History

Sixty years ago

Holocaust survivor Samuel Pisar, writing on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz:

When the ghetto liquidation in Bialystok, Poland, began, only three members of our family were still alive: my mother, my little sister and I, age 13. Father had already been executed by the Gestapo. Mother told me to put on long pants, hoping I would look more like a man, capable of slave labor. “And you and Frieda?” I asked. She didn’t answer. She knew that their fate was sealed. As they were chased, with the other women, the children, the old and the sick, toward the waiting cattle cars, I could not take my eyes off them. Little Frieda held my mother with one hand, and with the other, her favorite doll. They looked at me too, before disappearing from my life forever.

Their train went directly to Auschwitz-Birkenau, mine to the extermination camp of Majdanek. Months later, I also landed in Auschwitz, still hoping naively to find their trace. When the SS guards, with their dogs and whips, unsealed my cattle car, many of my comrades were already dead from hunger, thirst and lack of air. At the central ramp, surrounded by electrically charged barbed wire, we were ordered to strip naked and file past the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. The “angel of death” performed on us his ritual “selection” — those who were to die immediately to the right, those destined to live a little longer and undergo other atrocious medical experiments, to the left.
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In the summer of 1944, the Third Reich was on the verge of collapse, yet Berlin’s most urgent priority was to accelerate the “final solution.” The death toll in the gas chambers on D-Day, as on any other day, far surpassed the enormous Allied losses suffered on the beaches of Normandy.

My labor commando was assigned to remove garbage from a ramp near the crematoria. From there I observed the peak of human extermination and heard the blood-curdling cries of innocents as they were herded into the gas chambers. Once the doors were locked, they had only three minutes to live, yet they found enough strength to dig their fingernails into the walls and scratch in the words “Never Forget.”

Have we already forgotten?

I also witnessed an extraordinary act of heroism. The Sonderkommando — inmates coerced to dispose of bodies — attacked their SS guards, threw them into the furnaces, set fire to buildings and escaped. They were rapidly captured and executed, but their courage boosted our morale.

As the Russians advanced, those of us still able to work were evacuated deep into Germany. My misery continued at Dachau. During a final death march, while our column was being strafed by Allied planes that mistook us for Wehrmacht troops, I escaped with a few others. An armored battalion of GIs brought me life and freedom. I had just turned 16 — a skeletal “subhuman” with shaved head and sunken eyes who had been trying so long to hold on to a flicker of hope. “God bless America,” I shouted uncontrollably .

In the autumn of their lives, the survivors of Auschwitz feel a visceral need to transmit what we have endured, to warn younger generations that today’s intolerance, fanaticism and hatred can destroy their world as they once destroyed ours, that powerful alert systems must be built not only against the fury of nature — a tsunami or storm or eruption — but above all against the folly of man. Because we know from bitter experience that the human animal is capable of the worst, as well as the best — of madness as of genius — and that the unthinkable remains possible.

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