. Irene was experimented on and Rene was the control. Irene received injections that made her sick. As the Soviet army came near in the winter of 1945, 7-year-old René was sent on a death march, which he miraculously survived. Each twin presumed the other was dead.
After Liberation, René, who was sick with tuberculosis, was sent to a military hospital. He was subsequently sent to a convalescent home located in a Czech monastery. Upon René’s recovery, the medical director, a Jew named Dr. Kalina, brought René to live with his family in their Kosice, Czechoslovakia home. In 1947, fearing arrest from the new communist government, the Kalinas placed René at the home of their sister, Edith Mann, and fled the country. They ended up in British Mandate Palestine.
Irene, meanwhile, was taken in by a local non-Jewish family after the war had ended. She was subsequently brought to live in a Vaad Hatzalah orphanage in Fublaines, France. In 1947, Irene and a boy from the orphanage were taken by Rescue Children to do a public relations tour in the United States to promote public support and help for Jewish orphans. Life Magazine wrote an article about the two Jewish war orphans. Irene was then adopted by a philanthropic couple from Lawrence, Meyer and Dinah Slotkin.
In Haifa, Dr. Kalina read the Life Magazine article, realized this was René’s “dead” sister and contacted both parties. The Slotkins wanted to reunite the twins and adopt them both, an effort which took a couple of years and cost a huge amount of money.
René and Irene learned English, dropped their accents, changed their surnames to Slotkin and became All-American Jewish kids from Long Island. They both graduated from HILI (today called HAFTR), which the Slotkins helped found. The twins never spoke about their Holocaust experiences for the next forty years.
René married June Kotlow, moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, worked as a mathematician for 20 years and then taught in a yeshiva. He was an active member of Congregation Ohav Zedek (OZ). René also worked 36 summers at a Jewish camp in Tannersville, N.Y.
In 1985, Yad Vashem hosted a reunion for surviving Mengele twins, which René and Irene attended. A mock trial was held in absentia for Dr. Mengele using actual lawyers and judges from the Nuremberg trials. The twins gave their testimonies and enjoyed each other’s company. The experience had a cathartic effect on the two; they were now able to share with people what they went through in the Holocaust. The twins spent the next three and a half decades (Irene passed away in 2019) as Holocaust educators.
June Slotkin told The Jewish Press that her husband had something important to say and discovered that he was a good public speaker. He spoke at shuls, yeshivas, conventions and public schools. René also participated in dozens of Names Not Numbers and Adopt a Survivor programs. Audiences were drawn to René’s message because of his warm personality and American accent.
June continued, “René’s purpose in speaking to Jewish youth was to tell them that being Jewish is something to be proud of and being a good Jew should be your goal in life. He would emphasize that the Jews in Auschwitz helped each other out, which enabled him to survive. René would treat everyone with love, respect and kindness.”
June added that René believed that Hashem was with him the whole time because the numbers the Nazis engraved on his arm added up to 26 – the gematria of Hashem’s name.
Dr. Gary Lelonek, René’s son-in-law, told The Jewish Press, “My father-in-law loved Hashem. He possessed a tremendous belief in Hashem (a baal emunah), valued relationships and connecting to others. People were naturally drawn to him.”
René and Irene’s stories were told in Gina Angelone’s powerful award winning documentary, “Rene and I.” NBC aired the film in its entirety, without commercials, on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), 2004. The twins’ legacy was also preserved in singer Eitan Katz’s song and music video (featuring René) titled, “Forever Grateful.” They can both be viewed on YouTube.
René Slotkin is survived by his wife of fifty years, June Slotkin, his children, Zevi Slotkin, Rabbi David and Dina Slotkin, Mia and Dr. Gary Lelonek (all of Queens), and Corie and Mark Solasz (Roslyn, N.Y.), eleven grandchildren, seven great grandchildren, and brother-in-law Samuel Hizme. He was predeceased by his twin sister, Irene Hizme, and his adoptive sister and brother-in-law, Debra and Rabbi Eliezer Horowitz.