‘They were throwing children into fiery pits – it still gives me sleepless nights.’ Survivors recall horrors of Auschwitz
The Nazi-German extermination camp was liberated 75 years ago today by soldiers of the First Ukrainian Front of the Red Army on January 27, 1945, in one of history’s great paradoxes that saw soldiers of Stalinist totalitarianism bringing freedom to the prisoners of German totalitarianism.
To commemorate the anniversary, delegations from 60 countries and organisations, including presidents, prime ministers and kings, gathered under a specially constructed marquee at the symbolic Gate of Death at Auschwitz II-Birkenau to remember the 1.1 million people who were murdered by Germans in the largest documented mass murder in the history of the humanity.
The victims were mainly Jews, but also Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Roma and Sinti and people of other ethnic backgrounds. However, the focus is on the 200 survivors who have travelled to be at the memorial site today.
“These people will be main guests in the giant tent that has been built in the former Birkenau camp. Not politicians, not crowned heads, not heads of government, but them. They'll have the main speeches. All of us, those born after the war, will listen to them,” said Auschwitz museum director Piotr Cywiński during a press conference on Sunday.
In 2015 at the 70th anniversary, the number of survivors attending the event was 300, while in 2005 the figure was about 1,500.
Those who are still able to attend are in their nineties now and were children or teenagers when they were imprisoned in Auschwitz. By 2025, all of them, bar a tiny handful, will have passed on.
Their living testimony for humanity is therefore all the more important before it is lost forever.
From the group of survivors who made their way to southern Poland for the commemoration, a group of twelve met in a library in Oświęcim on the day before the anniversary to share their memories of their arrival at the camp and what happened to them.
“When you enter Auschwitz, they take away everything that makes you a person. They change you from a person into a tool. If you can work, you’re okay. If you can’t then you are just garbage.”
Leon Weintraub was 18 years old when he was sent to Auschwitz from the Łódź ghetto in August 1944. He ended up later in KL Flossenbürg and Natzweiler-Strutthof.
“We didn’t know where we were going. There were no signs. They told us they were sending us away for our own safety because the front was approaching. We were so disappointed when the herded us into the cattle wagons because it was clear they were not concerned about us. We were paralysed with fear.
“At Auschwitz, we were welcomed with “raus raus raus”. I saw a boy wearing pyjamas. They took away all my things, including my stamp collection. ‘You don’t need stamps here,” they said.
“I saw barbed wire – I saw electricity – I realised it was electrified, what kind of place needs electric fences, I wondered. Then we went for a shower, then a haircut. They took the hair from all over the body. There was a long queue, so they rushed the haircut, taking pieces of skin too. It meant that the disinfection was very painful. They put fluid on genitals, arms and head – it hurt a lot.
“We got clothes, trousers jacket and shirt, wooden shoes. In the barrack, men walked up and down shouting – if someone has hidden gold, dollars in their anus, they will see in the x-ray – then we will be punished. It was step-by-step dehumanisation.”
Weintraub then reflected on the nature of humanity.
“Racism is based on wrong premises – because we all come from the same source – research shows that we are the line of homosapiens. There is only one human race. I am a doctor, when a child is born, they have no opinions in their brain.
“Astronomers tell us there are billions of stars – we are just a little piece – and then we divided this little piece into thousands of separate pieces. To be respected you have to be ready to respect others. Stop the hate – learn to live with each other.”
Benjamin Lesser was born in Krakow in 1928. His father owned a successful chocolate factory as well as a wine and fruit syrup factory. His family fled to Hungary in 1943. In 1944 when the Nazis invaded Hungary, Lesser was sent to Auschwitz.
“We got out of the train. I was holding my sister and brother. They were telling people to go to the right or the left. It was the last time I saw my sister or brother – they went to the gas. I saw four or five strange chimneys with fire and ash, I saw Mengele. He asked, ‘Can you run 5 km or do you want to go by truck’.
