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World Children of the Holocaust return to Auschwitz and pay tribute to those who saved them

The railway tracks lead to the"Death Gate" at the Auschwitz II Birkenau extermination camp. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

In the last chaotic days of Nazi Germany, in a train transferring concentration camp prisoners to Dachau, a teenager hears the cries of babies.

At 14, William Glied has already lost his family. Emaciated and shivering with typhoid, he thinks he is delirious, for how could newborns be in such wretched conditions?

And yet, seven babies were born that spring because the Germans spared seven pregnant inmates.

Most survivors think such clemency came because the war was ending and the guards tried to cast themselves in a better light. But Mr. Glied wants to believe it happened because there was a glimmer of decency in the heart of a Nazi.

“I feel that human beings are by nature good, that they’re not evil. If I didn’t believe that, there is not much sense in human existence,” the 84-year-old said from his Toronto home.

Tuesday is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, where more than a million victims died in occupied Poland.

The youngest Holocaust survivors, children at the time, are now elderly. Despite their frail health, many have dedicated their later years to bearing witness to the tragedy.

William Glied’s mother and sister were killed at Auschwitz. (Michelle Siu / For The Globe and Mail)

In the winter of his life, Mr. Glied wants to honour the memory of his father, Alexander, who gave him his rations and struggled to find him easier tasks.

“He saved my life. I am forever in debt for that,” he said. “Each time I speak to schools, I keep repeating that fact. And that will forever stay with me.”

Auschwitz is where his mother and his eight-year-old sister were murdered in 1944. It is also where Sally Wasserman lost her parents and brother.

Ms. Wasserman is devoted to sharing her story because she wants to talk about the courage of ordinary people in the face of evil – the courage of her mother, and the courage of a Polish couple who hid Ms. Wasserman in their home.

“I was saved for a reason. This is my legacy. It is a duty and obligation for me to make sure that people learn about this,” she says.

Friends became enemies

Located near the Polish city of Oswiecim, Auschwitz-Birkenau was made up of three main camps and became the Nazi regime’s largest extermination complex. Prisoners who were not killed on arrival were used for forced labour and medical experiments. The first inmates, 30 German criminals and 728 Polish prisoners, arrived in the spring of 1940.

It is estimated that about 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945: About 1.1 million were Jews, while the remainder were non-Jewish Poles, Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), Soviet prisoners of war and others. Of those, an estimated 1.1 million people were killed.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was one of the centres the Nazis set up in occupied Poland for large-scale, industrial murder. The others were Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno and Majdanek. Together, they accounted for the murder of more than 2.8 million people.

In mid-January, 1945, as Soviet forces approached, the Germans evacuated the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, forcing inmates on long marches and rail journeys that killed thousands more. On Jan. 27, 1945, the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front liberated the remaining 7,000 prisoners.

Source: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, The National World War II Museum, auschwitz.org, holocaust-history.org

Sally Wasserman survived the Holocaust because her mother arranged for her to be smuggled out of a Jewish ghetto and be hidden by a Catholic Polish couple.

Ms. Wasserman is the elder child of Izak and Tola Goldblum, who owned a butcher shop in the Polish town of Katowice.

She was four when the Germans invaded in 1939. They annexed Katowice and expelled its Jews.

The Goldblums moved in with relatives in Dabrowa. Food was scarce and, that winter, her father smuggled in a cow to feed the family. He was arrested and never seen again.

Nearby, in the spring, 728 Polish prisoners became the first inmates of a new concentration camp, Auschwitz. After the war, Ms. Wasserman learned that her father died of typhus in Auschwitz.

In Yugoslavia, which was still at peace, Mr. Glied’s family ran a flour mill in Subotica. He was 11 when the Germans invaded in April, 1941. Subotica was annexed by a German ally, Hungary, which had anti-Jewish laws modelled on Nazi legislation.

In school, Mr. Glied was bullied, and non-Jewish friends shunned him. “People I considered my friend all of a sudden became enemies. People who were my parents’ friends and associates, all of a sudden became strangers.”

Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June, and roving firing squads hunted Jews. The Nazis had experimented with gas chambers to murder mentally ill patients. That fall, Auschwitz’s first gassing took place, with 850 Soviet PoWs and Polish inmates killed.

Not far away, in Dabrowa, Ms. Wasserman, her mother and her brother were doing their best to survive.

‘He is an angel’

A photograph taken after the war shows Ms. Wasserman with Mikolai Turkin and his wife. ‘We are expecting death any minute,’ Ms. Wasserman’s mother wrote in 1943 before being taken to Auschwitz. ‘The end is bitter and tragic. But thank God, I know Mr. Turkin. He is an angel.’ (Courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

By 1942, the Jews of Dabrowa had been forced into a rundown, disease-ridden ghetto. Ms. Wasserman was eight and looked after her six-year-old brother, Wolf, while their mother toiled 10-hour shifts at a shop sewing German uniforms.

Then she met Mikolai (sometimes spelled Mikolaj) Turkin, a Christian city worker who could enter the ghetto because he was a meter reader.

