With fewer voices, Auschwitz survivors speak

The voices of Auschwitz

The 70th anniversary of the liberation of the notorious Nazi concentration camp could mark the last major commemoration for many Holocaust survivors

Published on January 23, 2015

There are fewer and fewer of those who still remember.

The Soviet army entered Auschwitz — the network of extermination camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland — on Jan. 27, 1945, liberating the most notorious site of the Holocaust. In the decades since, groups of survivors have gathered to honor that day — including an annual remembrance at Auschwitz itself. This year, they mark the 70th anniversary of liberation on Tuesday — a day that, for a significant portion of remaining survivors, may be the last major remembrance of their lifetimes. The numbers themselves tell the story.

Video: The Holocaust's last voices

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Henry Greenbaum and Martin Weiss are part of the fading generation of survivors. As the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz approaches, they show PostTV how they are helping to shape the future by sharing their past. (Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post)

A decade ago, 1,500 survivors traveled to Auschwitz in southern Poland to mark the 60th anniversary. This year, organizers are expecting 300 or so. “This is the last big one for many of the survivors,” said Ronald Lauder, billionaire philanthropist and president of the World Jewish Congress, which is financing the travel expenses for more than 100 survivors. “By the time we reach the 75th anniversary, there may be almost no survivors left. But they are coming now, because they want to bear witness, to stand there and say, “we outlasted Hitler. We made it.’”

The survivors partly carry a legacy of horror, memories of the brutality of a labor prison that, by September of 1941, became an assembly line of death where more than 1 million would perish at the hands of the Third Reich. The vast majority of the victims were the Jews of Europe, subjected to Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution.” But others also deemed outside the racial and ideological lines of the Nazis also died. Ethnic Roma. Gays. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Polish prisoners of war.

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‘We were reduced
to a race.’

Anna Ornstein, Massachusetts


The survivors carry another legacy as well, one even more relevant: The power of human will to persevere. What follows are the tales of four survivors of Auschwitz, since resettled in the United States, Israel, France and southern Germany. Their recollections come amid what for some is a new period of uncertainty. In France — home of 89-year-old survivor Raphael Esrail — the anniversary comes less than three weeks after a terrorist assault on a kosher grocery store in Paris in which four people lost their lives.

In Israel, Marta Wise, an 80-year-old survivor, sees little cause for optimism in her adopted home or elsewhere. And in the United States, survivor Anna Ornstein, an 87-year-old psychoanalyst who has spent a lifetime treating children in trauma, says humanity has not learned from the Holocaust, as genocide has continued in many parts of the world.

For Hermann Höllenreiner — an 81-year-old Roma survivor who now lives outside of Munich — the anniversary comes as concern is growing about the modern treatment of Roma people across Europe. “I would like to think that things have changed 70 years later,” Höllenreiner said. “But there is still discrimination.”

‘The world has not changed at all’

Marta Wise, 80

Marta Wise, who now resides in Israel, recalls her intimate experiences with Nazi doctor Josef Mengele while in Auschwitz. In the photo of the camp at the top of this page, Wise is seventh from the left. (David Vaaknin for The Washington Post)

JERUSALEM — There are few people alive today who can recall the ominous grin of the notorious “Angel of Death,” Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. Marta Wise is one of them.

“When he smiled you knew it meant danger, because when he was smiling, that was when he was at his most sadistic,” said Wise (nee Weiss), an 80-year-old from pre-war Czechoslovakia who lived for two months in Mengele’s experimental barracks in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

Mengele, a German officer and physician, was known for conducting cruel, unscientific experiments on inmates, especially Jewish and Gypsy children. He was obsessed with twins and dwarfs. His “research” included attempts to turn dark eyes blue and studies into how twins were conceived, likely with the aim of boosting the fecundity of the Aryan “master race.”

Most of those who came under his care did not survive.

“We lived with a family of Hungarian dwarfs with nine children,” said Wise, recalling how Mengele bounced a 2-year-old boy on his knee and cooed, “Call me Uncle Mengele.” Then he injected the toddler with something that made his skin turn blue, Wise said.

Wise recalled her experiences in an interview earlier this month at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, museum and research center in Jerusalem. She spent her final weeks at the camp in Mengele’s barracks with her older sister, Eva.

She and her sister, she said, were also injected with a substance, although they never discovered what.

Just before the camp’s liberation, Wise had one of her most intimate moments with the Nazi doctor. After her sister became sick and was placed in the camp hospital, Mengele allowed Wise to visit her.

Graphic: The survivors

Of the number of Jews who were in camps and ghettos, or hiding under Nazi occupation, an estimated 100,555 are still alive. Click to see the full graphic. (Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)

“It must have tickled this monster to see this half-dead child come to help her sick, half-dead sister every day,” said Wise, describing how she met Mengele walking to the clinic one day.

