75 years on, the faces of Auschwitz survivors

8 min

Jerusalem (AFP)

Ahead of events to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, AFP has been speaking to some of the death camp's last survivors.

Originally from Europe, they spent part of their childhood in the notorious extermination camp before moving after World War II to Israel.

The survivors lost the majority of their families in the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were killed by Nazi Germany.

Commemorations have been planned in Jerusalem on January 23, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron attending, and in Poland on January 27.

Here are brief profiles of the survivors interviewed by AFP:

Szmul Icek

Born on September 20, 1927, in Poland

Auschwitz number 117 568

Szmul Icek struggles to speak following a car accident, but he found it hard to talk about Auschwitz even before his health problems.

At the mention of his parents and sisters, killed by the Nazis, he cannot hold back his tears. Despite the support of his wife, daughter and grandchildren, Icek's wounds have never healed.

After living in Belgium for many years, Icek moved to Jerusalem and for the first time began uncovering the prisoner number tattooed on his arm at Auschwitz.

Despite his difficulties communicating, Icek was keen to help his wife Sonia as she told AFP the painful story of his arrest and separation from his family.

In contrast to some survivors, Icek never returned to Auschwitz after the war and avoids reading books on the subject.

"I don't know how to explain what happened," he told AFP, his eyes swollen with tears.

While Icek's parents and two sisters were killed in the Holocaust, his two brothers survived.

Avraham Gershon Binet

Born on January 15, 1938, in Czechoslovakia

Auschwitz number 14 005

Avraham Gershon Binet was just six years old when he arrived at Auschwitz, but has clear memories of "hell" at the camp.

Binet said that he never cried at the death camp, because he feared it would get him killed.

"Every day, children were killed for nothing, but I never cried, I was strong," said Binet in his apartment in Bnei Brak, a Tel Aviv suburb.

He was deported along with his brother and sister, who survived.

Binet now dedicates his mornings to studying sacred Jewish texts, spending his retirement doing things his parents wanted him to as a child which were banned by the Nazis.

Dov Landau

Born on August 10, 1928, in Hungary

Auschwitz number 161 400

Used to speaking publicly about his experience, Dov Landau has returned to Auschwitz more than 100 times with school groups and others.

Proud of his descendants -- 91 family members all living in Israel -- he weaves his story like a horror film.

His small apartment is akin to a museum commemorating the Holocaust, with photos and archive documents.

Landau was forced onto the "Death March" when, as the Soviets advanced, the Nazis made prisoners from extermination camps walk in deep winter towards their other camps.

Half of his companions died during the journey and Landau ended up at Buchenwald camp before being freed.

He kept his prison trousers and smiled as he showed them to AFP, proud that he could never fit into them now.

With a powerful voice, Landau still sings at his local synagogue in Tel Aviv, and recounts Auschwitz atrocities with a certain distance.

"My father told me: 'we are separating, we won't see each other again'.

"He put his hand on his head and added: 'You will survive this hell and I ask you only one thing -- stay Jewish!"

Helena Hirsch

Born on May 23, 1928, in Romania

Auschwitz number A 20 982

Helena Hirsch moves around slowly with the aid of a walking frame but she maintains her lively spirit, describing herself as a "heroine".

"If I'm alive today, it's because I am a heroine," said Hirsch, the sole survivor from her family.

She recalled in great detail her ordeals in ghettos and labour camps, before being sent to Auschwitz in 1944.

The moment her fellow prisoners were sent to the gas chamber, she hid in the latrines. Hirsch said her survival was down to a combination of determination and sheer luck.

Hirsch lives in a small apartment in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, on the fourth floor of a building without a lift.

She is unable to leave her home and when visitors occasionally come, she recounts the story of her wartime battle against death and "victory" against the Nazis.

Malka Zaken

Born in 1928 in Greece

Auschwitz number 79 679

Malka Zaken may be a nonagenarian but when she speaks about her childhood, she has a frightened expression and the voice of the girl who was ripped from her mother's arms and sent to Auschwitz.

In her modest Tel Aviv apartment, she lives surrounded by her dolls, which she said help her remember the happy childhood years before the "Germans took us".

One of seven children, she was able to find two of her sisters after the Holocaust but they have since died.

Zaken was 12 when she was sent to the death camp and had to confront a reality where survival depended on the will of Nazi guards.

Assigned to fold the clothes of Jews killed in the gas chamber, she recalled the beatings and the fear at Auschwitz.

When the memories become too much, she turns to her dolls.

"Don't worry Sean, he's not German, he won't take me," Zaken told one of them.

