As the world marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, some Americans are recalling first-hand the horrors of the Holocaust. Many of those who survived the Nazi death camps -- and others who helped liberate them -- have worked hard for many decades to keep alive the memory of everyone who suffered and perished there.
Nesse Godin, a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania, is a frequent guest speaker at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
She recalls the camps' morning roll call, or appel. "Every morning they lined you up, they checked you out, and if you were too young, too old, too sick," she says, "they took you away and nobody ever saw you ever again."
Ms. Godin, who now lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, spent her formative years from 13 to 17 as a prisoner of the Nazis -- first in a Jewish ghetto then as a laborer in the Stutthof concentration camp near Gdansk, Poland. In the wintry first weeks of 1945, as Germany's defeat by the Allies appeared certain, Ms. Godin recalls being sent with other prisoners on a "death march" into Germany.
"No coats, no gloves, no stockings, marching day after day," she says. "As we were taken through the villages and towns and roads of Poland and Germany, we saw many human beings dead on the road." Ms. Godin's group was ultimately housed in a barn in southwestern Germany, where she nearly died of starvation and exposure. She says she is alive today because of women from the camp whose names she never knew.
"My support was Jewish women that gave me a bite of bread when I cried from hunger [and] wrapped my body in straw when I was shivering from cold," she says. "When there came a time when I begged the Lord to let me die, they said, 'Don't ask to die…ask the Lord to live. Because who wants you dead? The Nazis. Your family, maybe somebody will survive. Try to live an extra day. Here's a piece of bread. Don't cry, little girl.'"
Thousands of concentration camps existed during Hitler's regime. But Alice Greenwald - associate director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum - says there were six actual killing centers in Poland. Auschwitz is the most infamous of the camps because it was the largest. More than one million people were murdered there, she says, making its name synonymous with the state-sponsored industrialization of mass murder.
"The vast majority of people who came to Auschwitz were never registered, never tattooed, never given the option to work," Ms. Greenwald says. "They were chosen for death. And when one goes to Auschwitz today, what strikes you is the excruciating proximity of the ramp from the rail line to the location of the gas chambers. They were within yards."
To mark the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, several survivors of the camp are sharing their personal stories in public interviews with staff members of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The museum is also focusing on the experiences of the liberators of the camps -- servicemen of the forces allied against Hitler who unexpectedly found themselves face-to-face with a living nightmare.
In 1945, Arthur Cwick was a young Army demolition engineer stationed near Weimar, Germany, when he and a fellow soldier accidentally came upon the Buchenwald concentration camp -- abandoned by the Nazis just hours before. "On one wagon alone, we counted almost 100 bodies," he says. "I guess the crematorium couldn't take them fast enough."
Mr. Cwick, a teacher and photographer who now resides in Florida, says he remembers how both he and the prisoners looked at each other with stunned disbelief. "We kept saying to them, 'You're free, you're free,'" he says. "And they looked so dumbfounded like, 'How can that be?'…like they were born in that hellhole. And some of them couldn't believe that I was Jewish. How could I be Jewish and not be in there with them? Aren't all Jews in camps?"
Over the past 60 years, Arthur Cwick has given nearly 300 presentations of his story to schools, synagogues, churches and other organizations to fulfill a vow to survivors, victims and their families that their story never be forgotten.
Similarly, Holocaust survivor Nesse Godin has received numerous awards for her work as an advocate for the interests of Holocaust survivors. Nevertheless, the source of her greatest pride is not the plaques and medals that adorn the walls and shelves of her living room in Maryland…but the rows and rows of family photographs -- three generations of the smiling faces of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren -- what she calls her victory over Hitler.