Survivors of Auschwitz Birkenau, the German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp, are fewer every year… fewer to bear witness to what was done here, to what no one ever should experience. Some never revisited the place, some waited many years.
Survivor Claude Bloch, today: “I couldn’t! It was overpowering. Those memories: standing at attention not allowed to move, up to our ankles in snow. I came back in 1983. I wouldn’t have done it for myself but because my mother was here.”
Bloch saw his mother for the last time as a group of women were led off to be gassed to death. Decades later when he returned he kept coming, to tell everything that happened to him and others to young people, so that someone will remember.
Bloch, guiding a group: “Imagine, men arrive [in the latrine], sit down… and are thrown out to make room for others.”
Survivors of the concentration camp nightmare share similarities. A long silence is one of these, almost their whole lives, and then finally deciding to testify, to whoever can hear.
Survivor Francine Christophe: “We were beginning to return to France one year later, when the country was already singing and laughing again. Here we came with these stories of horror, sometimes unbearable to look at. A lot of people didn’t want to hear us. I tried to tell school friends once or twice, but they thought I was deranged. What I was telling them was unbelievable. Could that have happened? No.”
Survivor Benjamin Orenstein: “I could not bear to hear people say that the gas chambers never existed, not only because people were killed but because this stole even their death from them. And so I joined the battle against denial of the Holocaust.”
Of the camps throughout Europe, 1.3 million prisoners were killed at Auschwitz alone**, 90 percent of them Jews. Survivor Anatoly Vanukevich is a Polish Jew. At the end of the war, Poland was in the grip of the Soviet Union. Stalin considered camp prisoners as subversive elements, and had them sent from Nazi camps directly to the dreaded Soviet Gulag camps.
Survivor Anatoly Vanukevich: “Some women tried to use chemicals to wash away their camp numbers — tattooed on their arms. Stalin did not recognise concentration camp inmates. Our Union of Young Prisoners was created later, in 1958. There were 160,000 members.”
Vanukevich tells us he was lucky. After the war he became a cooks assistant, got an education and a career in science. But Auschwitz haunted him, never really let him go. The gates, the piles of personal belongings near the ovens where 1.3 million people of all ages were turned to ash. These never left his memory. Many survivors would say, “We were freed but not free.” They had to learn to live again, almost all of them.
Survivor Francine Christophe: “I resumed my normal life quickly, because I was extraordinarily lucky. I found both my parents — very rare.”
Survivor Benjamin Orenstein: “Did I become an ordinary man? I can’t answer that. I seem normal. I’m talking into a microphone. I even drive a car. I watch television, euronews sometimes. I seem normal but I’m not. Because there’s something broken inside us, a piece that’s missing that we can’t replace. Ever.”
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