“Difficult Returns” — panel with Auschwitz survivors (International education conference, 4 July 2017) — full transcript
Krystyna Oleksy: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. My name is Krystyna Oleksy and I worked at the Museum from 1971 until my retirement, so I worked here for almost 20 years. First at the publishing house, then as the Deputy Director from 1990 until 2012. I was mainly dealing with educational activities in the last period of my work at this museum. Allow me first to introduce the members of our panel. Next to me I have Professor Zbigniew Kączkowski. Professor Kączkowski was born in Krakow, but passed his high school graduation exam in Gdynia. After the war broke out he and his family were moved to the General Government and he lived for a long time in Warsaw, where he got involved in the resistance movement. He was a member of the ‘Szare Szeregi’ (Gray Ranks), that was a scouting resistance force, and then afterwards, a member of the Home Army. He was arrested in Warsaw for his resistance activities and, together with his mother, who was a physician, he was sent to Auschwitz in 1943. Doctor Kączkowska died in Auschwitz in 1944. Professor Zbigniew Kączkowski made an attempt to escape from Auschwitz — he ran away from Auschwitz — but his escape failed, because he was rearrested and deported back to the Auschwitz camp. He was imprisoned in the bunker of the death block, number eleven. Professor Kączkowski was evacuated from the Auschwitz camp, was then imprisoned in Buchenwald and in Ravensbrück. He was liberated towards the end of April 1945. After the war, Professor Kączkowski started his studies at Gdańsk, in the University of Technology, where he then did his PhD and got the title of Professor. He carried out research and is the author of scientific articles and textbooks about construction and civil engineering.
The next participant on this panel is Ms. Halina Birenbaum. Ms. Birenbaum was born in Warsaw and survived the Warsaw ghetto. Her father was transported to Treblinka and murdered there. She was transported with her mother and her sister-in-law to Majdanek camp in Lublin, where her mother died. Then Halina Birenbaum was sent to Auschwitz and from there on a death march to Ravensbrück and Neustadt-Glewe. She was freed at Neustadt-Glewe. She is a writer and a poet. After the war she emigrated to Israel. I will list a few of her books. Her best known book is from 1967, Hope is the Last to Die, which has already been mentioned during the previous panel. She has also written Return to My Ancestors’ Land, Scream for Remembrance, Every Day Survived, Close and Far Echoes, and books of poetry. Halina Birenbaum meets with young people a lot in Israel, in Poland, in Germany, in Italy and other countries.
Next to Halina Birenbaum, is Dr. Janina Iwańska. Dr. Iwańska, just like Halina Birenbaum, was born in Warsaw in the same year. They could have been classmates, though they were not. Dr. Iwańska spent her childhood in the Wola district, where she started attending school. During the war her father was arrested. In 1944, when on the Warsaw Uprising broke out on 1 September, she was home alone. For the first eight days of the Uprising she managed to live by herself with the help of some older residents of the tenement in which the whole family lived before the war. The cellar was a place of community of the residents of the tenement. The cellar was also used as a bomb shelter. Dr. Janina Iwańska and other residents were led to the camp in Pruszków and then transported to the camp in Auschwitz. She also went through a death march and was freed in Ravensbrück. After the war, Dr. Iwańska passed her high school graduation exam, then she started a career in pharmaceuticals. She got her PhD and worked in her profession until almost the end of the 1980s.
