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January 29, 2015
Column #1,744
The Holocaust Remembered
By Mike McManus

“Hark, thy brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”
Genesis 4:10, quoted on a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum wall

Seventy years ago this week, Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz, a concentration camp that exterminated a million Jews. The anniversary was commemorated by a moving Holocaust Remembrance Day at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Steven Fenves, 83, a retired engineering professor, told attendees that he was 13 when the Nazis took over his family’s home in Yugoslavia, and he was put on a train to Auschwitz. “People lined up on the stairwell to ransack the house, spitting at us, cursing as we were led out by the gendarmes,” he recalled.

“At Auschwitz, I was immediately separated from my mother and sister, and eventually placed in what was called the boys’ barracks – a place where thousands, maybe 10,000 inmates were kept as livestock in stockyards.” They were available to work as slave labor in German mines and factories.

“My friends, who were sick and starving, were dying daily, carted away each morning. The only thing that prolonged my life was that my parents had me learn German at a boy.” That enabled him to serve as an interpreter.

His mother died in Auschwitz but a sister survived, as did his father, though he was a shattered man at the end, “old, shrunken, emotionally, physically broken. He died four months later, never able to accept that our mother was not coming back.”

Auschwitz was the largest killing complex built by the Nazis who also killed 125,000 Gypsies, Poles, and Soviet POWs there. And there were 42,000 other camps where Jews and others were gassed and cremated.

Fenves came to America, married another Auschwitz survivor nearly 60 years ago, and used the GI bill to get degrees that enabled him to become an engineering professor.

After he spoke a quartet played a Musical Interlude, a Hymn of the Partisans. The cellist was Jacqueline Mendels Birn, a Holocaust survivor whom I interviewed. She was born in Paris and was only four years old when the Nazis took over the city. Her family heard that the Nazis were going to round up 27,000 Jews to be “evacuated to one of the camps.”

Her mother contacted two young smugglers who got train tickets (that Jews normally could not obtain) for them to go to southern “so-called Free France” in July 1942. They checked into a hotel in a small town. “A knock at the door and we were under arrest.” But her father bribed the guards. They escaped and fled to a two-room house without running water on a farm. Her father “spent most of the time in a cellar where he could not stand up or lie down.

The farmer and his wife hid them for 29 months until they were liberated August 26, 1944. She told me, “France was ugly to the Jews, but there were some wonderful people. That’s why I am alive.”

Alfred Munzer, 73, a museum volunteer, had a more dramatic story. Born in occupied Holland where his family went into hiding when he was six months old, his parents went to a psychiatric hospital where they pretended to be staff. An Indonesian woman cared for him. “She was illiterate, spoke no Dutch, but had a heart of gold and thanks to her I am alive. My two sisters had a different fate. At ages 6 and 8, they were taken to Auschwitz where they were killed Feb. 11, 1944.”

The psychiatric hospital where his parents worked was closed Jan. 1, 1943. They were taken to Auschwitz where they were separated. “My mother survived by working in an assembly plant making radio tubes. My father was in Auschwitz for 6 months before being transferred to four other camps, where he was assigned to assembly V2 rockets. He survived to see liberation, but was so debilitated and malnourished he passed away two months later.”

Munzer found his mother and they moved to Brooklyn, where he went to college and medical school, becoming a lung disease specialist and ultimately, President of the American Lung Association.

These wonderful survival stories don’t communicate the horror of the Nazi death camps which killed 6 million Jews.

Elie Wiesel wrote in his book, Night: “Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.”

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