H o l o c a u s t   S u r v i v o r s '   N e t w o r k




"Auschwitz is a place where we share the responsibility to remember the past
with the goal of building a better society"

Abver Shalev



Auschwitz Survivors Recall the Horror 60 Years On


By Sabina Zawadzki
January 20, 2005


WARSAW, Poland (Reuters) -- Jerzy Afanasjew's body tenses and his eyes close when he recalls the day he crawled out from the overcrowded cattle train as a 14-year-old boy to begin a six-month nightmare.

It was hell. Hell. A death factory," he says in a measured pace. "If you weren't gassed, you were exhausted to death, if you weren't exhausted to death, you starved, if you didn't starve, you died of disease."

Afanasjew is one of a dwindling group of people who, by chance or cunning, cheated death at Auschwitz, the biggest Nazi extermination camp during World War II that has become the symbol of the Holocaust.

On Jan. 27, hundreds of survivors and dozens of world leaders will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the camp's liberation by the Soviet army and pay homage to the estimated 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, murdered there by the Nazis.

"Auschwitz is a place where we share the responsibility to remember the past with the goal of building a better society," said Abver Shalev, chairman of Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance institute, who will attend the commemorations.

Set up in 1940 by occupying Nazi forces near the town of Oswiecim in southern Poland as a labor camp for Poles, Auschwitz gradually became the centerpiece in Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler's "final solution" plan to exterminate Jews.

The scale of the industrialized killing at the camp, the cruelty of the guards and the pseudo-medical experiments conducted on prisoners by Nazi doctors have made Auschwitz synonymous with a coldly efficient genocide and total degradation of humanity.



Men, women and children -- mostly Jewish, but Gypsies, Russians and Poles too -- from Nazi-occupied Europe were taken to Auschwitz in overcrowded cattle trains. Many died of hunger and suffocation during the journey which usually lasted days.

Terrified, foul-smelling and starving, those who made the trip were often relieved at the prospect of fresh air and food. They did not know that the smoke from nearby chimneys was coming from crematoria burning the bodies of earlier arrivals.

Illusions were quickly dispelled as the guards separated those capable of hard work from the elderly and children who were sent straight to the gas chambers -- the process known in the camp as "selection."

Families were divided and many women who did not want to part with their small children were shot on the spot.

Those who survived the "selection," not knowing what happened to family and friends, were stripped of their clothes, belongings and identity. A number was tatted on their arm and they were given a soup bowl and spoon.

"They undressed us, shaved our heads and led us to a big hall with showers - the disinfection. I didn't recognize my mother ... I still find this hard ... Shaved. Naked," said Halina Elczewska, a Polish Jew who arrived in the summer of 1944.

Dressed in characteristic striped uniforms, the prisoners were then marched toward the labor camp under the gate adorned with giant inscription "Arbeit Macht Frei" (work sets one free) that came to symbolize the depth of Nazi cynicism.

The smell of burning corpses confirmed their worst suspicions as they gradually realized what fate met the others.



Crammed in bare wooden or brick barracks, prisoners worked 12-hour days in construction and factories. Better jobs were found in the kitchens or offices. They offered a chance to "organize" -- steal -- food and thus survive.

After sleepless nights and long hours of backbreaking work, the prisoners were forced outside to attend roll-calls which lasted for hours. Those who died were piled up next to the standing to be counted.

In the evening, drastic punishment for the slightest failure or simply a wrong gesture was meted out in what historians called a deliberate attempt to strip the inmates of their humanity.

"There was endless monotony, endless fear, endless roll call, endless shouts, endless beatings, endless smell of the burning flesh from the crematorium," said Afanasjew.

Compounded by epidemics, the death rate of prisoners was 19-25 percent a month in 1942-43.

Some prisoners, including Afanasjew, were subjected to experiments by Nazi doctors, led by the notorious Dr Josef Mengele who killed hundreds, seeking to prove theories of Ayryan supremacy.

And yet, among the misery, death and the struggle for survival, some inmates found the strength to help not just themselves. Stolen food would be shared and prisoners on their last legs hidden from further selections for the gas chambers.

A dark, macabre humor existed, said Myriam Nick, a Jew who survived several camps before arriving in Auschwitz in 1944.

Many in the camp believed the Nazis were using human fat to produce soap and Nick said friends would joke with each other when saying good-bye -- "Maybe one day, we'll meet again lying side by side as two bars of soap."



With the "final solution" accelerating just as the Nazis began to realize they could lose the war, the death factory at Auschwitz ran out of capacity in mid-1944.

The crematoria could not cope with the volume of bodies so pits were dug to burn them.

Auschwitz was not the end for all prisoners. Some were moved to new camps, others escaped and survived the war.

Afanasjew and Nick were among 60,000 who were marched out of Auschwitz just two weeks before liberation. The majority died, their corpses lining the roads near the camp.

When stunned Red Army soldiers arrived at Auschwitz, they were greeted by the sight of 7,000 emaciated inmates who had been left behind by fleeing Nazis.




© Copyright 2005 Reuters.