Fri, Jan 17, 2020 - Page 9 News List

The gates of hell: Auschwitz 75 years on

The Nazi death camp where more than 1 million people perished was liberated on Jan. 27, 1945. As one survivor, now aged 90, prepares to commemorate the date, she explains why the Holocaust must never be forgotten — especially in an age of rising antisemitism and nationalism

By Harriet Sherwood  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain People

Renee Salt had just turned 15 when she arrived at the gates of hell. Her journey with her parents to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp near Krakow in German-occupied Poland, was by cattle truck, wedged in with hundreds of other Jews, no food, water or air for 24 hours.

On arrival, the men were separated from women and children; Renee, who was born in Poland, never saw her father again.

She and her mother stood in line. The “Angel of Death” — Nazi SS officer Josef Mengele, a doctor who conducted cruel experiments on prisoners — stood at the head of the line.

“Whenever he saw two people holding hands he would split them up with a flick of his hand, one to die and one to live,” she said.

Those sent to the right were taken straight to the gas chambers. By a miracle — “God’s will, I suppose” — Renee and her mother both went to the left.

“I remember everything. In my mind, I can see everything that happened,” she said. “We were taken to a hall, everyone was stripped and had their heads shaved. They took all our possessions, jewelry, watches, everything. We were all saying prayers, hugging and kissing one another as we thought this was our last hour.”

Instead they were given a piece of white linen with a number printed on it, which they had to pin to the clothing they had been allocated — in Renee’s case, an oversized skirt and a man’s pajama jacket. No shoes or underwear were provided.

For several weeks, the prisoners sat in rows on the stone floor of a hut, day and night.

“We were taken to the latrines once a day. Also once a day they brought soup in a pan, one for every five people. There were always arguments: ‘You’ve had three sips already.’ Everyone wanted the soup from the bottom of the pot because it was a bit thicker. We were not allowed to talk. We had to sleep as we were sitting,” she said.

“Twice a day we had roll calls outside the hut. Very often people collapsed from weakness. Sometimes someone would die. We were treated just like animals,” she said.

Now aged 90, Renee will soon again stand at the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Along with up to 200 other Holocaust survivors and scores of heads of state, political leaders and dignitaries, she will mark the 75th anniversary on Jan. 27 of the camp’s liberation by Soviet soldiers.

A ceremony is to include speeches by survivors, and by Polish President Andrzej Duda and World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder. Britain will be represented by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.

Among other events to mark the anniversary and Holocaust Memorial Day is a global forum on “Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Antisemitism,” at Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial in Jerusalem, on Thursday next week.

It is to be attended by dozens of world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Russian President Vladimir Putin, US Vice President Mike Pence and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Duda pulled out last week, claiming he had been denied the opportunity to make a speech.

At least 1.1 million people — mostly Jews — were murdered at Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi death camps.

In the weeks before Red Army troops arrived on Jan. 27, 1945, thousands of prisoners were shot, tens of thousands more forced on to death marches and most of the gas chambers destroyed.

About 7,000 prisoners remained.

Renee and her mother had been moved about four months earlier. They were first sent to do back-breaking demolition work in Hamburg, and then to the Bergen-Belsen death camp, which was liberated by British troops on April 15, 1945.

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