Between 1940 and 1945, the staff of Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz made at least 1,1 million of its inmates perished during Holocaust. The fact that the 190 hectares of forced labour and extermination facilities were surrounded by a guarded and barbed-wire topped fence was only one of a number of measures implemented to prevent its prisoners from escaping (camp numbers tattooed on their left forearms counted in). Additionally, there used to be retaliatory actions aimed at those who stayed in the case of each successful operation of this kind.
At the date of the liberation of the camp, there were 7,500 inmates found alive within its premises. About 600 of them died in hospitals shortly after. Overall, about 200,000 prisoners sent to Auschwitz would still be alive at the end of World War II – some of them due to the interventions of the Red Cross (political prisoners), some others – as transported to German plants as slave labourers. Plus – a small number of escapees. Read some of the most incredible stories of the will of life present in those who survived the appalling conditions of Auschwitz – even if some of them may not be finished with a happy ending.
EVA MOZES KOR – A TWIN SURVIVOR OF AUSCHWITZ
Only 200 child prisoners survived the experiments of Joseph Mengele, with nearly 3,000 of twins having passed through the barracks administered by the man named “Angel of Death”. In 1944, 9-year-old Eva and Miriam Mozes Kor were identified as twins at the selection ramp of the camp. Separated from their family sent to extermination, they were both chosen to be the “guinea pigs” of unimaginably horrifying experiments carried out by Mengele and his staff. The two Romanian twins have their earliest memory of a night spent in the camp related to the dead bodies of fellow child inmates encountered in one of camp’s latrines. This is when they both decided to do anything to survive. Eva was selected to be injected with a seemingly fatal substance and subject to an observation.
The fate of Miriam depended upon whether her sister would endure the disease or not. It was a standard practice at Auschwitz to kill the other twin of a deceased one with a chloroform injection to compare the differences present within both bodies. Even though Mengele informed Eva that she would have not more than 14 days of her life left after having received the injection, she managed to overcome the disease. This is when it was decided to use Miriam as a subject to an experiment aimed at stopping the development of her kidneys. After the camp was liberated, both sisters returned to Cluj, Romania, only to settle in the USA after a brief stay in Israel. Eva Kor married another Holocaust survivor and founded the CANDLE organisation supporting the twin survivors of Mengele’s experiments. Having outlived her sister whom she donated her kidney to in the 1980’s, she officially forgave their torturers during the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1995.
FRANCISZEK GAJOWNICZEK – SAVED BY A SACRIFICE OF A STRANGER
On July 29, 1941, the guards of Auschwitz noticed that one of inmates was missing. With all the remaining prisoners forced to gather in front of the barrack and stand there for the day and night to follow, there was a special punishment prepared for them to deter others from escaping. The SS-deputy camp commander Karl Fritzsch announced that 10 inmates would be chosen to die of starvation inside an underground bunker for not having prevented the escapee from what he did. Franciszek Gajowniczek, a 41-year-old soldier of Polish army, was one of the prisoners selected for death on that day. Upon hearing this, he cried out “Jesus! My wife! My children!”. This is when Maksymilan Kolbe, a priest who had initially been spared from death, approached the SS-man saying “I want to die instead of him”.
With the guards surprised by the courageous act whose motivation was unclear to them, he calmly explained that the formerly selected prisoner had his wife and children to live for. This strange request of the priest was then accepted. Maksymilan Kolbe, canonised in 1982 as a Catholic saint martyr, turned out to be the last person to die inside the said bunker. Heavily dehydrated and malnourished, he was eventually killed with a lethal injection after two weeks of having been kept there. Franciszek Gajowniczek, later transported to Sachsenhausen, survived until the liberation of the camp by the U.S. forces in 1945. Joining his wife after the war, he found out their sons had died due to the bombing of his hometown. Despite his over 4-year-long imprisonment in different Nazi camps, the man reached the age of 94 before his death in 1995.
JACK TRAMIEL – AN AUSCHWITZ-BURDENED VISIONARY
Jack Tramiel was born as Jacek Trzmiel in Lodz to a Polish-Jewish family in 1928. After a 5 year period throughout which the initially 10-year-old boy had to perform slave labour within the Litzmannstadt Ghetto, both him and his family were sent to Auschwitz in August 1944. The fact that Joseph Mengele determined their physical condition as sufficient for further work made the family transported to Hannover-Ahlem camp in the Third Reich. This is when the father of Trzmiel family would apparently be killed with a lethal injection of gasoline. April 1945 was when the camp was liberated by the U.S. Army – this is probably why, after his immigration to the USA, Jack Tramiel decided to give his company the army-related name of Commodore in the late 1950’s. Both the founder of this internationally-renowned company and the developer of Atari Corp., Jack Tramiel had never forgotten his early years spent in the Nazi-administered camps. As a co-founder of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, as well as a supporter of anti-defamation movements, he continued to live until the age of 83.