A few days later, Russian soldiers arrived and freed the survivors.

“They did not have much but they gave us what they had,” she said, remembering how one soldier handed her a bottle of vodka. Although Wise was only 10 years old, the war and living in hiding before her capture had taught her that commodities could buy life. After they were freed, the sisters gave the vodka to a truck driver who helped them return home to their parents in Bratislava, today the capital of Slovakia.

Before the war, Wise and her sister lived with their parents and eight siblings in a luxurious house in a prestigious neighborhood of Bratislava. Their father, Eugen Weiss, was a self-made textile merchant who was initially considered an “essential Jew” by the Nazis for his business prowess.

It was his mix of business smarts and deep pessimism that helped him save himself, his wife and all but one of his children during the war. In the early years, Wise and her siblings were shipped to relatives in Hungary. Later, Wise and Eva posed as orphaned Aryan girls.

“We went to school every day and to church on Sundays,” Wise said.

It was the perfect cover for the blond, green-eyed girls until neighbors grew suspicious. They were finally arrested on Oct. 8, 1944 — Wise’s 10th birthday — and less than a month later they arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“Some survivors say no one helped them, but we had a different experience,” Wise said. “People always tried to help us, and we tried to help people wherever we could.”

But survival, she learned, “is really just pure luck.”

Wise, who moved with her family to Australia in 1948, said her parents never spoke of the war.

“Eva and I did not mention one word about Auschwitz until 1995,” she said, when Eva, who still lives in Australia, spoke at a commemoration event.

Mengele fled Germany and lived in exile in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil until he died in 1979.

Wise, a mother of three, grandmother of 14 and great-grandmother of five, immigrated to Israel with her husband in 1998. She is warm and friendly, but what she has to say is not soothing.

“I used to be an optimist until a few years ago, but the situation in the Middle East has changed and the world does not notice anything,” she said, speaking days after the terror attacks in Paris. “Reading the newspaper in the past few days is just like reading the newspaper in the 1930s.”

“The world has not changed at all,” Wise said. “The bottom line is it can happen again and it is happening again in many places, not necessarily to the Jews, but to anyone.”

—Ruth Eglash. Back to top.

‘I only know we did not learn from the Holocaust that we should stop killing, because we did not’

Anna Ornstein, 87

Anna Ornstein, now living outside Boston, lost her father and grandmother to the gas chambers. (Damian Strohmeyer for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — On a freezing January day, Anna Ornstein was one of a few visitors on the memorial plaza at Ground Zero as she ran her hands along the massive bronze tablets into which thousands of names of the dead are carved. The tiny grandmother swaddled in black down has an eye trained for horror.

“We have what I call a ‘memorial space,’ when we touch something or hear something from our trauma,” said Ornstein, 87, in her Hungarian accent. As a psychoanalyst renowned for her work on the self, she is considered an expert on how humans make meaning. As a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, she knows when there is none to be found.

And this day, nearly 70 years after then-18-year-old Anna Brunn and her mother were freed after losing her father and grandmother to the gas chambers, Ornstein wasn’t yet sold on memorials. They seem, she said, to imply punctuation, the end of something, as though everything possible has been learned.

“We like to think: ‘This is it! Now we’ll know better,’ ” she said as she came out of the cold and descended into the subterranean National September 11 Memorial Museum. But despite being what she calls “the most researched horror story in the world,” the Holocaust “was just the beginning of the century of genocide,” Ornstein said. “Armenians, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda. . . . Now some Muslims say, ‘Give me respect and maybe I’ll stop killing you.’ I only know we did not learn from the Holocaust that we should stop killing, because we did not.”

Ornstein, who lives outside Boston, had taken a taxi with a friend on a frigid morning to Ground Zero for the first time, to learn more about how a modern-day horror is memorialized.

When World War II ended, thousands of victims of the Nazis emigrated to the United States, a country historians say was largely uninterested in hearing their stories — like the time Ornstein watched the diseased body of her young friend expire, as a family of mice waited patiently nearby to partake. Or when she risked being shot by a camp guard for darting away momentarily from a forced line-up to touch her parched tongue to a puddle of filthy water on the ground.

It’s common to hear of Holocaust survivors who emigrated and almost never spoke of their experiences again. Ornstein and her husband, Paul, who survived a forced labor battalion, became prominent psychoanalysts and raised three children, all now psychiatrists.

In a field that had been heavily focused on the power of the subconscious, the Ornsteins became stars for arguing that people’s actual experiences — not only their unseen, buried conflicts — are essential in order to understand them. Anna specialized in children, and spent her life focused on the importance of the self, of empathy, of the ways relationships you have when you’re young can hurt or can cure you.

