Tales from Auschwitz: survivor stories

Tuesday 27 January is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. Six survivors, some of whom will be returning to the site for the last time, tell Kate Connolly their stories

Auschwitz liberation
 A doctor escorts a group of Auschwitz survivors from the camp in January 1945. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

Irene Fogel Weiss, born in 1930 in Bótrágy, Czechoslovakia, now Batrad, Ukraine. She lives in Virginia, US. She will be returning to Auschwitz for the third time, as part of the US presidential delegation, along with her daughter, Lesley Weiss

We lived in Bótrágy, a very small, mostly poor town in Czechoslovakia with a population of approximately 1,000 mainly farming families, including about 10 Jewish families. The town was a typical low-income community with a tailor, a shoemaker, a grocery store, where people struggled to get by, but where everyone knew each other and there was easy communication between the neighbours, though that didn’t mean we were equal. 

When I was eight years old Czechoslovakia broke apart and we became part of Hungary. That was when our problems started, because the Hungarians were allied with the Nazis. It was a difficult time for Jewish families, as suddenly the law no longer protected us and overnight we lost our civil rights. My father’s lumber business was confiscated and given to a non-Jew, and we received no compensation. Jewish children were thrown out of Hungarian schools, so right away we had no choice but to concentrate on hunkering down and trying not to bring attention to ourselves. We couldn’t ride the trains and we had to wear the yellow star. It was a free for all. With no law to protect us, it was common for Jews to get beaten up or thrown off the train. 

It’s an incredibly scary feeling when you’re exposed to anyone’s raw feelings and enmity. These young Nazis habitually roamed around and did tremendous damage to many individuals. But at least we were still in our community and were not evicted from our home, so that was some comfort.
 

Irene Fogel Weiss holds a photo of her that was taken at Auschwitz by two Nazi guards.

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 Irene Fogel Weiss holds a photo of her that was taken at Auschwitz by two Nazi guards. Photograph: Jocelyn Augustino for the Guardian

We didn’t have radio or much access to newspapers, so all the children were reliant on listening to their parents for information. But I remember many things about the course of the war, who was winning and losing, and the repression of Jews elsewhere.

Hungary didn’t give up its Jewish population until it was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1944. The very first task the German government gave the Hungarians was to round up Jewish families and deport them to Auschwitz. There was a huge rush to take half a million Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz and it was completed in just six weeks, in 147 cattle cars. So in the spring of 1944 my family – my parents and their six children, the oldest of whom was 17 and I was 13 – found ourselves in the Munkács ghetto and from there being taken on cattle carts to Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Auschwitz: a short history of the largest mass murder site in human history

Imagine it like this: three generations of your family have lived in the same house in the same town. They’ve struggled to raise a family, put kids through school, to feed them all. You have your friends and family. All of a sudden you are told to leave it all and walk out with a single suitcase. 

I remember the night of the packing very well. Things went in the suitcase, things were taken out of the suitcase. In the end my mother filled it with food she had cooked and warm clothing and bedding. Then it was full. Plus we took a watch, some earrings, a wedding ring with us to exchange for food if necessary. The next day my father was forced to hand over his remaining money to a delegation that included the mayor and the school principal as they rounded us up at the town hall.

We had been absolutely unaware of such a place as Auschwitz. It was a stunning reversal of the life we had had up until then. And I cannot emphasise enough how utterly scary it is to be at the mercy of your fellow human beings. As a child I could not understand what we had done to deserve going there.

 

We initially had no idea what had happened to the rest of the family and had no access to a phone. But on buildings everywhere lists were put up stating who was still alive. Everyone you met you asked, every meeting of refugees was dominated by trying to find out where your relatives were.

Eventually I discovered that of around 100 people from my town who were deported, only about 10 survived, only two of whom were children – my sister and me. But there was not one parent and child who lived. All of them were killed.

Serena now lives in New Jersey with her family, including three children and grandchildren. We’ve both managed to hang on in there, but she can’t come to Auschwitz because her elderly husband is sick. For years when we talked about our experience she’d say to me: “You probably don’t remember, you were too young,” as I was four years younger, but some things I remembered even more sharply than her and my aunt.

I’m often asked how I have coped. I never went to a psychologist and I never will. Quite simply, I kept it at a distance. I saw and understood, and yet I didn’t. I’ve never cried over the columns of children and mothers I saw. When I was in Auschwitz I thought: ‘This is not actually on earth.’ It was a system of masters and slaves, gods and subhumans and I thought to myself: ‘No one knows about it. It’s the forest, surrounded by multiple layers of fence, it’s not actually real.’ I never let it penetrate that my parents were killed and I even thought: ‘After this we’re going home and everyone will be there again.’ Those who never managed to keep it distant killed themselves.

 
Children inmates of Auschwitz concentration camp after liberation in January 1945.

Child inmates of Auschwitz concentration camp after liberation in January 1945. Photograph: The Weiner Library/Rex

I threw myself into family life. I married young, I had three children, (I now also have four grandchildren) and then I went to college and became a teacher. You fall into a routine and do the best you can. But I’ve never lost the feeling of how unreliable human beings are and neither am I fooled by superficial civilisation. But I realise that loss of faith in people is more devastating than loss of faith in God.

I won’t be going back to Auschwitz again after this visit. So it’s my last chance to make sure this tragedy is not forgotten. I found out only about a week before I was due to leave that I will be one of two survivors who will be part of the US presidential delegation, headed by the secretary of the treasury, Jack Lew, and I feel very honoured, but it has much to do with the fact that many others who could go are ill and unable to travel.

Inside the Camp 2018

Today, the town Oświęcim, which is the Polish name for Auschwitz, has a population of 40,000 people and attracts more than 2 million tourists a year. In 2016, the German photographer Felix Adler spent six weeks in Oświęcim, where he talked to locals to hear their thoughts on what it's like to live right next to the former death camps.
 

Beata

"When you think about it, it does sound a little strange to say, 'I live in Auschwitz.' But life here is actually fairly normal. For example, this new shopping center that I’m really excited about just opened."

Leszek

"I didn’t choose to live in Auschwitz. It’s just where I was born. I have to make a living, too," Leszek explains. His coal plant stands on the grounds of a former Krupp munitions factory, where people in forced labor produced ammunition for Nazi Germany.

Krzysztof

"As a Jehovah’s Witness, it's my job to spread the word of God in places like this, too," Krzysztof says, standing outside the local Kingdom Hall. "Aside from the fact that so many people were killed here—which was of course really bad—Auschwitz is just like any other town. The people here must always work to make themselves better, and God can help them with that."

Marija

"I like it a lot here, especially in the summer. I was actually born in eastern Poland, near Lviv, which is now part of western Ukraine. Then I came here to Auschwitz."


Darek

"Ah, it’s not so bad here—the city is very beautiful, and the tourists who come to see the camp always give me money."

Martin and Piotr

"It's weird having to tell people that you’re from Auschwitz," Martin says. "One time, when we were on vacation in Poznan [in western Poland], and we told some people where we were from, they asked us which barracks we lived in."


Zbyszek

"Everyone here calls me King!"

Jan

"My nephew is James A. Pawelczyk, the first Polish astronaut to go into space," this fisherman, Jan, keeps repeating with pride.

Tomasz

Tomasz comes to the banks of the Sola river every day to sunbathe. The SS used to dispose of the ashes from the camp's crematoria in this river, while Rudolf Höß, the commandant of Auschwitz, would bring his children here to play.

Natalia

“I’m not from Auschwitz; I’m from Krakow, Poland. We’re just visiting my boyfriend’s grandmother. I’d definitely find living here very strange."