Auschwitz concentration camp survivors marked the 70th anniversary of their liberation by Soviet forces today, returning to the site of their greatest nightmares to lay wreaths, light candles and tell their stories in hopes that by remembering, the world will never let such horrors happen again. Common themes run through their accounts of their appalling experiences with separation from parents, deception by camp officials, abominable sanitation and living with the sights and sounds of death all around for months and years on end. Nevertheless, an equally common reaction to the horror plays out as each expresses a fierce determination and intrepid spirit about making sure the world never forgets the fallen. They are passionate to pass on their first-hand knowledge of the devastation that occurred at Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, not only for the dead, but also in the unforgettable emotional scars borne by those who lived to see the day of liberation.
Kitty Hart-Moxon, an 88-year old Polish resident of Hertfordshire, England where she has spent 60 years rebuilding a new life and family, remembers arriving at Auschwitz with her mother greeted by the terrifying sights and smells of human suffering, after being separated from her father and subjected to a mock execution. Receiving a numbered tattoo, reduced her to a nameless, faceless prisoner, stripped of her humanity. She recounts waking up next to dead bodies and taking their clothes in desperation just to stay warm and survive in the bitterly cold conditions. She found the way to survive was to make herself useful to the Nazi overlords so she took on some of the dirtiest jobs in the lavatory block, cleaning up the waste with her bare hands and hauling out the dead bodies. Later, the Nazis sent her to scavenge for valuables in the dead men’s clothes. The sounds of screams would pierce the thick walls of the extermination chambers providing a constant reminder that death was lurking around every corner. Losing friends to disease or the gas chambers was a perpetual ordeal. Mrs. Hart-Moxon shares that survival in such grim circumstances, reduces a person to animal instincts because dwelling on the emotions would be crushingly unbearable. As a result, for two years, she just did not talk about what was happening, trying hard to ignore the shock and anguish all around and just focus on the mindless monotony of survival.
Edith Eva Eger’s Olympic dreams were shattered after years of training, when she was told her Jewish heritage banned her from representing her native Hungary as a gymnast. Although she recalls her mother comforting her in the cattle car on the ride to Auschwitz, she says as soon as they arrived, the notorious Dr. Joseph Mengele separated them, sending her mother “to take a shower,” he told her as he pulled her back from following. He lied, telling her she would see her mother again soon but her last sight of her mother was marching unsuspectingly to the Nazi gas chambers. Her father met the same fate. Later, Mengele visited the barracks looking for entertainment and her dancing skills were put to work in a gruesome irony that required her to dance for her parents’ murderer in order to save her own life. Later her cabin mates saved her life by carrying her when she collapsed during an Austrian death march.
Polish Auschwitz survivor, Gena Turgel still has to pinch herself to make sure she is really alive, she shared with NBC News. She survived three Nazi death camps and even walked out of an Auschwitz gas chamber alive. She never realized at the time that she was in the gas chamber until an acquaintance expressed her amazement that she came out unscathed. She also lived through Mengele’s human medical experimentation and being sent on death marches from camp to camp, as the Soviet army drew closer. At one point, she was housed in the same barracks as the dying Anne Frank at Bergen Belsen. Her brothers, sisters and father all died in the concentration camps, yet she would not let herself cry, as any sign of weakness was a death sentence. Like Hart-Moxon, she learned to block out the horror and stay strong, but the stench of death, disease, suffering and foul sanitation never leaves her. That is why she tries to mask it with lots of perfume, even decades after liberation and marriage to Norman Turgel, one of the British army officers that liberated the Bergen Belsen camp.
It is hard to ignore the fact that the survivors’ Auschwitz nightmare seems to incite in them a single-minded determination to teach succeeding generations the truth about the abominations that occurred under Nazi rule in the concentration camps. Their stories reflect an iron clad resolve to do everything in their power to prevent history from repeating itself through generational amnesia and denial of what really happened. Mrs. Hart-Moxon warns that without remembering, there is nothing to stop such evil from happening again. The survivors’ spirit kept them alive to pass on their memories to dozens of children and grandchildren who would not have had a chance to be born if they had succumbed to the violence and cruelty under the hands of their Nazi captors.
The Nazis’ goal was to crush the human spirit and extinguish all spark of life. It is quite fitting then that the ultimate revenge upon their captors has come in the survivors’ unbroken spirit in going on to propagate new life and live their lives to the fullest, trying to do as much good as possible to oppose the malevolence and depravity that cast a dark shadow over their young lives. Not allowing the shadow of Auschwitz to limit them, many would agree with Eger’s declaration of her desire to live a full life and not hide behind her fears as “damaged goods.”
From a psychologist who specializes in treating patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, to helping victims of domestic abuse, studying medicine that heals rather than hurts and speaking to school children and college students of their experiences, the ongoing theme of many of their lives has been about helping people heal and educating future generations to ensure that no one else ever has to experience what they experienced ever again. The legacy of the Auschwitz survivors is that they have not let death and Nazi oppression win but have gone on to create new life and help others overcome their own struggles by saturating their lives with vigor and zest. They chose life and in doing so gave the Nazis their ultimate revenge and defeat by succeeding in doing good rather than evil.
By Tamara Christine Van Hooser
NBC News: Auschwitz Concentration Camp Survivors
NBC News: Auschwitz Survivor Gena Turgel