Hundreds of former prisoners will return Monday to the Nazi concentration and extermination camp at Auschwitz, Poland, alongside several world leaders, to mark the 75th anniversary of its liberation by Soviet troops.
At least 1.1 million people – mostly Jews – were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi death camps, between 1940 and 1945.
Stanislaw Zalewski, 94, is among the former prisoners who will return for the anniversary. He says he keeps his memories locked away – "occasionally letting them out to share the horrors of the past."
Zalewski was 18 when he was arrested for painting Polish resistance symbols on walls in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. After a brutal interrogation, he was imprisoned in Waraw’s Pawiak prison.
“About 37,000 of these prisoners were killed and about 60,000 were taken from Pawiak prison to concentration camps,” Zalewski told VOA in a recent interview. “I was among these 60,000. I was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau on October 6, 1943."
“The arrival procedure was as follows: registration in Auschwitz 1 camp, which involved taking personal information; taking off all our civilian clothes, cutting off hair, shaving, tattooing, putting on prison-striped uniforms — we got only a cap, a shirt, a jacket, underwear, pants and wooden clogs.”
Saved by his strength
Zalewski was tattooed with the number 156569. Guards referred to prisoners only by number. Many new arrivals were taken directly to the gas chambers. Stronger men and women were used as forced labor, which helped Zalewski survive his time at Auschwitz.
“If one of the prisoners did not look fit enough for further work, the SS [Nazi paramilitaries] pointed him out with a stick to the camp ‘writer,’ who would write down the prisoner's number. Afterwards, these prisoners were called out and taken on foot to the crematorium.
“One day, lorries arrived at the barracks, and women were led out, ordered to strip naked, and they were loaded as though they were some commodity. These trucks were followed by a soldier on a motorbike as they moved toward the crematorium. I still remember today the screams of these women. The transportation lasted several hours until they emptied the barracks.”
Zalewski was imprisoned for his political activities. Most prisoners were Jews sent to Auschwitz to their deaths – the Nazis’ so-called "Final Solution" to wipe out the Jews. Zalewski recalls Jewish prisoners arriving on trains, wearing bands bearing the Star of David.
“One SS soldier ordered them in one long line, with him standing at the front of the line and leading them forward. They followed this one soldier with no signs of worry or anxiety. They were heading toward the crematorium. But only we were aware of this, not them.”
As Soviet soldiers began to approach from the east, the Nazis transferred hundreds of thousands of prisoners to other camps on so-called "death marches" or in railroad cattle trucks. Tens of thousands died on the journey. Zalewski was taken to the Mauthausen-Guzen camp in Austria. In May 1945, rumors spread of the Allied advance — and German guards fled.
“On May 5, American military vehicles arrived,” Zalewski says, tears welling in his eyes. “Two American soldiers got off. One of them knew some Polish and shouted, ‘You are free!’ It took me 78 days to get from Nuremberg to Warsaw. I arrived in Warsaw on July 22, 1945, wearing USA Army fatigues.”
Zalewski is now president of the Polish Union of Former Political Prisoners of Nazi Prisons and Concentration Camps. Seventy-five years on, he still struggles to reconcile what happened.
“When I say the Lord’s Prayer, there is a phrase: ‘Give us our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.’ I face a dilemma at this point. Can I forgive those who had an inscription that read, ‘God is with us,’ on their belt buckles, who killed people with cold premeditation?”
“I put my memories of Auschwitz into a box, I tied it with a string, and threw it into the water,” Zalewski says. “I worked, I started a family, I have a son and grandchildren. When I visit the camp or when we are talking like we are today, I pull out this box, I present its contents to you, and afterwards, I throw it back into the water. There are moments, however, when these memories break into my psyche, causing reflections and questions with no answers.
'World has not learned'
“I am sad because of what is happening in other parts of the world, where people for their own purposes commit armed, violent acts that take the lives of thousands of innocent people. The world has not learned the lesson of what had happened. The world has come full circle, so to speak. This history, this circularity, is powered by people who do not respect the dignity of another human being.”
Zalewski and about 200 fellow survivors will return to the so-called "gates of hell" for the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, still determined to teach the world the lessons of Auschwitz.