Auschwitz survivors mark liberation 50 years ago

January 19, 1995|By Newsday

WASHINGTON -- The survivors of perhaps the world's most efficient killing machine, the Auschwitz concentration camp, gathered at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum yesterday to mark the end of their ordeal a half-century ago.

But no one present considered it finished.

"The smoke of Auschwitz, the ashes of Auschwitz, the shadows of Auschwitz permeate our memories and our very being as we gather here today," said Menachem Rosensaft, a commemoration speaker and New York City attorney whose parents were prisoners at the infamous camp.

About 250 former inmates wiped away tears as they listened to eyewitness accounts from fellow inmates of life at the Nazi German camp near the Polish town of Oswiecim, where about 1.5 million Jews were incinerated, starved, beaten, gassed and tortured to death. Thousands of Gypsies, Poles, Soviet prisoners and others also were wiped out from 1939 to 1945.

Auschwitz was the largest and most organized of the death camps. It actually was a sprawling network of camps including Birkenau, where most of the gassings took place. On Jan. 18, 1945, the Germans destroyed camp records and forced the 64,000 inmates who could walk on a death march to other spots throughout Germany. Soviet soldiers freed the remaining 7,000 sick and dying prisoners there at the end of the month.

A short film, taken by Soviet soldiers and shown at the start of ceremonies, showed mountains of hair, shoes, suitcases and glasses collected by the Nazis from those who never made it outside the camp gates. Many wasted away from the crushing labor they were forced to perform -- on daily rations usually consisting of watery soup and a piece of bread.

Still, at each morning roll call, said Imre Fenyo, 66, a Hungarian who survived eight months as a coal-mine laborer in 1944 and 1945, each man puffed out his chest to look strong. All had smelled the stench of burning flesh from the crematorium and knew the alternative.

"As long as you worked, you lived," he said.

At times, Mr. Fenyo, now a resident of Commack, N.Y., was forced to dance as guards shot around his feet. He still has scars on his back from beatings. Once a week, he and others were herded into showers.

"We never knew if the gas would come out, or water."

By the time it was over, Mr. Fenyo had lost his entire family at Auschwitz and during the three-day death march that followed. He recalled being left behind at a camp somewhere in Germany and waking up one day to a strange silence.

"All of a sudden, somebody went outside and there was no more guards, no more shootings, no more Germans."

But memory of those times remains as indelible as the camp tattoo on the forearm of most of those present.

At the end of yesterday's three-hour ceremony in the museum's Hall of Remembrance, the survivors recited the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. Afterward, they exchanged hugs and lighted candles in remembrance.

After liberation Mr. Fenyo was sent for by his grandmother in the United States where he joined the Air Force and later the Postal Service. But he said that those who can give firsthand accounts of these horrors are dwindling.

"Most of us are dying. It's time for the younger generation to take over," he said. "Time for them to remember and say, 'Yes, it did happen.' And to not let it happen again."

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