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'We were woken by these piercing screams': Survivors remember the horror of Auschwitz

Between 1940 and 1945, some 1.1 million people, including one million Jews, perished in the twin death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Poland Russia Auschwitz A picture taken just after the liberation by the Soviet army in January, 1945, shows a group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire fencing in the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp. Source: AP

A DECADE AGO, 1,500 Holocaust survivors travelled to Auschwitz to mark the 60th anniversary of the death camp’s liberation. Today, for the 70th anniversary, organisers are expecting 300, the youngest in their 70s.

Returning to the former Nazi death camp, the site of the largest single number of murders committed during World War II, survivors will gather today to remember.

Between 1940 and 1945 some 1.1 million people, including one million Jews, perished in the twin death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau created by Nazi Germany in Oswiecim, southern Poland.

Liberation 

Liberated by the Soviet Red Army on 27 January 1945, the camps have become an enduring symbol of the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of six million European Jews.

“In 10 years there might be just one,” said Zygmunt Shipper, an 85-year-old survivor who will attend the event in southern Poland to pay homage to the millions killed by the Third Reich.

In recent years, Shipper has been traveling around Britain to share his story with school groups, hoping to reach as many people as he can while he has the strength.

“The children cry, and I tell them to talk to their parents and brothers and sisters and ask them ‘why do we do it and why do we hate?’” he said. “We mustn’t forget what happened.”

Source: AFP news agency/YouTube

“It is the last big anniversary that we can commemorate” with a large group of survivors, said Piotr Cywinski, director of the museum at the site of the former death camp.

Their voices became the most important warning against the human capacity for extreme humiliation, contempt and genocide.
However, soon it will not be the witnesses of those years, but us, the post-war generations, who will pass this horrible knowledge and the crushing conclusions that result from it.

“You can’t imagine the cries of someone who has been electrocuted,” says survivor Zofia Posmysz, 91, describing how fellow prisoners chose to commit suicide by flinging themselves at the electric fence surrounding the camp.

The memory still haunts this beautiful woman who spent three years at the Auschwitz and Ravensbruck camps: “I saw bodies hanging on barbed wire.

“We were woken by these piercing screams,” recalls Posmysz, who still bears the camp’s tattoo — prisoner number 7566 — on her left forearm.

Nazi Social Security This undated file photo shows the main gate of the Auschwitz death camp complex. Source: AP/Press Association Images

 The executioner’s barber 

With his eyes shut tight, former Auschwitz prisoner Jozef Paczynski, now 95, relives the ritual of shaving and cutting the hair of the camp’s infamous commander, Rudolf Hoess.

Tattooed as prisoner 121, Paczynski was among the first 700 Polish prisoners of war that the Nazis shipped to Auschwitz in June 1940. He was assigned to the hairdresser’s unit soon after arrival.

There were eight or 10 professional hairdressers from Warsaw and Hoess ordered that an apprentice like me cut his hair.My hands were shaking. But an order is an order. I had to do my job.The cut was simple, the standard German style: you had to shave the neck with a razor and then use clippers on the sideburns. I had good tools and my colleagues kept my razor sharp.

One question he gets a lot is whether he ever contemplated taking the razor to Hoess’s throat.

“I was aware of the consequences, I wasn’t crazy. If I had slit his throat, half the camp’s prisoners would have been immediately executed.”

Posmysz and Paczynski were both 19 years old when they were deported. They emerged alive because they were young and learnt quickly how to survive at the camp.

Source: Reuters/YouTube

 Avoid dogs and Kapos 

Ninety-two-year-old Kazimierz Albin survived because he managed to escape on 27 February 1942 along with six other prisoners.

“It was a starry night, around minus 8 or minus 10 degrees Celsius outside,” says Albin, prisoner number 118.

We took our clothes off and were half way across the Sola River when I heard the siren… Ice floes surrounded us.

Once free, Albin caught up with the Polish resistance.

Escapes were rare. Of around 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, only 802 — including 45 women — tried to flee, according to estimates from the museum now located at the site of the former camp.

Only 144 succeeded, while 327 were caught. The fate of the remaining 331 is unknown.

“Can we forget all these murders, can we forgive them? I’ll never be able to forget all those women and children taken straight to the gas chambers,” says Paczynski.

But he adds: “Will we be waging an endless war? It won’t bring back the dead!

“I’m glad there was reconciliation, that there’s peace and the borders are gone.”

Source: AFP news agency/YouTube

Remembering 

One hundred Auschwitz survivors from Israel were expected to be among the group of around 300 former prisoners due for the landmark ceremonies.

Belgian King Philip I, accompanied by his wife Matilda along with Dutch royals King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima, were also expected to attend, as were more than a dozen presidents and prime ministers from across the globe.

French President Francois Hollande, German President Joachim Gauck and Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko would participate, but Russia, the United States and Israel have chosen to send lower-ranking representatives.

The Archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz — a former aide to Saint Pope John Paul II — will be there on behalf of the Holy See.

 Last living witnesses 

Moscow has explained the absence of President Vladimir Putin by the fact that he had not received an official invitation.

But the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, which is organising the event, said no politicians were formally invited this year as it decided to focus on the ever dwindling number of ageing survivors.

Poland Auschwitz Anniversary Visitors walk between barbed wire fences at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp. Source: AP/Press Association Images

The largest and deadliest of all Nazi Germany’s death and concentration camps,Auschwitz-Birkenau, is the only one to have been preserved as it was abandoned by the Germans fleeing the advancing Red Army.

Other Nazi camps in Poland, like Sobibor, Treblinka and Belzec, were razed to the ground by the Germans in a bid to destroy evidence of crimes against humanity.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau, the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria that the Nazis blew up before fleeing, are as shocking a sight as the barbed-wire fences and ruins of some 300 prisoners’ barracks that stretch to the horizon.

Poland has created a special €120 million fund to preserve the site. Germany financed half of the fund, expected to provide four to five million euros per year to be used over the next quarter century to prevent the site from falling into ruin.

© AFP, 2015 With additional reporting from Associated Press. 

Read: These Holocaust memorials are banned in Munich. Why? Because of Jewish opposition>

Read: 93-year-old former Auschwitz guard charged with 300,000 crimes>

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