Recall the Horror 60 Years On
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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