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| BOOK EXCERPT |

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THE CHILDREN OF AUSCHWITZ

By Alwin Meyer

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The Montréal Review, February 2022

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NEVER FORGET YOUR NAME: THE CHILDREN OF AUSCHWITZ

By Alwin Meyer

Polity Press (2022)

 

 

Children in Auschwitz: this is the darkest spot in the ocean of suffering, of crimes, of death with its thousand faces: Anti-Semitism, transports, separation from parents and siblings, rats, epidemics, experiments, stench, hunger, gas ... only a few children and juveniles would survive. But Auschwitz has never let go of them. The pain is always there, before breakfast, during the day, in the evening, throughout the night. The mother who was murdered, the father, the sister, the brother, the grandparents, the girlfriend, the boyfriend, aunts and uncles… Auschwitz remains in and among them, and the future generations, throughout their lives.

Today, men and women are still living around the world who were imprisoned as children in Auschwitz decades ago. They were eitherdeported to Auschwitz, or they were born there in unthinkable conditions.They bear the scars of their suffering on their bodies and in their souls. The prisoner number, tattooed on the lower arm, thigh or buttock, provides information to this day: Auschwitz.

As a rule, babies and children were murdered immediately in Auschwitz. If a mother was holding her child in her arms during selection, both of them were gassed. Sometimes children aged between 13 and 15 were ‘selected for work’ and allowed to live, but usually only for a short time. Nobody in Auschwitz could foresee how the same matter would be handled by the German SS from one day, hour or minute to the next. What had been tolerated up to that point could bring death in the next moment. There was no predictability in Auschwitz. The children were constantly on high alert. Many of them had very quickly grasped the reality of the camp: any behavior could mean death. The children knew: 'You have to be on your guard!'

The older children of Auschwitz, the few who survived, remember the hunger, the selections, the piercing cold, the experiments they endured, their longing for their parents, a good meal, a warm quilt, the feeling of security. They were torn between despair and hope. They wanted to see their mother and father, sister and brother again. They wanted to go home. They wanted their old, happy life back; they wanted simply to be a child again.

Mass gassings at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp began in the spring of 1942, initially in two converted farmhouses containing gas chambers. Finally, between March and June 1943, four more crematoria were built for mass murder, six with gas chambers inside, and began "operation" in the extermination camp. The ovens had been manufactured and installed by the Topf and Sons company from Erfurt. In the crematoria, 4,756 corpses could now be burned within 24 hours. According to statements of prisoners of the Sonderkommando, however, the ‘incineration capacity’ of the crematoria could be ‘increased’ to about 8,000 corpses per day.

The Sonderkommando had to bury the corpses in mass graves - under constant threat of death from the SS - and later dig them up again and burn them on wooden piles or in dug pits. In the process, the corpse fat was collected and used to start the fire. More than 100,000 bodies were dug up from September to the end of November 1942 alone. The ashes of the burned people were taken away and dumped into the Vistula and Soła rivers, amongst others. All traces of the mass extermination had to be covered up.

The living conditions of the prisoners were designed in the early phase of the camp in a way that ensured none of the deportees would leave Auschwitz alive. Throughout the five years of its existence from spring 1940 until the end of January 1945 the main purpose of Auschwitz was extermination. All other aims of the Nazis, such as exploitation of the children, women and men as slave laborers, or the criminal, so-called ‘medical’ experiments by SS doctors, were of secondary importance.

Yehuda Bacon from Ostrava in the Czech Republic was only 14 years old when he saw the inside of the crematoria in Auschwitz-Birkenau with his own eyes. He was assigned to the 'Rollwagen-Kommando' in Auschwitz-Birkenau, forced to pull heavy carts in place of horses. They had to transport blankets, linen, wood and also the ashes of the burned children, women and men. Yehuda and the other boys got around the camp.

One day they were supposed to fetch wood from the crematoria for heating in the men's camp. It was winter, and one of the prisoners from the Sonderkommando for the crematoria said to them: 'Boys, because you loaded up so fast, you can warm yourselves a little, go to the gas chamber. Now there is no one there.' Yehuda asked the prisoners from the Sonderkommando about what happened in the crematoria: 'Why don't you tell me? Maybe one day I will get out, and then I will write about you.' Those from the 'Sonderkommando' said: 'None of us will come out of here', but still, they showed him and the other children 'the place of extermination'.