WITOLD PILECKI – A VOLUNTEER TO AUSCHWITZ
As unbelievably as it sounds, on November 19, 1940, Witold Pilecki – a rittmeister of the Polish Cavalry and a co-founder of Polish Home Army (AK) resistance organisation – voluntarily let himself be caught during a street roundup in Warsaw to be transported to Auschwitz. Having adopted the false identity of Tomasz Serafinski, his aim was to collect as much information on the camp as he only could to be included in a special report to be smuggled outside of its fence. It was still not much known of Auschwitz and its principles of operation in occupied Poland, let alone the Allied countries at the time. Upon his imprisonment in Auschwitz, Witold Pilecki organised an underground Union of Military Organisations within the camp, providing the inmates with additional food, clothes and aimed at organising the background for the potential liberation of Auschwitz. The information provided by the Union to the Polish intelligence between 1940 and 1942 was compiled into “Witold’s Report” that the British government received shortly after.
However, Witold Pilecki and his two companions, seeing no effect of the information they gathered, escaped the camp in April 1943 during their night shift at a camp’s bakery, additionally stealing some documents from the guards. The hero of Polish underground would later participate in brutally supressed Warsaw Uprising, survive one of German POW camps and join one of anti-communist military organisations in post-war Poland, then subject into the Soviet influence. With this regarded as an act of treason and espionage, Witold Pilecki was sentenced to death during a mock trial and after a year of tortures at a communist prison, with his execution and secret burial carried out on May 25, 1948. With the knowledge of his deeds officially suppressed for decades, he became reminded of to the public at the beginning of the 21st century.
GENA TURGEL: A GAS CHAMBER SURVIVOR
On September 1, 1939, Gena Turgel – a daughter to a Jewish family living in Krakow – was only 16 years old. After the Nazi forces occupied the city, her parents, siblings and herself were moved to Krakow Ghetto and, consecutively, the concentration camp established in Plaszow. This was where Gena had lost two of her brothers during a two-and-a-half years of imprisonment, before being transported to Auschwitz through a death march. Having survived the testing by Joseph Mengele, she was sent to a gas chamber with a number of other prisoners. As she stated after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen camp (where she shared a barrack with Anne Frank before her death), she left the chamber as presumably the only person to survive the Zyklon-B treatment in the history of the camp. Hiding among other prisoners with no clothes on, she not only managed to survive the war, but also established a family with a British officer she met upon the liberation, reaching the age of 90 as a person having devoted her life to teaching of the scale and outcome of Holocaust.
SHLOMO VENEZIA – LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL
Shlomo Venezia was born in Greece to an Italian-Jewish family. As a 19 year old, he was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau along with his family. Since he, his two cousins and a brother were classified as “useful” for work, all of them were forced to join Sonderkommando. This was a special unit of physically fit Auschwitz inmates that were harnessed to work at the crematories, particularly with the disposal of bodies and segregation of belongings confiscated from the exterminated ones. The members of Sonderkommando would ultimately be meant to be killed as well and only a few of them managed to survive until the liberation. The reason was that the direct knowledge of how Holocaust was implemented was deemed to be too dangerous for the Nazis to leak out of the camp. Throughout his six-month forced service at Auschwitz, Shlomo Venezia learnt that his mother and two sisters had been killed there. These experiences made him one of the most noticeable witnesses of Holocaust in terms of public appearances. Before his death in 2012, he was chosen as a consultant to one of the most important films on Shoah – the Oscar-awarded “Life is Beautiful” motion picture.
