When John Freund was deported to Auschwitz in late 1943, it felt like landing on another planet. As he tried to connect the grim, unfamiliar sights with the world he had left behind, he thought the buildings at the furthest end of the compound looked like factories.
“There was smoke coming out of them all the time. I was a naive boy and would say to my friends, ‘What is this? Is this a bakery?’” Mr. Freund recalled in a recent interview.
He soon learned, and eventually in turn would tell newcomers, that they were looking at the camp crematoriums.
Months later, Max Eisen arrived in Auschwitz. He, too, noticed the electric fences, the belching chimneys and “flames at night, for what I didn’t know.” He, too, wondered if he was in an industrial area.
In a way, their hunches were accurate. They were facing the final iteration of Nazi policies that had turned genocide into an industrial process.
Monday marks the 75th anniversary of the arrival of Soviet troops at Auschwitz, liberating the complex in Nazi-occupied Poland where more than one million Jews, Poles, Roma and Soviet prisoners had been exterminated.
Thousands of survivors, including Mr. Freund and Mr. Eisen, resettled in Canada after the Second World War and many devoted years bearing witness to the terror they endured. But today, even the younger ones among them are in their 80s. Their gaits are slowing, their memories fading.
Yet, as they enter the last years of their lives in the relative peace of Canada, survivors are now confronted by a volatile world where xenophobia, anti-Semitism and hate crimes are resurgent again.
“Here I am, I'm 90. I don't want to go to another disaster,” Mr. Eisen said, alluding to the chaos he witnessed during his youth.
And so they still feel the duty to recount how they lost their families, how they survived the slave labour and how Auschwitz was a uniquely cruel place with its unspoken rules, gas chambers and warehouses named after Canada.
The early signs
Auschwitz was the end point, but first came arbitrary laws that deprived Jews of their rights and dignity.
Mr. Freund and Mr. Eisen lived in cosmopolitan parts of then-Czechoslovakia where people of different faiths, cultures and languages lived side by side.
Growing up in the city of Moldava nad Bodvou in what’s now Slovakia, Mr. Eisen spoke Hungarian at home and Slovak at school. Mr. Freund, son of a pediatrician and grandson of a judge, was raised in Ceske Budejovice, south of Prague in the current Czech Republic. He didn’t feel different from other schoolchildren. “We were very integrated."
By 1939, Germany and its allies had carved up Czechoslovakia. Mr. Eisen’s hometown was annexed by Hungary, which had anti-Semitic statutes modelled on the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws.
His father’s pub was confiscated. They had to hand in their radio. They could no longer employ non-Jews. Friends, classmates and business partners shunned them.
Meanwhile, Mr. Freund’s city came under German rule. “We had a beautiful synagogue which they blew up. All the stores, all the movie theatres, there were signs saying, `Jews not allowed.'"
He couldn’t go to school any more but remembered his Grade 3 teacher telling him: "Be brave.”
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Miriam Ziegler was 4, the daughter of Jewish shopkeepers in Radom, south of Warsaw. As the Nazis began rounding up Jews into ghettos, her parents paid a farmer to hide her.
The farmer kept her in a rat-infested barn and made her go begging. One day, back from panhandling, they saw four Jews had been hanged – the family of one of her cousins. The farmer got scared and returned her to her parents. “I had no childhood at all,” Ms. Ziegler said in an interview. “I didn’t go to school at all. I never played with any children. I was mostly with adults ... being hidden.”
During that period, the Nazis began their first systematic mass-murders by using carbon monoxide to kill people with physical or mental disabilities. They used the same gas on Polish Jews in extermination sites such as Chelmno, Treblinka or Sobibor.
At the same time, Auschwitz started as a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners, who first arrived in June, 1940. A year later, they were joined by thousands of Soviet prisoners of war.
That summer, the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess, was ordered to prepare the camp to exterminate Jews. Instead of carbon monoxide, the Germans in Auschwitz tested a cyanide-based pesticide, Zyklon B, on Soviet and Polish prisoners.
Mass transports of Jews to Auschwitz began in 1942. The stronger ones were kept as slave labour, and the rest went to the gas chambers, at the edge of a sprawling satellite camp, Birkenau.
Among the deportees was a 17-year-old Slovak, Rudolf Vrba. He would later be interviewed in the landmark 1985 documentary Shoah. Even the outtakes from that interview are full of shocking details.
He was assigned to a work detail that unloaded the trains of deportees arriving under the guise that they were being “resettled” to the east. “The whole murder machinery could work only on one principle: that the people came to Auschwitz and didn’t know [that] they are being slaughtered like pigs, only with less humanity,” he said in the Shoah outtakes.
Once, a young prisoner whispered to a woman who had arrived with her children that they were going to be killed. She inquired with the nearest SS, who reassured her and asked who had talked to her. “She was mollified for the next hour or so,” Mr. Vrba said, “before she was gassed with the children. And the boy was simply taken behind the wagons and shot.”