They went into the undressing chamber, and there were hooks with numbers. Yehuda asked: 'What is happening in this chamber?' Those from the Sonderkommando explained: '”There the people have to undress.”’ And one of the SS instructs the people destined for gassing: “Faster, the soup is getting cold. It's waiting for you.” Yehuda Bacon explained: 'After all, the people were very hungry after the journey, which often lasted for days.'

'Then,' said those from the Sonderkommando, 'the SS man continued: "Remember the number carefully and tie your shoes nicely so that you can find your things after the shower."' And 'when they were undressed,' Yehuda Bacon says, 'they were chased into the gas chambers.' Later they went to the roof of the crematorium and ‘saw a lid there’. The SS man lifts it,’ the Sonderkommando explained to the children and young people, 'and pours the poison gas Zyklon-B into it.’ Yehuda often went with the 'Rollwagen-Kommando' to crematorium number III. 'We also had to load up the ashes of the murdered and burned people and take them with us. At that time, we spread them on the icy paths in the women's camp.'

On March 20, 1943, 2,800 Jewish children, women and men arrived in cattle cars from Thessaloniki (Greece) to the extermination camp. After six terrible days of transport, Heinz Kounio, his sister Erika, his mother Hella and his father Salvator were told in Auschwitz: 'Out, out, you pigs, you filthy dogs'. They saw and experienced appalling things every day. And whenever the roll call lasted longer than usual, the boy's heart froze. He would then ask himself, 'Am I being sorted out? My father? Or will we both be destined for the gas chamber?' Their block was inspected once a week by an SS man. He 'examined’ each prisoner ‘extremely thoroughly'. ‘Whoever was not clean was as punishment [given] 25 blows on the back and buttocks. I had injuries all over my body from the blows’. Heinz soon realized that in order to have a chance of survival, he could not get 'too involved' with the others. The boy had made up his mind: ‘I want, I have to get out of here alive. I want to report later what I have experienced and seen.’

April 21, 1944: an eight-year-old Sinti girl, Else Schmidt, arrives in Auschwitz-Birkenau with a transport from Hamburg. Else is without family, completely alone. The doors of the cattle car are torn open in Auschwitz. The girl and the other deportees are 'received' with a deafening roar: 'Hurry, hurry, hurry!' The girl was full of fear, what was waiting for her here? - 'For the first time I saw naked adults, I was very ashamed'. Else also had to strip naked, put her clothes on a pile with the clothes of the other prisoners. After the disinfection, she spent a long time searching for her own clothes in the pile but did not find them. Nothing was returned to her. All she had left was underwear with holes in them and a thin summer dress.

When Gábor Hirsch and his mother Ella arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau from Békéscsaba in southeastern Hungary on June 29, 1944, they were immediately separated. In the barracks there were none of the usual multi-story cots. ‘We could not even lie down on the concrete floor to sleep, because the block was far too crowded. We had to sit on the cold floor: the first one with his back against the wall, the next one between his legs, and so on. Sleeping was out of the question. The whole body ached.’

Gábor experienced selections many times in the camp. It often took place according to ‘Goebbels’s calendar’, a camp jargon term named after the chief propagandist of the Nazi regime. ‘I don’t know any more whether I heard the expression “Goebbels’s calendar” in Birkenau or later on.’ The fact is that the selections in the camp were often carried out on Shabbat and/or Jewish holidays. ‘Was it just a coincidence? I doubt it.’ The ‘Angel of Death’, Dr Mengele asked for a wooden plank, hammer and nails. He fixed the plank at a height of about 150 centimeters. ‘We all had to pass underneath. Those who didn’t reach the plank, along with the emaciated and weak, were put on one side, and the stronger and taller ones on the other side. As I was one of the smaller ones, I was among those selected. We were locked in two barracks. In my block there were around six hundred children and juveniles. The next day, Dr Epstein, the inmate doctor, came to our barracks. He picked twenty-one boys from my block including myself and saved our lives.’ Gábor never saw the other children and juveniles again - or his mother Ella.

