The last survivors: Growing old with memories of Auschwitz camp

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Polish prisoners stand outside a concentration camp, after it was liberated by the US army on April 29, 1945. afp

As he looks at pictures of his parents and sisters who perished in Auschwitz, Szmul Icek begins to tremble, tears clouding his eyes.

It may have been 75 years ago, but for this survivor of the Holocaust the memories of life and death in the Nazi extermination camp remain painfully fresh.

More than a million Jews were killed at Auschwitz, in then-occupied Poland. The last survivors, now all elderly, still live with the physical and mental scars of the horrors of that time.

Since their liberation three quarters of a century ago, their skin has wrinkled with the march of time and the numbers tattooed on their left arms have faded.

These survivors are the last witnesses to traumatic events which now in the 21st century are often called into question by anti-Semitic revisionists.

Born in Poland, Icek, 92, struggles to talk following a car accident, and leaves it to his wife to recount the tragedy which befell his family.

In early 1942, his two sisters responded to a notice from the Gestapo that children should present themselves to the notorious secret police in order to protect their family.

“They left, but they were never seen again, never. We don’t know what happened to them,” said Sonia on behalf of her husband.

For many years, Icek, number 117 568, kept his imprisonment at Auschwitz secret from his wife.

After living together in Belgium for years, the couple now inhabits an apartment in Jerusalem where old family portraits hang in their living room.

One shows his father with a full beard, wearing a round hat, while his mother’s hair is cropped short in the style popular in that era.

A month after his sisters disappeared, the Germans came for the rest of his family – his parents, two brothers and him.

“When he arrived at Auschwitz, on getting off the train, he held onto his father’s hand like a little boy,” Sonia said of her husband’s deportation.

But Icek was separated from his dad by a Nazi. “He cried that he wanted to be with his father. But the German said: ‘no, you [go] over there’.”

That was the last time he saw his father, who was sent to the gas chambers. Both his parents died, although his brothers like him managed to survive.

Hearing his wife talk about Auschwitz where he spent two and a half years, Icek, dressed in a blue polo neck and a skullcap, became briefly animated.

“It can’t be, it can’t be, no,” he said, clasping his hands around his neck to mime the killings at the camp.

Like Icek, Menahem Haberman, born in the then-Czechoslovakia in 1927, was a teenager when he arrived at Auschwitz and was separated from his family.

Their paths never crossed at the extermination camp, nor in Jerusalem where Haberman now lives in a retirement home.

His memory still sharp, he recounted how he was taken outside of the camp to the edge of some water and given a shovel.

“There was a canal and I had to run to each side and pour ashes into the water. I didn’t know what I was doing. When I came back, I asked a camp veteran: ‘What have I done?’

Haberman told the man he had only arrived at Auschwitz the previous day.

“He told me: ‘All your families were ashes in that canal four hours after their arrival.’

“It was then that I understood where I was,” Haberman said.

His bitter encounter with death at the camp was to drive his overwhelming determination to survive.

“I told myself, I don’t want to die here, I don’t want my ashes to sink and flow in this canal towards the river,” said Haberman.

“There was a guy there who said in Yiddish: ‘Those who don’t have the strength to work will end up in the chimney.’

“I kept that phrase in mind and repeated: I do not want to die here. We are survivors, we are not escapees. The camps are imprinted in our skin.”

Six million Jews were killed by Nazi Germany. And of more than 1.3 million people imprisoned at Auschwitz, some 1.1 million died and Haberman remains baffled that he managed to survive.

“I really knew people who were better men than me. Why did they die and why am I still alive?”

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Szmul Icek (L) and Shmuel Blumenfeld (R) are two of the few remaining survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp. AFP

Guarding Eichmann

After being taken to the Mauthausen and Gunskirchen camps, Chanoch was eventually freed and made his way to Italy as a penniless 12-year-old.

In the city of Bologna he was reunited with his brother, Uri, and a photo of the two boys taken by an Italian man hangs in his home.

Chanoch, who lives in a village between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, was philosophical about his experience in the death camp: “Sometimes I say to myself, ‘how could I live without Auschwitz?’”

“It led me to the right way, to not skip anything, and do what you like to do,” he said.

Chanoch and his brother travelled illegally from Italy to Palestine, then under British mandate, while other Holocaust survivors later arrived in the land which had become Israel.

The new state swiftly passed a law setting out the death penalty for crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The legislation was used to execute Adolf Eichmann, one of the masterminds of the Nazis’ so-called Final Solution plan of genocide against European Jews. He was captured in the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires 15 years after the war and smuggled to Israel, and tried.

For Shmuel Blumenfeld, a 94-year-old Auschwitz survivor, tattooed with number 108 006, the Eichmann affair was a historic turnaround.

Blumenfeld served as one of Eichmann’s prison guards and spoke to the Nazi, telling him who had ultimately won.

“One day I brought him food, I lifted my sleeve so that he saw my tattooed number. He saw it but acted as if nothing was amiss,” said Blumenfeld, who offered Eichmann another helping.

“Then, I clearly showed my number from Auschwitz and I told him: ‘Your men didn’t finish their mission, I spent two years there and I’m still alive’,” Blumenfeld said in German, before translating the conversation into Hebrew.

“Once Eichmann shouted to complain that he couldn’t sleep, because there was too much noise. And I said to him: ‘We are not in the office of Adolf Eichmann in Budapest, you are in the office of Shmuel Blumenfeld’.”

At his home, Blumenfeld keeps a fabric bag of earth collected from the places where all his family members were killed.

“My mother told me ‘never forget that you are Jewish’ and I obeyed her,” said Blumenfeld, who spent his career in the Israeli prison service.

Despite his age, Blumenfeld continues to travel to Poland with groups of young Israelis.