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Jack Yufe dies at 82; he was raised Jewish, his identical twin as a Nazi

It sounded like a tabloid headline: Identical twins separated after birth. One grew up Jewish, the other a Nazi.

But the story of Jack Yufe and his brother was not just about their stark differences.

After decades and oceans apart, the men came together as adults to learn they dressed alike, walked alike, and had the same hot temper and quirks, including a fondness for scaring others with an explosively loud sneeze.

They both read books from back to front, loved butter and spicy food and flushed the toilet before they used it.

“They were a great example of how twins, despite different environments, ended up being very much alike,” said Cal State Fullerton psychology professor Nancy Segal, who studied the brothers as part of a well-known Minnesota research project on separated twins.

Yufe, a San Ysidro businessman, died Monday in a San Diego hospital from stomach cancer, his family said. He was 82.

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.

Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on Jan. 16, 1933, they were 6 months old when their parents split up.

Oskar went to Germany with his Catholic mother, Elizabeth, and grew up as the Nazis rose to power. Like his fellow students, he greeted the school principal with “Heil, Hitler,” and was warned by his grandmother to never let on that his father, Joseph, was Jewish. As an act of survival, Oskar joined the Hitler Youth movement.

Years later, he confessed that he had dreamed that he shot down his twin in an aerial dogfight. Jack had a similar nightmare about killing Oskar with a bayonet.

For Jack, however, the war was a distant threat, experienced mainly through newsreels he saw growing up in Trinidad with their father. His childhood was difficult in other ways.

“As a white, red-headed boy in a predominantly black and Indian culture, he stood out a lot and was beat up a lot,” said his son, Kenneth. “He was constantly having to prove himself.” Luckily, he was highly competitive and and excelled athletically.

Jack knew he was Jewish but didn’t feel the weight of that identity until he was 15 and was sent to Venezuela to live with an aunt who had been in Dachau and was the only European relative on his father’s side to survive the Holocaust.

She urged Jack to move to Israel and his father agreed that it would be good for him. Jack reluctantly emigrated at 16 and served a stint in the Israeli navy.

In 1954, before heading to the United States where his father had settled, he decided to stop in Germany to look up his brother. They were 21 when they met for the first time as adults.

The reunion did not go well. Because of the language barrier, “there was a lot of smiling but not much to say,” Yufe recalled in The Times in 1979. He also remembered that his brother, worried about anti-Semitic family members, insisted he not mention his Jewish heritage and hid the luggage tags that showed Yufe had been in Israel.

But there was something more upsetting than their differences.

When they met at the train station, Jack and Oskar were chagrined to find that not only did they have the same neat mustaches and receding hairlines, they were wearing similar wire-rimmed glasses and matching, light-colored sports jackets.

“We had identical clothes. I got mine in Israel and he got his in Germany. Exactly the same color, with two buttons,” Yufe recalled in a 1999 BBC documentary. “I said, ‘Oskar, you are wearing the same shirt and same glasses. Why?’ He said to me, ‘Why are you wearing same thing that I am?’

“We didn’t like the fact we looked so identical.”

They went 25 years without seeing each other again.

In early 1979, Yufe’s then-wife, Ona, showed him a magazine article about the “Jim Twins,” a pair of long-separated Ohio twins who were each named Jim by their respective adoptive parents. Like Yufe and his brother, Jim Springer and Jim Lewis found each other as adults and were astounded by the parallels in their lives, including similar jobs in law enforcement and ex-wives with the same first name.

The two Jims had become the first subjects of the Minnesota twins study. Yufe was intrigued and thought he and Oskar should also participate.

“I thought it perhaps would be a good idea...to meet in neutral territory to hash out all this, all the hidden feelings,” he recalled in an interview with The Times in 1979.

The researchers jumped at the chance and invited them to Minnesota for a week. Yufe and Stohr became the seventh set of twins to enter the study.

“Jack and his brother clearly have the greatest differences in background I’ve ever seen among identical twins reared apart,” Thomas J. Bouchard Jr., the University of Minnesota psychologist who headed the study, told The Times in 1979.

Bouchard found that, despite their radically opposite upbringings, they were strikingly similar in temperament, rate of speech and other characteristics.

“I always thought I picked up my nervous habits from my father – like fidgeting with other people’s rubber bands and pads and paper clips—until I saw [Oskar],” Yufe said in The Times. “He’s the same way.”

Although the brothers got to know one another much better through the study and subsequent visits, their relationship never lost its prickly edge. Oskar had the same competitive nature, and the rivalry between them “was just nonstop,” Kenneth Yufe said Tuesday, recalling the time the two men even battled to see who had the best technique for cleaning a dirty car window.

“They had an extraordinary love-hate relationship,” said Segal, who wrote about the brothers in her 2005 book “Indivisible by Two: Lives of Extraordinary Twins.”

“They were repelled and fascinated by each other. They could not let go of the twinship,” she said.

Stohr, who spent many years working in mines, died from lung cancer in 1997. Yufe did not attend the funeral, in part because he worried that he would only be a painful reminder of his twin’s death.

In San Ysidro, Yufe built a successful business selling blue jeans and work boots to farmworkers from the back of his van. He eventually opened a store, El Progreso, and went to work every day until he was 80.

He and his brother were included in a number of films about twins, including a 1999 German documentary, “Oskar and Jack.” 

Yufe, whose first marriage ended in divorce, is survived by his wife, Ruth; their children, Kenneth and Ani; two children from his first marriage, Hobi Reader and Devra Gregory; two stepsons, Renee and Enrique Vega; sisters Natasha and Sonja; a half-brother, Peter; and four grandchildren.

Segal once asked Yufe if he loved his brother. Noting that they spent no more than a month together as adults, he replied: “Love each other? We don’t even know if we liked each other.”

What he did know was that he could not blame his brother for the circumstances that put them on opposite sides of World War II.

“Children have no say in what they are taught,” he told Segal. “If we had been switched, I would have taken Oskar’s place for sure.

“It doesn’t bother me, but I’m glad I was not on the other side.”

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

Updated

Nov. 11, 7:06 p.m.: This story has been updated with additional information about Jack Yufe's survivors.

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