Eduard Kornfeld was deported from Veľký Meder in Slovakia to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the summer of 1944. With him were two of his uncles and their families. One had six children, the other eight. Only one of the children was to survive. 'The improbable happened: I was designated for the good side in the selection.' He was 15. Their 'task' from early morning to evening was 'caps on – caps off,' 'lining up', beatings, squats, ‘breaking up’, more beatings. Over and over, ten times, twenty times, often for hours, day after day. Many died very quickly of hunger. 'Day in, day out, I had to watch this.'

There were constant selections: The order came: 'Fall in!' The boy knew it was a matter of life and death. Everyone had to undress. ‘We took off our jackets and let our pants down. SS man Mengele took each row. Out of about 100 boys, he took out ten each.' Those selected were allowed to take their things and go back to the barracks. The others had to line up on the camp road and were guarded by the SS. But no one knew who was going to the gas and who was not. Eduard came to the conclusion that those who were on the road would go to the gas. 'What do I do now?' he asked himself. ‘Mengele walks past me, doesn't take me out.' Already he was with the man next to him. ‘At that moment I was seized by an enormous inner strength, an indescribable will to live. Suddenly Mengele turned around once more, made this hand gesture that I should step out.' More than 1,500 children and young people were gassed that day alone. One day of many at Auschwitz.

In spite of everything, many children of Auschwitz started a new life after the camp, went to school, studied, learned a profession, started families, had children, celebrated and lived. What an incomparable life achievement! That for many children of Auschwitz and their families, a future was and is possible despite the memories. ‘Yes, that's right’, says Janek Mandelbaum, who survived five Nazi concentration camps and the murder of his parents, sister and brother during the Shoah. ‘We started families, looked for a new life, got married, had children. We pursued our professions, built our businesses, created a new home. All of that kept us away from the horrible memories. But now that we are getting older, we can't tame the memories of the camps. Other people who were not in the camp cannot understand this at all.’

None of the surviving children of Auschwitz could or can forget Auschwitz. The pain is always there. The mother who was murdered, the father, the sister, the brother... And ‘no matter how far you run away. Auschwitz will never let go of you and your family’, says one of the survivors, on behalf of many others. Auschwitz remained in them. Darkness, the reaction of other people, smells, objects, faces - everything can act as a reminder of Auschwitz.

There is Eva, for example. She was born in the forced labor camp for Jews in Nováky (Slovakia). At the beginning of November 1944, the barely two-year old was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau together with her parents. Eva Umlauf lives in Munich today. She says of the aftermath of Auschwitz: ‘With the pregnancy of my youngest son Julian, it became apparent to me to what extent I had been influenced by the Holocaust after all. The over-anxious upbringing I received from my mother became very clear in this pregnancy. I got enormous fears, suffered from terrible dreams in which I saw, among other things, the whole gas chamber full of babies. I was more than fragile; saw myself almost unable to raise my child.’

If the children of Auschwitz who are still alive today had one wish, it would be to see their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers again, who were murdered. They would so much like to touch their faces again, to speak to them, have their favorite meal cooked by their mother, enjoy their hair being stroked, or feel a kiss on the cheek. These now elderly people would so much like to embrace their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers again, to dine together, and to visit their children and grandchildren with them – over and over and over again.

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Alwin Meyer is a prizewinning author, journalist and curator who lives in Germany. He began looking for traces of the children of Auschwitz in 1972. In time he spoke with survivors in many countries who were often still children. He listened, asked questions, took photos and filmed – all made possible by the trust of those sitting opposite him. Meyer has published numerous books, among others on the topic of right-wing extremism. His exhibitions about the Children of Auschwitz have been shown in many cities in Germany and in some neighboring countries since 1990. He has also published articles and books on the topic in several countries. Meyer's book Never Forget Your Name - The Children of Auschwitz was published by Polity Books on January 27, 2022, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz,

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Reprinted with permission from Never Forget Your Name: The Children of Auschwitz. Published by Polity Press. © 2022 by Alwin Meyer. All rights reserved.

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