Tales From The Survivors

January 22, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun Contributing writers M. K. Guzda and Miriam Ash provided information for this article.

JERUSALEM -- When the two Gestapo men brought back her beaten father and dumped him at their gate, 12-year-old Gita Fridman saw him cry.

"We knew we were lost," she recalls.

It was Czechoslovakia, 1939. For millions of Jews like Gita, it was the start of a harrowing journey to Auschwitz, a place whose very name would carry the ring of evil 50 years later.

The Jews were caught in a slowly killing squeeze. Their business licenses were revoked; young Gita's father was arrested for trying to sell a few bottles of mineral water. Her older sister disappeared, taken to a camp. They had to wear yellow stars. The Germans began moving Jews to ghettos.

"You sit at home. There is nothing to do. No work. Families are being picked up every day, and you sit waiting for the henchmen to come," said Gita, now Giselle Cycowicz, 67, and living in Israel.

"You sit there waiting for something awful to happen. Finally they come and say take whatever you have with you."

The cattle-car train ride to Auschwitz in May 1944 was grueling. The arrival was pure terror.

"We were so frightened when we arrived at Auschwitz. It was so eerie. We never saw anything like it. Barbed-wire fences, guard towers wherever you looked. We were completely dazed, and people began howling at us . . . dump your things here . . . run there . . . get undressed . . . get shaved. Where is mother? Where is father? You don't recognize your sister, right next to you without her hair and her clothes . . . the shame of being naked. . . .

"Everyone is running. It's freezing. It's night and dark. I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye to my father."

Russian forces arrive

Fifty years ago this week, the dreaded SS guards disappeared. On Jan. 27, 1945, Russian forces came upon the ghostly puzzle of Auschwitz. A few thousand sick inmates staggered to their feet and stared at their liberators with flat eyes, too deadened by horror for joy.

The others already were gone: 56,000 prisoners in long, desperate columns, force-marched into the frozen countryside. Many would die in the snow or be shot when they fell; still others would freeze on rail cars as the Germans tried to sweep the human leftovers of Auschwitz back into the collapsing Third Reich.

The crematoriums had been shut down and destroyed, the hair and clothes and gold fillings from their victims burned or shipped away. One and a half million people never left, the success of German industrial murder. Those who survived are the victims of memory.

Mengele's selections

Some say they passed by Josef Mengele himself. The Nazi doctor flicked his wrist: left for the old and weak, and mothers with small children. Left to the gas chambers. Right for the healthy and young, to the work barracks.

"They took us to a bath, and shaved our heads, and took all our possessions. They gave us prisoners' clothes," said Moshe HaElion, now 70 and retired near Tel Aviv.

The next day they tattooed a number on his arm: 114923.

"I didn't know they exterminated people. One day I saw a family friend. I asked if he had seen my mother and sister. He said the Germans had killed them. I thought he was crazy. Who could think the civilized Germans can do such a thing?"

He dug latrines for a month, then tended gardens of the SS men and their families.

"The Germans always made a point of killing Jews on Jewish holidays. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the SS came into the hospital block and began to read numbers. We knew if they called your number, you are going to die. And so the whole block was completely quiet. Everybody just held their breath. The next number could be your number."

Labor in the cold

Marcel Levy was 17, a strong Greek Jew. He was sent from Auschwitz to a nearby pit mine. For 12 hours a day, he shoveled stones, to be crushed for cement, into a rail car. He had to fill three cars each day or be beaten. Or killed.

"It was very, very cold. We had just a jacket and trousers, and it was freezing most of the time. We tried to steal cement sacks to wear under our clothes, but if we were caught we were beaten. Many people only lasted a month or so. I lasted two years.

"We had a piece of bread and maybe margarine in the morning. We had soup and bread at night. We walked to work, and sometimes farmers would leave us a potato to eat. If we found a hot coal from the rail line, we put it in the potato to try to cook it. People who tried to run away were usually caught and brought back. They were shot, or hung, in front of us."

The fate of boys

"My father asked the prisoner who opened the train door where we were. He said, 'Have you heard of Auschwitz?' I felt my father's hand tighten on mine," said Jehoshua Robert Buchler.

"My father said, 'If anyone asks you how old you are, always tell them 16.' " The boy was 14. He was sent to a youth barracks for work. Weeks later, he saw his father at a distance across the barbed wire, motioning that he was going somewhere else. He never saw his father again.

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