A day earlier, 90 analysts had packed into a tiny room at the William Alanson White Institute on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to hear her deliver a paper about “the importance of the empathic listening perspective, the need to be attentive,” and about trauma — one of her specialties. She wears elegant black suits, pearls and a tiny pin that says “zachor,” the Hebrew word for “remember.”

That Ornstein is a survivor is well-known. She speaks to groups around the world, and published a book of essays a decade ago called “My Mother’s Eyes.” She believes having her mother and childhood friends in the camp with her saved her sense of self, her ability to not disappear into the number tattooed on her arm.

Not that this analyst always freely analyzed. The analyst she saw while she was in training, she said, wasn’t equipped to deal with her experiences in Auschwitz, and she decided not to speak with him about them. While she studied and saw patients who survived many kinds of trauma — from poverty and hunger to physical pain — she chose not to see Holocaust survivors, fearing she’d confuse her experience with theirs.

Indeed, her kind voice takes on a slight edge when she’s asked about “survivors.”

“That’s almost like another crime,” she said of generalizations. “We were reduced to a race. . . . This is my name, I had parents who raised me a certain way, and that was not washed away.”

Her own field, she said, was among the worst for this crime of wiping away the self. Analysts had theories, including one that said survivors were empty shells. Look at us, she has been saying for decades. How is it that so many of us thrived?

Holding tight to her friend’s arm, Ornstein wove down the ramps, deeper into the museum. She paused for a question. Is she, as a Holocaust survivor, an esteemed analyst, more equipped to understand the meaning of the Sept. 11 attacks?

“Meaning?” she says in a confused voice. “What meaning?”

—Michelle Boorstein. Back to top.

‘I saw so much, remember too much of it’

Raphael Esrail, 89

Raphael Esrail, now located in Paris, recalls the Death March: “I could only think of my mother, think that I would never see her again, that I would die before reaching the age of 20.” (Andrew Testa/Panos for The Washington Post)

PARIS — On the subzero night of Jan. 18, 1945, the Soviet army was fast approaching the gates of Auschwitz. A few minutes after 11 p.m., Raphael Esrail, then 19, was forced into line with thousands of Jewish prisoners under the light of a full moon.

The bright night brought an unearthly clarity to a moment of dread. Shouting Nazis separated emaciated prisoners, some barely able to move, into smaller groups of 500. For a fleeting moment, he thought, they might all be killed right there.

A French Jew hauled to the camp in a cattle car after his arrest in Lyon 11 months earlier, Esrail had made a solemn pact with himself to survive the ordeal. The things he’d seen up until that point had already tested his will to live. But what came next, he recently recalled in a lengthy interview, was a different kind of horror.

The Death March.

Evacuating the camps in the days before liberation, the Nazis pushed tens of thousands of weakened prisoners into long treks toward distant trains bound for other facilities farther west. On hard ice, the prisoners marched, many of them in shoes made of wood and cloth that quickly fell apart. The worst off were barefoot within a few hours, their feet swollen, their bloodied soles sticking to the ice with each step.

“Their feet would freeze, and they would fall to their knees,” said Esrail, now 89, rubbing his closed eyes as he spoke in the Paris offices of the French Auschwitz survivors group he heads. “When they fell, a Nazi soldier would stick a gun to their heads and pull the trigger. I could only think of my mother, think that I would never see her again, that I would die before reaching the age of 20.”

He paused, composing himself, then continued: “I saw so much, remember too much of it. The three days of the Death March were the worst.”

In the many decades since, this time of year has always been the hardest — the days around the anniversary of liberation that still bring back the worst of the memories. The 70th anniversary has suddenly become particularly symbolic for French survivors. It comes amid worries of rising anti-Semitism in France, fears punctuated by the Jan. 9 attack at a kosher market in Paris by an Islamist extremist who killed four hostages before being killed by police.

Esrail, who since the mid-1980s has sought to spread the story of the Holocaust at French schools and conferences, said he began to sense a shift in the winds some four or five years ago. Other survivors would come back from speeches at schools with stories of youngsters rudely standing up and challenging them. “A kid would say, ‘I don’t want to hear about the Holocaust anymore, I’ve heard enough,’ ” he said. “It makes you feel terrible.”

In fact, it makes him feel like he felt on Jan. 9, after hearing about the attack on the kosher market. It came as a rising tide of French Jews are opting to emigrate to Israel.

“How are people able to do this to others? I asked the question 70 years ago; I ask myself the same question now.”

Born in Turkey in 1925 to a French Jewish mother and a Sephardic Jewish father, Esrail had come to France when he was 9 months old. In the late 1930s and in early 1940, ripples of fear had spread through his Jewish community in Lyon. “People would come from farther east and talk about what the Nazis were doing,” he said.

After the war came to France, a sense of shock overtook the community. “How, how, we wondered, could the French army, the greatest in the world, be defeated in 40 days? It all felt unreal. France was crying.”

