Like thousands of others since the end of World War II, Gabrielle Conlin is committed to making sure the world never forgets the grim details of the Nazi Holocaust.
But unlike many of those engaged in the task, Conlin is not Jewish and has no family ties to the Shoa.
At the age of 26, armed with a master’s degree in history with a concentration in Holocaust studies she received in June from Monmouth University, the devout Christian from Oceanport said she believes “these memories have to be kept alive; we have to put this information out to the world for future generations.”
Conlin counsels students and teaches Holocaust studies at her alma mater, Red Bank Catholic High School. She looks forward to continuing her research in a doctoral program in 2016.
In a Sept. 3 phone interview, Conlin said that not only is she intent on sharing the information, but she is especially concerned with relating two of the most dreadful aspects of the Nazi atrocities.
One is the exploitation of the Sonderkommando, the specially selected teams of Jewish men at six death camps. They were forced to escort unsuspecting fellow inmates to their deaths in gas chambers, then dispose of their bodies.
“Essentially the Sonderkommando were bearers of secrets,” Conlin said. “Their survival rate was only one to three months. Every three months, a new group would come in because those who knew the secrets of the extermination camps had to be killed.”
In addition, “they were viewed by some part of the survivor community as collaborators.”
On Oct. 7, 1944, there was a Sonderkommando rebellion in the death camp at Birkenau. Before the resisters were caught and killed, they blew up one of the four crematoria in Birkenau. “It put a damper on the Final Solution process and showed other prisoners that people were willing to revolt, and slowed down the mass efficiency process of the killing,” Conlin said.
According to her research, most of the Sonderkommando who survived managed to assimilate into the general population of Holocaust survivors, hiding their gruesome stories.
Conlin said that among 40 survivors she has interviewed, “some of them didn’t really know who the Sonderkommando were until after the war. But years have passed, and most of them say being a Sonderkommando was just a way of survival, that it was human nature to do something to survive — if only for one more day.”
Conklin is also interested in the sadistic work of Josef Mengele, who used Jewish and Roma twins for the twisted experiments he conducted at Auschwitz.
“Mengele was trying to create people with blonde hair and blue eyes,” she said. “He used one twin as a subject of a grim experiment and measured him or her against the twin who was untreated. He wanted to control the outcome of German women giving birth only to blonde-haired, blue-eyed babies.”
He also used the twins as guinea pigs by exposing them to freezing weather and high altitudes, and experimented with sex changes.
Last summer Conlin joined some 40 scholars on a pilgrimage to Auschwitz-Birkenau led by a surviving “Mengele twin,” 81-year-old Eva Mozes Kor.
Kor, who was born in Romania, runs CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Ind.
“She has special access to places in the camps,” said Conlin, who formed a close bond with Kor.
“We retraced her steps from the time she and her eight-year-old twin sister, Miriam, got off the train at Auschwitz. It was a very intense, emotional day, walking through the camps as she told her emotional stories. We were allowed to go to the places where she spent every day, and we had private access to see the building where Dr. Mengele did his experiments.”
Even though Mengele injected the sisters with tuberculosis, Conlin said, “Eva turned to him and said, ‘You will not kill me. I refuse to die.’ He thought that was funny, and he let them live. She had this will inside of her. She wanted to defy authority.”
Miriam died in 1993 from a rare form of cancer that might have been caused by Mengele’s torturous experimentation on her.
“Eva owes her survival to her feisty personality,” said Conlin. “She did not give up.”
Conlin hopes to study and teach about the Holocaust on a university or a high school level.
“Survivors are not going to be around in five or 10 years, and who is going to tell their stories and keep their oral histories? That is why I am very passionate in my career path,” she said.