“Why as such a question. I had no idea what it meant. They were testing us to see if we were strong enough to work. One boy had a bad knee, so he was sent to the right, to the gas. “I was 15 at the time. I went to Mengele and said I was 18, healthy and I can work. He sent me to the left, then to the bath house.
“In the barrack they started shouting at us: ‘You Hungarians, you think you’re here on vacation. See those ashes, they are your mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, you will all end up in ashes.’
Lesser continued to describe what he saw in Birkenau.
“I’ll never forget in the barrack. It was next to the pits. They were throwing children alive into fiery pits. We saw the flames and heard the screaming – they couldn’t be bothered to even kill the infants – they had no hair or gold teeth. So they threw them on top of the trucks with dead bodies for burning – it still gives me sleepless night.”
Talking about his duty as a Holocaust survivor, he said: “My obligation is to keep the memory alive. Life goes on – it is easy to forget – I will not allow the memory to be lost. Millions were slaughtered by the Nazis – if I don’t repeat what I saw they will die a second death.”
Stefania Wernik was born on November 8, 1944 in Auschwitz II-Birkenau. When she was delivered, she was given camp number 89136. Her mother also survived their stay in the German death camp.
“In May 1944 my mother went to take some food to her mother in Osiek. She was two months pregnant then. Osiek was in the Third Reich, so she had to cross the border with the General Government.
“She was caught by a German patrol and they sent her to Auschwitz. When she arrived she was greeted by a German female guard. ‘Do you know what a death camp is – the only way out is up the chimney,’ she said to my mother.
“She was supposed to be taken to Ravensbrück, but she told a friend that she was pregnant and she was transferred to another block, where she got a bit of extra food.
“When she gave birth to me my mother was only half conscious. I was born and they bathed me in cold water.
“My mother was almost dead at the time. She was too ill to feed me. A Russian women gave my mother her whole food ration and drank only water so that I could stay alive.
“Mengele took me for experiments. I don't know what he did, because there are no documents. However, I have felt the effects of these experiments all my life and I have always had health problems.
“When we were liberated, my mother weighted only 28 kilograms. She couldn’t hold a half litre pan of water. But she tied me to an upturned stool and pulled me home in the snow in minus 20 degrees.”
Janina Iwańska was 14 years old when she was expelled from Warsaw at the start of the Warsaw Uprising and sent to Auschwitz.
“The most tragic thing was the journey to the camp – I was in the Uprising, from Wola. In 4 days the Germans killed 50,000 people. We were sent to Pruszków then in goods wagons to Auschwitz.
“I knew that those wagons were the same ones that took Jews to Treblinka. During the occupation, we used to visit my family outside Warsaw and I saw the same wagons standing on ramps full of people moaning.
“They were waiting to be burned. I saw it when I was 14 years old. So I thought we were being sent to our deaths. We arrived at night – I remembered the smell of the burning bodies.
“It was the same as in Treblinka. So again I thought I would die. We undressed and they shaved our hair. When I got to the barrack, I looked out of the window. I saw a boy who looked like me. When I moved to the right so did he. Then I realised it my reflection, but I didn’t recognise myself.”
Josef Salomonovic was only three years old in 1941 when he was taken with his parents and brother from what is now Ostrava in the Czech Republic to the Łódź ghetto.
“We arrived at Auschwitz in mid-1944. When we arrived there was lots of shouting ‘Leave everything in the cars. Men to the right, women to the left’. My father and brother went to the right. I went to the left with my mother.
“They took my rucksack and my clothes. I didn’t see any other children, just women. They had no clothes for children. So, a kapo told me to go back and get my things. I found my shoes and my winter coat.
“The only thing in my coat was this spoon.” Salomonovic draws out a shiny teaspoon from his pocket. “A million spoons came to Auschwitz, but they were all confiscated. I managed to keep this one.
“A few days later, I was sent with my brother, mother and father to Stutthof near Gdańsk. They killed most of the other children. I don’t know why they didn’t kill me.
“They killed my father in Stutthof. Before they did it, they had to write everything down – name, place of birth, children’s names, parents’ names. Then they killed him by injecting him with phenol in the heart. They showed me the syringe.”