ZOFIA KOSSAK-SZCZUCKA: A POLISH JEWS-SAVING ACTIVIST
It is still not widely known that helping those of Jewish origin in the territory of occupied Poland would usually lead to immediate death at the hands of Nazis. Zofia Kossak-Szczucka was one of those who could not resist committing their humane deeds despite such a threat. This daughter of an acknowledged Polish painter and a renowned writer herself was a co-founder of the Provisional Committe to Aid Jews, aimed at saving the Polish Jews from extermination. This organisation soon evolved into a movement called the Council to Aid Jews (Zegota) which is said to have provided help to nearly 50% of 50,000 Polish Jews that eventually survived the war. Arrested in 1943, she was sent to to Auschwitz at the age of 54. Upon the realisation of whom she was, Zofia Kossak-Szczucka was immediately sentenced to death and transported to Pawiak prison in Warsaw (with the intention to have her interrogated), becoming miraculously saved through the efforts of Polish underground units.
Having also survived Warsaw Uprising, Zofia Kossak-Szczucka left Poland during the post-war Stalinist period with her previous activity frowned upon by the new communist authorities of the country. Devoted to her literary career, with some noticeable success achieved in the western markets and censorship imposed on her works in Poland, Zofia Kossak-Szczucka returned to her home country in 1957 to die in 1968. She was posthumously given the title of one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 1985.
IMRE KERTÉSZ AND TADEUSZ BOROWSKI: THE AUSCHWITZ AUTHORS
Auschwitz is where two controversial authors met (even if not personally at the time), projecting their experiences on the grounds of internationally acclaimed post-war literature. Pretending to be two years older let 14-year-old Imre Kertesz be spared from immediate death in a gas chamber upon his arrival to Auschwitz. The boy and his family were arrested in Budapest in 1944 and removed to Buchenwald prior to the liberation of the former camp. With Holocaust constituting the main motif of the famous trilogy that awarded him the Nobel Prize in literature in 2002 (including “Fatelessness”, whose main protagonist was a 14-year-old boy having survived both Auschwitz and Buchenwald), Imre Kertesz remained known for his controversial political opinions and unpopular views that he would publicly share for years to come (like calling “Schindler’s List” a work of kitsch). Deceased on March 31, 2016, the author said that he had owed the inspiration for his works to the oeuvre of Tadeusz Borowski while receiving the Nobel Prize.
This fellow inmate of Auschwitz of his was a Polish writer who found himself sent to the camp as a 21-year-old. Caught by the Nazis in Warsaw while searching for his fiancée who had not returned home before the dusk (with the woman also transported to Auschwitz after a street roundup), he spent nearly two years as a slave labourer at the camp and, further on, at Dachau. Mostly known for “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen”, a work considered overly nihilistic upon its publication in 1947, Borowski became a proponent of communism in the post-war period, believing it would save the world from “another Auschwitz”. Disillusioned with the system after his friend had been subject to tortures by the communist regime, he committed suicide by putting his head inside a gas stove at the age of 28.
RUDOLF VRBA AND ALFRÉD WETZLER: A MISSION TO SAVE OTHERS
These two brave men are known as the authors of Vrba-Wetzler report: 40 pages of notes and pictures where the operation of Auschwitz camp and the notion of the genocide of Jews were recorded and distributed among the governments of the Allied upon their escape. The document not only showed the scale of tragedy occurring at Auschwitz but also informed its recipients of the existence of gas chambers and crematoria among its facilities, as well as of their operating capacity. Rudolf Vrba was a Slovakian Jew who was removed to Auschwitz from Majdanek camp in June 1942, at the age of 18. His future companion, Alfred Wetlzer, was 22 at the time. Forced to work physically to survive there, they eventually meet in the camp’s mortuary, devising an escape plan to inform the world about the atrocities of Auschwitz.
After three days of hiding under the piles of wood stored between the two fences of the camp in April 1944, the two inmates crawled outside and reached Slovakia on foot. The report they had drawn up and translated with the help of people they trusted is said to have made the Allies exert sufficient influence on the Hungarian government to temporarily halt the transports of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz at the end of 1944. This, consequently, saved the lives of at least 70,000 individuals from Holocaust. The two escaped Auschwitz survivors themselves reached the age of 70 (Wetzler) and 81 (Vrba), with the latter one known as the achiever of notable scientific success in the field of chemistry and biology.
The stories of Auschwitz survivors have two things in common. One of them is that the impact the experiences of the camp left on their lives made them actively try to prevent the tragedy from happening again. The other one is that they show how intelligent, emotionally developed and ambitious individuals were intended to become exterminated – including future or established artists (like Helen Lewis, Branko Lustig or Xavery Dunikowski), doctors (Miklos Nyiszli), scientists (Primo Levi, Joel Lebovitz) or politicians (Wladyslaw Bartoszewski), among others.