The Nazis, with their need to pigeonhole people, classified him as a Category II ethnic German. Whatever his category, he had another attribute: empathy.

At the risk of his life, he started smuggling in food for Ms. Wasserman. He suspected the ghetto would eventually be liquidated, and said he and his wife could shelter her.

Her mother took that chance. “She was a simple woman. She was afraid of Poles, and yet she found the courage to give [something that she had of value] to a Polish Christian.”

The Nazis emptied the Dabrowa ghetto in July, 1943. Just before, Ms. Wasserman’s mother gave her a letter to a sister in Toronto, then entrusted her to Mr. Turkin.

“We are expecting death any minute,” the letter said. It added that “the end is bitter and tragic. But thank God, I know Mr. Turkin. He is an angel, and I do not have nice enough words to describe him and his wife.”

When Ms. Wasserman and Mr. Turkin arrived at his flat, he hid the package in a tin box and buried it under a pile of coals.

She spent the rest of the war hiding with Mr. Turkin and his wife, Eva, just 40 kilometres from Auschwitz, where her mother and her brother were murdered that summer.

‘I will keep doing it’

Enamel bowls, prosthetic limbs and glasses used by Auschwitz prisoners lie in an exhibition display at the former Auschwitz I concentration camp. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

By then, a complex of four large gas chambers and crematoria functioned in Auschwitz as the waves of deportations struck Greek and Italian Jews.

Despite racist laws, Hungary had not engaged in mass murders of its Jews. In March, 1944, however, after Hungary tried to enter into talks with the Allies, Germany invaded, and Hungarian Jews were no longer safe.

In less than two months, more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews were shipped to Auschwitz.

“I still recall very clearly, as if it was yesterday, us walking to the rail station, all these people outside looking at us walking to our death,” Mr. Glied said.

“Nobody stood up and said, ‘I’ll help you,’ even though this is a farming community and any one of them could have hidden us.”

It took two days to reach Auschwitz, in overcrowded cattle cars with no toilets. Mr. Glied remembers the blinding sunlight when they arrived at Birkenau, the sprawling sub-camp where they were off-loaded, ordered to line up and separated.

His mother, Maria, and his sister, Anniko, went one way, to the gas chambers. He and his father spent two to three weeks in Birkenau, then were shipped to Dachau, then to a sub-camp, Kaufering III, where they had to work 12-hour days, building a massive underground factory.

They would wake up at 4 a.m. to stand for hours during roll calls. Then they marched to Kaufering and would be ordered to sing. Without his father, he said, he would not have survived.

His father gave him his rations and tried to find an easier job for him, cutting and emptying cement bags. It was arduous, but at least it was indoors.

“I look at myself and I feel guilty,” Mr. Glied said. “You’re insensitive at that age to what sacrifices he made in order for you to stay alive.”

Every two weeks, the camp guards inspected the prisoners, and the sicker ones were taken to another camp, Kaufering IV, to die.

In April, 1945, his father was picked out to go. “I started crying. I was not quite 14 years old. I started crying and the camp commander called me out and asked me why I was crying.

They let him go with his father to Kaufering IV, where both contracted typhoid.

His father died eight days before U.S. troops liberated the camp in April, 1945.

Arbeit Macht Frei. Work Sets you Free. The sign above the entrance gate of the Auschwitz death camp greeted 1.1 million people. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

In Dabrowa, Ms. Wasserman spent the last two years of the war inside the apartment of the Turkins, living in fear she would be spotted or they would be denounced.

During the day, when the curtains were lifted, she stayed in their bedroom. If she wanted to use the bathroom, she had to crawl in the hallways so she would not be seen through the windows. She could hear Ms. Turkin in the courtyard, chatting with her neighbours and wondering about the terrible things rumoured to be happening in neighbouring Auschwitz.

She had never been to school, so, in the evening, they taught her how to read and write. They had two temporary hiding places in case someone dropped by, under a bed and behind a dresser.

There was also a more permanent hideout behind a false wall in a closet, with just enough space for a bucket and a stool. She hid there when Mr. Turkin’s daughter from a previous marriage and her family would visit.

After the war, she moved to Canada and never saw the Turkins again, although she kept in touch. For the first five years, she wrote to them almost every day. “They were the only family I had.”

The Turkins, who have since died, were recognized in 2012 as Righteous among Nations, the honour bestowed on Gentiles who risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust.

“They were ordinary people, but they did an extraordinary deed,” Ms. Wasserman said.

Speaking about her past is painful. “There were years when I didn’t want to be defined by the Holocaust per se. There’s much more to me than just surviving the Holocaust, and yet I have to come back to it. Because I am who I am because of it,” she says.

“Because I will never know what other lives I could have had, had I had parents who survived.”

Many survivors do not speak about their experience, but Mr. Glied has accompanied students on educational marches to Auschwitz seven times so that “something will rise out of the ashes of this terrible place,” he said.

“I don’t know how long I’ll be able to do it, but as long as I can, I will keep doing it.”

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