The first anti-Semitic laws came into effect, he said, in October 1940. It spurred him to join the Resistance, the underground network of fighters against the Nazis. He was tasked with making forged work permits and travel documents for Jews. And he did just that, until being discovered and arrested by the Vichy French authorities on Jan. 8, 1944. That night, and for several days to come, he said, he was routinely tortured before being placed on the dank train car that would haul him to Auschwitz.

Although he has been back more than a dozen times since the war’s end, he has opted to sit out the 70th anniversary.

“I am old. I am sick,” he said. “And I do not want to die in Auschwitz.”

—Anthony Faiola. Virgile Demoustier contributed to this report.  Back to top.

‘That’s when I knew we were dealing with animals’

Hermann Höllenreiner, 81

Hermann Höellenreiner of Germany often speaks to students about his experiences in the concentration camps. (Mario Wezel for The Washington Post)

METTENHEIM, Germany — Of the many horrors of Auschwitz, Hermann Höllenreiner’s most vivid memory of Nazi cruelty came in the first hours after arriving there. A small dog had somehow been separated from a prisoner who had managed to smuggle it onto the train.

“The guard just pointed his pistol at this small, innocent little dog and killed it,” Höllenreiner said, growing emotional as he recalled the scene. “That’s when I knew we were dealing with animals.”

Along with tens of thousands of other ethnic Roma from across Nazi-occupied Europe, Höllenreiner and his family had been arrested and deported from their home near Munich. They arrived at the camp on a frosty March morning in 1943.

A few months later, weakened from lack of food and shell-shocked from the unfettered cruelty around him, he was picked to help out in the lab of Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi doctor whose medical experiments brought an extra dose of terror to Auschwitz.

Rumors of the doctor’s experiments, Höllenreiner recalled, ran wild in the camp. Those experiments would later involve both Höllenreiner and his incarcerated family. But on that one particularly frightening morning, Höllenreiner, who was 11 at the time, reported for duty and was greeted by a beaming Mengele, who asked him to transport a collection of jars.

“I did not want to look, but I did,” Höllenreiner, now 81, said at his home 47 miles east of Munich. “Inside the jars were what looked like human organs, preserved in some kind of liquid. There were lungs. Hearts. It made me sick.”

Later, he and his family would themselves be used in another experiment. They were, he said, purposely infected with typhoid before being injected with what appeared to be an untried new treatment. Still, it could have been worse. A relative became a subject for study on Mengele’s operating table. “He survived, but was never the same,” Höllenreiner said.

Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Höllenreiner is still tormented by his incarceration. But what also pains him, he said, are the unlearned lessons of what he calls the “forgotten genocide” — the systematic liquidation of Europe’s Roma.

An ancient people researchers believe originally came from India more than a millennium ago, the Roma of Europe were targets of discrimination well before the rise of the Nazis. In the Weimar Republic, German-born Roma — known locally as Sinti — were forced to register with authorities, and were banned from public pools and certain recreation areas.

During World War II, the Nazis exterminated hundreds of thousands of Roma. Yet their mass murder was not officially recognized as a genocide by then-West Germany until 1982. In 2011, Poland — where many Roma died along with Jews and gays — officially recognized the Roma genocide, designating Aug. 2 as a national day of remembrance.

The delays, advocates say, correspond to lingering discrimination against Roma in Europe that in recent years has grown progressively worse. In Hungary, four men were found guilty in 2013 of a series of racially motivated killings of Roma in 2008 and 2009 that left six dead, including a 5-year-old.

In 2010, France launched a systematic expulsion of Roma, deporting hundreds. Last year, Germany passed a measure that made it more difficult for immigrants from Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia to seek political asylum, a move widely seen as seeking to stem the flow of Roma migrants from those countries.

Höllenreiner is also highly critical of Europe’s Roma communities. In the decades since the war’s end, community leaders have not done enough, he said, to stress education and assimilation, leaving many young Roma stuck in cycles of poverty and living in insular and precarious encampments.

Gallery: The remnants of Auschwitz’s dark history

From original blueprints to a rare photo album, artifacts from the infamous concentration camps in Poland are still surfacing.

He has sought to tell his own story in German schools, sharing the extraordinary tale of how the Gestapo arrived at his family’s door one day in March 1943. They were all forced to a police station for processing before being loaded onto fetid cattle cars to Auschwitz.

During the final days of Nazi Germany, and after his transfer to a concentration camp further east in August 1944, he was separated from his family in the chaos of the death marches. As Nazi Germany was collapsing, freed French prisoners of war picked him up by the side of the road and brought him to France, where several foster families cared for him until December 1946. That’s when he finally learned that his parents and sister had survived the war, and were waiting for him in Munich. His grandmother died in the gas chambers, along with more than a dozen members of his extended family.

—Anthony Faiola. Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report. Back to top.