'The night was lit up by fires'

January 27, 1995|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff Writer

About midday on Jan. 27, 1945, soldiers of the Soviet army, padded like bears against the bitter Polish winter, lumbered out of the snow into the fearsome horror of Auschwitz, the largest and most terrible of the Nazi extermination camps.

There was no battle. The occupation of Auschwitz was more revelation than liberation. The Red Army soldiers found a remnant of 7,000 sick and dying prisoners abandoned by fleeing Germans, a multitude of corpses, mountains of clothing, tons of human hair and the scattered ashes of the dead.

At Auschwitz and its subsidiary, Birkenau, the Nazis mass-produced death. The terrible slogan Arbeit Macht Frei promised that work would make you free. But for most prisoners, freedom came only with death. In the name of racial purity, the Nazis killed about a million and a half men, women and children at Auschwitz: Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, Catholic political prisoners, Russian Communists. Nazi Germany manufactured death faster than tanks or airplanes.

There were five gas chambers and crematorium furnaces at Auschwitz- Birkenau. They were remarkably efficient killing machines. In about two months during the summer of 1944, more than half the Jewish population of Hungary was exterminated at Auschwitz -- 438,000 people who died dazed with incomprehension.

"The night was lit up by fires, and the smell, the terrible smell," says Lilly Weisz, who began an odyssey of Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz.

She was the daughter of a close-knit Hungarian Jewish family from Transylvania. She lost her father and mother and little brother in the "selection" at Auschwitz. Now 67, Mrs. Weisz, of Reisterstown, is one of a handful of Auschwitz survivors who live in the Baltimore area.

Deli Strummer, 72, of Northwood, survived Auschwitz, Terezinstadt and Mauthausen concentration camps. Her family was thoroughly integrated into the sophisticated society of old Vienna. Her father was a general in Emperor Franz Joseph's World War I army. Her mother converted to Judaism when she married the general. None of that mattered after the 1938 "Anschluss" when Austria became essentially another province of the Nazi Reich.

In Northwest Baltimore, Morris Baker, 69, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust, still dreams of the vivid, loving Jewish life of his native Zambrov, a Polish shtetl of 3,200 Jews. No more than 50 survive.

Into the Inferno

About a month after Passover in 1944, Lilly Weisz and her family were put on a transport. They were told they were going to "a safe place where we were going to work until the end of the war." She was 17.

She was actually only in Auschwitz three days, before being sent to an arbeitslager (work camp) in Estonia. But Auschwitz was an introduction to hell.

"Dante's 'Inferno' is a very weak comparison," she says. "Screaming, crying, dogs barking, and Germans and Jewish Kommandos hitting with sticks and riding whips. Those are my first impressions on descending from the train."

The Hungarians immediately received an ominous warning they did not yet know the meaning of: "They told us to leave everything in the trains. You are not going to need that anymore. This is the end of your journey."

Men and women were separated.

"That was the last time I saw my father and my brother," Mrs.

Weisz says.

Those words reverberate through survivor memoirs like a refrain of lament. In July 1941, Gestapo agents knocked on the door at Mr. Baker's home and ordered the men out. His father, Eli, went. "That was the last time I saw my father," he says.

Mrs. Weisz stood between her mother and her aunt in the tumult of the selection at Auschwitz.

"We were approaching an officer who stood in front who did the selection," she says. "We didn't know what he was doing. He was Mengele."

Dr. Josef Mengele was the camp doctor, the infamous "Angel of Death" who made Auschwitz into a research laboratory for his sadistic "experiments" on living prisoners.

He decided who would go immediately to the gas chambers and who would go to a labor camp, often to die slowly from starvation. He flicked his left hand and Mrs. Weisz's mother and aunt were consigned to death.

"He said to me, 'Go on the other side,' " she recalls. "I said, 'No, No, I go with my mother.' He said 'No, no. You'll see her tonight. The other side is for young people.'

"And that was the last time when I saw my mother and my aunt and I found out they went directly to the gas chamber.

"And that's how I survived."

The words end with a long, deep sigh.

'I was crying all night'

"I was crying all night," Mrs. Weisz says. The next day she watched horrified as SS men beat a woman to death for trying to run to her child. "At that time I stopped crying. I never cried again."

Morris Baker was 17 when the boxcar doors opened on Jan. 15, 1943, and he read the sign that said "Auschwitz."

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