Sora Seiler Vigorito remembers how Josef Mengele smashed her hand with a hammer. And she remembers how he covered parts of her skin with a substance that burned its way through.
But more than the details of the torture she endured in the Nazi doctor's laboratory, Vigorito remembers how it felt to be there.
"There was fear," she says, "a tremendous amount of fear."
The German-born Vigorito was just 3 years old when she was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and singled out by Mengele because she was a twin. At an age when she should have been running and playing with dolls, Vigorito and her identical sister, Channah, were locked in a cage in Mengele's laboratory.
Only Channah didn't live to tell about it. Shortly before liberation in January 1945, she suffered a series of convulsions and died in the tiny cage the toddlers shared.
Vigorito recalls that when Mengele came to steal her sister's lifeless body from her grip, she stood up and, in an unplanned act of defiance, slapped the doctor across the face.
"I didn't want to lose my sister. That's all I had to hold onto," says the Cleveland resident, who will share her story in the Bay Area tonight and tomorrow. "It's like being in a world where nothing is safe. She was safe and I didn't want to lose that."
At first, Mengele did not react to the slap. Later, he returned and smashed Vigorito's hand with a hammer to teach her a lesson. It wasn't until Vigorito had surgery years later that her hand returned to normal.
The 53-year-old Vigorito, in fact, bears multiple physical scars from Mengele's medical experimentation, including burns across her chest, and some marks she cannot even identify. She bears deep emotional scars as well. At the same time, she also displays remarkable courage and faith, which she attributes to her Judaism.
"Judaism gives me everything," says the survivor, now a clinical counselor specializing in women who have undergone childhood trauma. "It gives me hope. It gives me a sense of purpose. It gives me a perspective and a sense of worth. Those are very important things."
Vigorito's connection to Judaism hasn't always been so strong.
In 1956, she and her father — he had survived Dachau; her mother and older sister died in Auschwitz — moved from Toronto to Syracuse, N.Y. When he died a year later, Vigorito was made a ward of the state and sent to a Catholic orphanage. Some years later, she met and married Frank Vigorito, a man of Italian Catholic descent. They had three children.
As the children grew, Vigorito became involved in the local synagogue, wanting her children to have the Jewish upbringing she had missed. But the involvement led to conflicting emotions. "I thought I couldn't handle it," she says. "I had too many unresolved difficulties with God's place in regards to the Holocaust."
It took her some time to come to a resolution.
"I learned not to blame myself," she says, "that it didn't happen because I was Jewish but because people hate Jews. In order to understand why God permits some things in life, I'd almost have to be God."
As Vigorito continued to reconcile her wartime experiences with her Judaism, her connection to religion deepened. She began studying Judaism and keeping kosher. Finally she began to travel from her home in Erie, Pa., to Cleveland to improve her Hebrew skills and continue her Jewish education.
In 1988, the family moved to Cleveland so Vigorito could be close to the city`s observant community. Shortly thereafter, her husband converted to Judaism and added Avraham to his first name. The couple is now affiliated with Chabad.
Their marriage is truly a story of devotion. Though Frank Vigorito knew his wife had survived the war, it took years — and some study on his part — until he fully comprehended what she had endured.
"We did not talk about it all at once, but little things came out because I had nightmares," she says. "He would compare it to things that were not comparable and I would get a little angry, and we would talk some more. He was very compassionate."
Vigorito still has nightmares and flashbacks and believes she may for the rest of her life. At the same time, she believes pain dims, and that, in large part, is the message she wants people to hear.
"I tell them that at the moment of despair it's very difficult to see the light and to see hope," she says. "But I personally believe that if you can connect with one caring person, there's hope for everyone."