Shmuel Blumenfeld

Born in 1925 in Poland

Auschwitz number 108 006

Shmuel Blumenfeld remembers each ghetto, camp and fellow prisoner decades later, and wants to continue recalling the details.

The terrace of his apartment in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam has a Mediterranean view, but inside there are dozens of photos, diaries and documents detailing his life during the war.

A survivor of Auschwitz and the "Death March", after emigrating to Israel he served as a prison guard for one of the architects of the Holocaust.

It was during the detention of Adolf Eichmann, who was executed in 1962 after his trial in Jerusalem, that Blumenfeld found vengeance.

"Your men didn't finish their mission, I spent two years there and I'm still alive," he told Eichmann, showing his Auschwitz tattoo.

During visits to Poland in recent years, he has collected earth from places where all his family members were killed.

It lies in a small, yellowing bag, which he has asked his children to bury with him.

Danny Chanoch

Born in 1933 in Lithuania

Auschwitz number B 2628

Danny Chanoch was the subject of a "Pizza in Auschwitz" documentary, during which he is shown eating pizza with his children on a trip to show them where he was interned.

After Auschwitz "there is nothing in the world which can make me cry," said Chanoch with a smile, as he rolls off a series of jokes and word play around the Holocaust.

He described killings and other atrocities he witnesses as a child, before singing an opera aria in Italian and offering an alcoholic drink to loosen the atmosphere.

But the jokes and his self-deprecating manner cannot completely cover the scars left from years living in "hell".

"Auschwitz continues to live here in my house," he said, with a hearty laugh.

Chanoch was reunited with his brother in Italy and together they emigrated in 1946 to Palestine, then under British mandate.

Saul Oren

Born in 1929 in Poland

Auschwitz number 125 421

Saul Oren spent his early years in an Orthodox community in a village near the site where Auschwitz was built.

Chosen by a Nazi doctor to undergo medical experiments, he was transferred from Auschwitz to a concentration camp in Germany and was freed in 1945.

Oren, who has written his memoirs, still remembers the hunger which stalked him at the extermination camp.

"The hunger at Auschwitz was atrocious. You can't imagine to what extent," he said, his voice trembling.

Oren testifies tirelessly about the Holocaust, seeing it as his mission to convey what happened.

After the war he found his brother Moche, who had been imprisoned with him at Auschwitz, and emigrated to Israel.

Menahem Haberman

Born in 1927 in Czechoslovakia

Auschwitz number 10 011

Of the residents at the Jerusalem retirement home where Menahem Haberman lives, following the death of his wife, he is the only former Auschwitz prisoner.

The sole survivor of eight children, he recounted his determination to survive on realising the day after arriving at Auschwitz that most of his family had been killed.

Haberman made it through the ghetto and labour camps attached to Auschwitz, the "Death March" and lastly contracting tuberculosis at Buchenwald concentration camp.

After being freed, he found his father.

Haberman is most proud of his children and grandchildren, particularly those who served in the Israeli army which he sees as a "victory" for himself and the Jewish people.

Despite his sense of victory, Haberman said he is unable to forget what happened at Auschwitz.

"It's deeply engrained in me. Seventy-five years later, we still live with that, we don't forget... we cannot forget," he said.

"I really knew people who were better men than me, why did they die and why am I still alive?"

Batcheva Dagan

Born in 1925 in Poland

Auschwitz number 45 554

Full of energy despite her age, Dagan is one of the few Auschwitz survivors invited to the official ceremony at the camp on January 27 to mark its liberation.

An educator and psychologist, she has written six books about the Holocaust of which five are for children.

A pioneer in the field of Holocaust education, she has dedicated her life to teaching future generations.

"I want to survive to tell (people)," said Dagan, whose entire family was killed.

Making it out of Auschwitz alive does not mean she escaped unscathed, but she does see positives from her experience.

"I don't only recount the horror of the Holocaust, but also wonderful things like helping each other, the capacity to share a piece of bread, the friendship... We remained human beings," said Dagan.

Shmuel Bogler

Born in 1929 in Hungary

The youngest of 10 children, Shmuel Bogler was deported to Auschwitz with a large part of his family.

He escaped death by being sent to a labour camp with one of his brothers, and both survived the Nazi "Death March".

Bogler tried to travel to Palestine in 1947 but was arrested by the British, who governed the territory at the time, only to be freed months later.

During the Arab-Israeli war the following year, he was captured by the Arab Legion south of Jerusalem.

"I asked myself whether I would spend all my life as a prisoner," said Bogler, who has published his memoirs.

After being freed once more, he became a police officer in southern Israel and in his retirement has testified tirelessly about his experience of the Holocaust.