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

Fri, Jan 17, 2020 - Page 9

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.

Renee’s 42-year-old mother died 12 days later and was buried in a mass grave; Renee was hospitalized for several weeks.

From a huge extended family — including aunts, uncles and cousins, two sets of grandparents and even a great-grandparent — only Renee and three aunts survived the Holocaust.

In 1949, she married a British soldier who had been part of the Bergen-Belsen liberation force, and the couple had two children and five grandchildren.

For decades, she never spoke of her experiences even to her immediate family, enduring frequent nightmares in isolation, but eventually she accepted an invitation to tell her story to schoolchildren.

In 2005, the BBC broadcast a documentary, Grandchild of the Holocaust, about Renee and her grandson, Adrian, then aged 13.

She returned to Auschwitz for the first time while making the program.

“I didn’t really want to go. I was shaking, I was so frightened, it was terrible. But I sort of buried the ghost,” she said.

Since then, she has returned dozens of times — but this visit may be one of the last. Seventy-five years after the end of the World War II, inevitably the number of Holocaust survivors is rapidly dwindling.

At a time when antisemitism is rising once again in Europe, “this may be the last significant anniversary we commemorate with eyewitnesses who endured the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust,” said Karen Pollock of the Holocaust Educational Trust.

As well as all the facts, dates and numbers relating to the Holocaust, the world has, for many decades now, been able to “see the faces of people who did not learn about Auschwitz from books and films, but actually, tangibly and physically, experienced this hell,” Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Director Piotr Cywinski said.

Survivors have become “moral symbols — not just of survival, but also of resilience,” said Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust expert at the American Jewish University in California. “They bore witness to the worst humanity can be, and became voices for dignity, tolerance and decency. The idea that we’re going to lose that generation is enormously painful; we will lose the authenticity that comes from someone who can say ‘I was there.’”

However, “no generation has left behind as great a historical record,” including memoirs, art, music and video testimony, he said. “And we have been planning for a decade or so how to teach about the Holocaust in the absence of living witnesses.”

Yad Vashem holds an archive of video, oral and written testimonies. In 2016, the UK National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Newark launched an innovative way of preserving the responses of survivors to children’s questions.

The Forever Project has created life-sized images of survivors which, using digital technology, can “answer” questions in real time from hundreds of prerecorded replies.

The center has also produced a short film, telling the story of one survivor through the medium of hip-hop, as a means of engaging young people.

“In a climate of ignorance, trivialization and denial, the primacy of first-hand testimony cannot be overstated,” center chief executive Marc Cave said. “The Forever Project is the single most important thing we’ve done to future-proof Holocaust education for generations to come.”

There is also “secondary testimony” — accounts from children and grandchildren of their parents’ and grandparents’ stories. However, many survivors’ descendants also have their own stories to tell of living in the long shadow of the Holocaust.

The impact on the “second generation” has been extensively researched, with psychologists and academics noting symptoms of trauma such as clinical depression, anxiety, addiction and eating disorders among some descendants,

Now it is being acknowledged that some of the third generation are also struggling under the weight of family history.

Allison Nazarian’s maternal grandparents survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, where her mother was born. She has written a book, Aftermath: A Granddaughter’s Story of Legacy, Healing and Hope, about her third-generation experience.

“I was close to my grandparents. They freely and graphically talked of their lives during the Holocaust. I absorbed their experiences. It was all I heard about. I was surrounded by the Holocaust; it was part of every story, every discussion, every day of my life,” she said.

“I was told: ‘They could come for us at any time, you have to be ready.’ Even now, I have a ‘go bag’ with passports and essentials. There are certain things I have an irrational fear of running out of. It was only at 12 or 13 I realized not everyone’s grandparents were in the Holocaust. It made me who I am,” she said.

Now 48, Nazarian decided she would not expose her children — the fourth generation — to the same trauma.

“I don’t want it to sound as if I’m resentful or regretful — I’m very proud of my grandparents, but I don’t think passing on the burden would help. My children are 100 percent free of it,” she said.

A second-generation survivor, Naomi Levy, said descendants had a strong sense of an “overall sense of loss and ghosts from the past.”

She went through a period of “trying to repel, to push it away,” but eventually embraced researching and recording her family history, “trying to piece everything together.”

With regard to her own children, now adults, she said: “I wanted to protect them from it for as long as possible. I was very careful around the subject as they grew up. It’s a balancing act — I don’t want it to be a burden, but it is what it is. I think they will want to know more, but I’m not going to make them face it.”

In Israel, a small number of third-generation survivors have had their grandparents’ camp identification numbers tattooed on their own arms as a memorial.

The trend, although limited, has been controversial and shocking to many, and not just because of the Jewish prohibition on tattoos.

For many, the young people’s motive — “never forget” — is more relevant than ever in a time of rising antisemitism, nationalism and populism.

The significance of this year’s anniversary lies not just in the number of years since the liberation of Auschwitz, but is “related to the world we live in today, Cywinski said.

“Antisemitism, racist and xenophobic reactions are being revived on an unexpected scale, and groups that openly promote hatred are on the rise. All this in the profound helplessness of our democratic institutions, weakened by populism and demagoguery, which have been reborn in so many countries around the world,” he said.

It was a mistake to put the Holocaust into a box marked “history,” Cave said. “When we see lesbians beaten up on a bus or monkey chants at a football match, these are symptoms of ‘othering’ — and that’s exactly how the Holocaust and most genocides start. There is no greater lesson than the warning from history of the Holocaust.”

Renee Salt has told her story over and over again “so that people shouldn’t forget.”

“There are still people who say it didn’t happen, there are still deniers, but you can’t hide people like me away. At the end of the war, we believed what happened could never and would never happen again,” she said. “But now it’s a worrying time.”

In memory

Auschwitz-Birkenau

An official memorial event will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp on Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Up to 200 Holocaust survivors who were imprisoned at the camp are to attend, along with heads of state from at least 22 countries. It is to end with the “kaddish,” the Jewish prayer for the dead.

Yad Vashem

A forum under the banner “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism” is to be held at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial near Jerusalem, on Thursday next week. More than 40 state leaders, royals and other dignitaries are to attend.