A full 60 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, survivors of the horrors of the Nazi’s largest concentration camp continue to remind the world what happened there.
More than 1.2 million Jews, Roma and others lost their lives at the Auschwitz death camp in Poland -- systematically murdered with poison gas and cremated…or else starved to death. But Bronia survived.
She is a small woman, now in her mid-70s. A Polish-born Jew, she works in New York as a gallery guide at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: a Living Memorial to the Holocaust. At age 12, she and her sisters were sent to Auschwitz.
”We were a family of eight, and six members of my immediate family were murdered,” she told VOA. “Of my mother’s 11 siblings and their spouses, not one survived.”
Bronia asked that her last name not be used. But in earlier years, she was not even willing -- or able -- to talk about her two years at the death camp. “For 50 years, I was not able to say a word about it,” she said, “to the extent that my children nor my husband knew that I had siblings. I felt totally constricted, a choking feeling. It took me 25 years to be able to laugh.”
Bronia admitted she is still unable to cry. Yet, she said she would “like to cry to eternity” because of “six years of endless horror” that finally came to a close with the end of World War II.
As a young child, Bronia and her sisters watched as their parents were shipped off to the death camps. Soon, they were sent to Auschwitz themselves. When they arrived, Bronia and her younger sisters were selected by Nazi doctors for immediate extermination, along with the old, the weak and the sick
“We were standing naked, shorn, shaved and tattooed,” Bronia said. She managed to escape the line headed for the gas chamber and, instead, join the line where her older sister had been selected for slave labor. Her sister was eight years older -- and Bronia’s idol. “She was beautiful,” she recalled. “She would light up a room when she was in your presence. She always worried about her waistline and so concerned about her looks.”
Her sister, however, soon showed the signs of typhus. Bronia has vivid memories of her sister’s body, burning with fever, wasted with diarrhea, lying next to hers on a bare wooden bunk. “The head of the barrack came and called me down from the third tier bunk,” Bronia recalled. “She told me that all of the barrack was going to go to the gas chambers.”
The chief of the barracks wanted to save Bronia, who was the only child in the group. But that left Bronia with a dilemma she would never live down. The Auschwitz survivor remembered the questions she asked herself.
“Was I going to allow myself to be saved? Should I be going with my sister to help her walk? Because I knew how they would roughhouse her because she was not able to walk.” In the end, Bronia said she chose to be saved.
But she was not able to face her sister. “I did not say goodbye,” she said. “And they threw my sister, almost a carcass, by her hands and feet into the truck going to the gas chamber. I have had extreme guilt feelings the rest of my life for not saving my sister who was the whole world to me.”
In spite of the barbarism Bronia witnessed at Auschwitz, she acknowledged that the evil could also bring out the good in people. One example occurred during the infamous Death March from Auschwitz as the Soviet Army was advancing into Poland in early 1945. The Nazis began evacuating the camp, and Bronia and thousands of others were forced to walk for days in freezing weather with no food or water.
“If you slowed down you were shot,” she recalled. “So you heard constant shots in front of you and behind you, and you saw the endless amounts of bodies with their brains blown out, and you knew that our turn was going to come sooner or later.”
Bronia was weak with disease and hunger, and she did slow down. “And there was a Jewish lady…who saw the gun being pointed at me and picked me up and carried me, which was a superhuman feat,” she recalled. “She risked her own life…she told me she had made it her mission to save me, and if she wasn’t going to survive, she didn’t want to live. An incredible human being!”
In many ways, “Bronia” has made a decent life for herself in America despite what happened to her and her family in Europe. Still, today’s world leaves her feeling pessimistic.
The fact is, anti-Semitism is on the rise,” Bronia said. “It’s so scary. I never thought I would see the moment it was on the rise again. It bodes very badly.”
Bronia added that she is “agonized” by other atrocities in the world – mentioning in particular the bloody conflicts in Rwanda, Bosnia and Sudan. “It just confirms the incorrigibility of human nature,” she concluded.
Asked what people can do to prevent tragedies like the Holocaust, Bronia sighed. “All we can do is continue to remind people and hope they will hear us,” she said. “What we can do beyond that, I don’t know.” So she continues to work at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a place she calls "a museum of remembrance."