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SPECIAL REPORT

75th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation: Testifying till their last breath

From left, Benjamin Lesser, Alina Dąbrowska and Leon Weintraub speak at the library of Oświęcim, Poland, on January 26, about their first moments at Auschwitz.
From left, Benjamin Lesser, Alina Dąbrowska and Leon Weintraub speak at the library of Oświęcim, Poland, on January 26, about their first moments at Auschwitz. © Stéphanie Trouillard, France 24

More than 200 survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other Nazi camps are expected to attend the commemorations for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the largest and most notorious of them all. Now in their 90s, those who remember the horror first hand are determined to keep doing all they can, for as long as they can, to ensure the world never forgets.

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The screams, the flames, selection, separation from their loved ones – and the stench of the crematoriums. Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, survivors have not forgotten their arrival here. Some of them agreed to meet with journalists in three crowded sessions at the library of Oświęcim, the Polish town where the Nazis set up the camp complex.

“When I arrived at Auschwitz I didn’t know anything about this place,” says Alina Dąbrowska, now 97, who was in the Polish resistance when she was deported in May 1943. “My first impression was horrendous. I thought, this is what hell looks like.”

‘They took away our humanity’

Benjamin Lesser, a Polish Jew from Krakow, had fled to Hungary with his family, but was ultimately arrested there. He offered a precise description of his first moments in the camp.

“They told us to get out of the cattle cars. I found myself face to face with Mengele [the notorious Nazi doctor who carried out medical experiments at Auschwitz]. He was asking questions. One man told him that he had bad knees – he was sent to the right, directly to the gas chambers. I told him that I was 18 and in good health and that I could work. He sent me to the left.” Lesser did not know it at the time, but that was the last time he would see his mother. He survived, with one sister; his parents and three other siblings were killed.

The memories of Leon Weintraub, another Polish Jew, are equally vivid. He was taken to Auschwitz from the Lodz ghetto in August 1944. He says he can still hear the rage of the SS men barking their orders. “We were greeted with ‘raus, raus, raus’, he remembers. Then we saw people in striped pyjamas. One of them took my stamp collection. He told me I wouldn’t need it here. I didn’t understand what he meant.”

“We passed from the state of the living to the state of being a simple tool whose value lasted only as long as we were able to work. Little by little they took away our humanity.”

‘I could not stay silent’

The three survivors did not linger on descriptions of their living conditions, or rather survival conditions, in the death camp, where more than 1.1 million people perished, 90 percent of them Jewish. Without going into great detail, Dąbrowska calmly recalls the piles of corpses, and taking the hand of one friend who had died, to say goodbye.

After the war, all three said they tried to put the experience behind them. For a long time, they did not talk about Auschwitz. “I didn’t want to contaminate my family by forcing them to carry this burden of being children of a survivor,” says Lesser.

Dąbrowska says she even tried to forget, for a time. “One day I ran into a woman who had been imprisoned with me, but I told her that I didn’t remember her and that I had never been at the camp.”

It was only decades later that the survivors felt ready to re-open this painful wound. Lesser moved to California and became an American citizen. It was when his grandchildren asked him about his experiences that he finally opened up. “They asked me to come to their school to tell my story. The children were glued to their seats. I realised then that I could not remain silent and I had to talk.”

Dąbrowska also gradually became conscious of her role as a witness. She now comes to Auschwitz every year with groups of young people. “It’s important to preserve this place. We can show what happened with the blocks and the gas chambers,” says the 97-year-old with determination. “We do all we can for it not to be forgotten.”

As they approach their 100th birthday, the three survivors fear one thing above all: that when they are gone, people will forget. “People prefer to forget the bad times. Unfortunately we won’t live forever,” says Lesser. “What will happen when we’re no longer around? I don’t know. That’s why I set up a foundation to keep the memory alive and prevent history from repeating itself. I’ll do it as long as I live, and afterwards my grandchildren will continue.”

Weintraub says that commemorations of anniversaries like this are important: “We have the chance to change mindsets and make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” he says.

After so much physical and mental torture, the survivors hope that the lessons of the past will lead to a brighter future. They say education is key to achieving this – education and respect for a key principle: “We have to love our differences instead of hating them. It doesn’t matter what race or religion you are from, we are all part of humanity,” Lesser repeats the refrain several times during the meeting. “That is the message of the survivors. Spread it.”

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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