The warehouse where they opened and sorted the luggage was called “Kanada” – because “Canada was a land of plenty – a land of milk and honey.” Inside, coins, rings and watches were tossed into suitcases, which got so full that the guard carrying them away had to stamp on them with a foot to close them.
Mr. Vrba also recalled that a team had to check if gems were hidden in toothpaste tubes. “There was about 20 women who did nothing else but press out all toothpaste which was brought in.”
The family camp
Another example of Nazi duplicity was Theresienstadt, a transit camp near Prague used as a Potemkin display that Jews were treated properly. Among those held there was Mr. Freund. He was 13 when he and his family were then deported to Auschwitz in December, 1943.
“There were dogs on leash and they’d beat you,” he said. “First, we went to showers. We had to undress. First time I had seen my father in the nude, and my brother. Cold shower, lasted maybe 30 seconds. Then we were tattooed.”
They were held in the Birkenau section known as the family camp. They had to mail postcards claiming they were safe. Mr. Freund penned five or six, with words like: “I’m with my parents. Everything is fine. I will see you soon.”
He and other children were kept apart from their parents, sleeping six across a bunk. His gums hurt from the lack of vitamins. Hundreds of fleas infested his clothes.
Worse was the time two men were caught trying to escape. The other prisoners were forced to watch while the two were flogged to a bloody pulp before they were hanged. “I’d never seen anybody beaten so terribly. ... That was the worst,” Mr. Freund said.
The Hungarian deportation
Mr. Vrba managed to escape with another prisoner in April, 1944. They hid under a lumber pile, sprinkling gasoline-soaked tobacco around them to thwart the search dogs.
They wanted to alert the outside world about the impending Hungarian deportation. It would be the most lethal phase of Auschwitz’s history: In two months, most of the 420,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed on arrival.
Mr. Eisen, then 15, was part of that deportation. "We still didn’t know that the killing of Jews was happening all over continental Europe,” he said. “Being a fascist state, everything was censored.”
His mother and three siblings went to the gas chambers. Only Mr. Eisen, his father and an uncle were kept as slave labour. They toiled draining marshland. The SS taunted the famished prisoners by tossing their lunch scraps to their dogs. He saw a father and son fight each other for a piece of bread.
“I remember this particular one [night] in July,” he said. “You come back after 14 hours of hard labour and you’re sleeping, the sleep of the dead.” Suddenly, he was jolted by guards shouting, “Achtung! Achtung!”
The prisoners had to go naked before an SS doctor, who picked the weaker ones who would be sent to the gas chambers. Mr. Eisen survived, his father and uncle didn’t.
Around the same period, the Germans liquidated the family camp. Mr. Freund’s father and elder brother were shipped to another camp. His mother and 6,500 other Theresienstadt deportees were gassed.
Mr. Freund, who by then had just turned 14, was among 90 boys who were kept to haul coal and other materials around the camp, pulling carts like draft animals.
Ms. Ziegler, who had been in a Polish ghetto with her parents, was 8 when they were sent to Auschwitz in early 1944. “They shaved our heads and they tattooed us with numbers. I was bewildered.”
She was separated from her parents and taken to a barrack holding children earmarked for pseudo-medical experiments.
An older cousin was also there. “He was helping me a lot. And then, one day, they took him away, and I never saw him again. Because whenever they had roll calls, they would come and they would take us for experiments.”
She was selected, too, but has little memory of it. “All I saw were instruments and people in white coats. I came back. Something occurred to me but I don’t remember. I just blacked it out completely.”
In January, 1945, the Germans evacuated Auschwitz as the Red Army approached. Most prisoners, including Mr. Eisen and Mr. Freund, were forced to march toward Germany and wouldn’t be freed until the spring. Mr. Freund’s father and brother and Ms. Ziegler’s father were among thousands who didn’t survive the death marches.
Only 7,000 ailing prisoners remained behind. For three days, there were no guards and Ms. Ziegler and other children raided a warehouse to find food and clothing. On Jan. 27, the Red Army showed up. “They arrived on big trucks, they gave us chocolates,” Ms. Ziegler recalled. She was 9 and had contracted tuberculosis.
She and the others started families and new lives in Canada, but the spectre of the camp remained with them.
Mr. Vrba became a University of British Columbia professor. He testified at the 1985 trial of Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel. He died in 2006.
Now 89, Mr. Freund became a federal civil servant. He remains uneasy and anxious. “This feeling of being threatened is still with me. It never disappears,” he said.
A retired businessman, Mr. Eisen keeps busy speaking about the Holocaust. He is troubled by the hostility Jews still face today, he said. "This is like the thirties and Europe. … I could have never believed that I would ever have to face this kind of a poison.”
Despite health problems, the 84-year-old Ms. Ziegler is returning to Auschwitz to commemorate the 75th anniversary of its liberation. Alluding to the Jewish mourning prayer, she said that, “I have to honour the people that died and say Kaddish.”
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