Children have little to no say in how they are going to be raised in life. Identical twins Jack Yufe and Oskar Stöhr, who were split up and lived completely separate lives from the age of six months, are the perfect example to illustrate this.
They were born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on January 16, 1933 — the same year that Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. Their parents parted ways half a year after the twins’ birth, each taking one child. From this point, their upbringing would be markedly different, most significantly their experiences of how the ensuing war shaped the world around them.
Jack remained in Trinidad, at that time a British colony, with his Romanian Jewish father. With a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm station on their island and U-boats lurking in the waters surrounding them, for Trinidad, war was on the doorstep despite being far from the front lines. A U.S. Naval Base was established on the island in 1941.
Their German Catholic mother returned to her homeland, taking Oskar and their older sister. Oskar was baptized with his mother’s family name, Stöhr, and raised by his strict grandmother. Like many of his peers in Germany back then, he became an avid admirer of Hitler and the warped ideology he preached. Oskar would have been six-years-old when he was enrolled as a member of the Hitler Youth (membership was made compulsory for all children in 1936).
Both of them were aware they had a sibling somewhere across the ocean but they spent the first 21 years of their lives knowing little of each other. Jack lived for a while with an aunt in Venezuela — his only Jewish relative who survived the concentration camps in Europe. At age 16 he traveled to the newly formed state of Israel where he served in the Israeli Navy, and later headed back West to settle in San Diego, California with his father.
Their first encounter was awkward, to say the least. In 1954, Jack traveled to Essen, West Germany to finally meet his twin. They shared little common language, but Oskar made it clear that being Jewish and having been in Israel were topics Jack should keep under wraps during his trip, including within the Stöhr household.
When they saw each other, it was almost spooky how similarly dressed they were. Both had donned similar light-colored sports jackets and shirts and wore pretty much the same style of rimmed glasses.
“I said, ‘Oskar, you are wearing the same shirt and same glasses. Why?’” Jack would say in a BBC documentary in 1999. “He said to me, ‘Why are you wearing the same thing that I am?’”
Despite a raft of shared mannerisms, for example both used their ring finger to scratch his head, the suspicion and enmity of their upbringings was a barrier that could not yet be breached. Jack’s week-long visit ended with a cold, formal handshake. The brothers were left unsettled by their similarity.
It took them some 25 years to make another attempt at bonding. In 1979, Jack learned about a study on twins to be carried by the University of Minnesota. After persuading Oskar to agree, they signed up to take part as one of the program’s sets of identical twins.
“Of 137 pairs of separated twins in the two-decade University of Minnesota study, 56 were fraternal and 81 were identical. Yufe and his brother, Oskar Stohr, stood out because of their dramatically dissimilar backgrounds,” notes the L.A. Times on the study.
Soon the twins began to learn how astonishingly matching their shared traits really were, such as reading the last page of the book first and a fondness to do things like sneezing as loud as possible in public. They shared a similar taste in clothes as well food; they even had a similar gait.
As it turned out, regardless of their radically different backgrounds of how they were raised, the two brothers shared way more in common with each other than the majority of other twins in the study.
To be clear, there were still grave disagreements between the twosome. One subject that Jack and Oskar later opted to avoid was politics. They argued on issues such as the Israel-Palestine question and other related affairs. Their shared fierce temperament was not helpful when it came down to confrontations.
Onlookers would comment that with all their shared behavior and completely different stances on certain matters, the brothers garnered a special type of “love-hate relationship.”
The families of the two men agreed that neither were the easiest person to have at home but they were both very much loved by those near and dear to them. Jack’s wife Ruth would tell the Associated Press: “They were fascinated by one another, fascinated by their similarities, intrigued that the worst traits that they saw in themselves were mirrored in the other one. They were hot-tempered and short-tempered and impatient, demanding.”
Importantly, they managed to maintain their perplexing bond, one which set them at the center of scientific nature versus nurture discussions.
Their friendship came to an end with Oskar’s death due to lung cancer in 1997. Some relate the disease with his years working as a miner. His brother did not attend the funeral, feeling that his physical similarity would be upsetting for those grieving Oskar.
Jack died in 2015 at the age of 82, after suffering with stomach cancer, in San Diego. He had retired just two years previously. His business which he launched in the 1980s was based in El Progreso, where he sold clothes and other apparel.
The twins have appeared in several documentaries, and they feature in the book Indivisible by Two: Lives of Extraordinary Twins (2005) by psychologist Nancy Segal.
Their story is a compelling reminder that people can always learn to accept each other no matter how different their upbringing is or how much their ideological beliefs differ. As, indeed, it was never them who decided who would get to speak Yiddish or who would get to speak German in hectic times for humanity.