Christoph Heubner: Hello ladies and gentlemen, my name is Christoph Heubner. I am the Vice President of the International Auschwitz Committee and I have been coming here to Oświęcim and to Auschwitz from around 1975 to work with young people. I am the co-founder of the International Youth Meeting Center in Oświęcim. I have the honor to introduce to you Marian Turski, a friend, a survivor, a journalist. He was born in 1926 and grew up in Łódź. In 1940 he entered the ghetto and later was sent to Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Theresienstadt. From 1958 he was a journalist working in politics. He is linked to the Jewish Historical Institute. He was, and still is, the spiritus rector of The Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. It is one of the most beautiful museums in Europe. I saw Marian last week in a castle at the big International Art Exhibition Documenta, where Marian was giving a public speech while revealing a statue linked to Auschwitz: the B from the phrase Arbeit Macht Frei. Sitting next to him is Roman Kent, born in Łódź in 1925. The same roots, the same way to the darkness. In 1939 the ghetto, then Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen and Flossenbürg. In 1946, on one of these children’s quotas, he was accepted with his brother Leon to the United States, where they both lived in a difficult situation. It was hard to explain who they were and where they came from. He describes this in his memoirs. He has written a second book which is very moving, for children, about his dog Lala in the ghetto. It was one of the most moving moments in the last few years, being in the POLIN museum in Warsaw and seeing Marian, together with Roman and Halina, introducing this book to children. Children were sitting, listening and asking questions about the story. When Marian Turski unveiled that statue at the castle, Roman Kent is the one who gave this sentence as a message on behalf of the survivors. The message that he brought down was this: “Remember, when injustices take place, when people are discriminated against and persecuted, never remain indifferent, indifference kills.” That is probably what we are talking about today as well.
Krystyna Oleksy: At the beginning, I would like to, first of all, thank you for giving me the opportunity to participate in this panel. I want to tell you that I am very honored, because meeting former inmates has always been, and still is, one of the most important experiences. At the beginning of my work here at the Museum I was accepted by former inmates and I really tried to have that contact with them, because it is very important. When I was coming here I remembered the conference from ten years ago, organized on the sixtieth anniversary of the creation of the Museum, and what stuck in my mind the most was meeting with former inmates of the camp, who then participated in that meeting. I remember that at the beginning of my work here, some of the former prisoners told me that while they were still in the camp, they were forming plans of what should be here after the war. They actually called it a museum. There were even plans, designs, and artistic projects. Jerzy Adam Brandhuber frequently spoke about this. Former inmates were those who created and established this museum. I would like to ask you this question. Would you be so kind as to share with us your reflections about your first visit to the established Museum, or the Museum being established? I mean on the grounds of the camp after its liberation, after the war has ended. Maybe I will start with Dr. Iwańska.
Janina Iwańska: I first came to Oświęcim in 1965; that was a very long time after the war. Before that I didn’t come here. It was by accident, because I was coming back from Krakow, from a conference, and my friends decided that maybe we will stop by at Oświęcim and I will show them where I was, and what it was like, because none of them had ever been to Oświęcim. I was encouraged, I said that I will show them which block I was in, which bunk I slept on, where I stood during the roll call. We came to Brzezinka, we stopped in front of the gate, we walked through the gate and I reached the railroad track. I got so dumbfounded that I walked across the whole camp with them, I went with them to the block, I pointed my finger at the bunk and a friend asked me: “Is this where you slept?” I nodded. I never said a word during this and they respected it. They walked around, they read various signs that were there. We did not go to the Museum on our way back, because they thought that it was not good for me. We got into the car and from Oświęcim to Warsaw nobody said a word to me, and neither was I able to say a word to anybody, I was just crying all the time. We got back to Warsaw. We worked at the same institution, and for the next two or three days they would come to me, but they never mentioned it. Only several days later we started talking. I then remembered how my parents, ten years earlier, were on a trip in Krakow and their group of employees stopped by at Oświęcim. They came back from Oświęcim. For a long time I knew that they had been to Oświęcim, but they never said anything to me about it. Only when they walked past, they would pat my head. I was an adult then and I felt strange about them doing that. I never asked them about this, because I knew that they were living through this somehow. After several days they told me: “We saw your braids in Oświęcim.” There was a question of what relics are left and what makes the greatest impression. My parents were the most impressed by braids. They were not my braids, because there was a whole mountain of braids there, but it was the greatest experience for them: not that I was there, that I had survived, but that my braids were there. After my visit, after many years, I never went to Oświęcim again, and I never tried to convince anybody from my family to go there, because for them that was a huge experience. I thought that I could guide people around the camp, but it turned out that I was mute, I could not say anything. Next time I came to Oświęcim in a conscious way, was when I had already retired. I was invited for the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the camp. I reached the conclusion that I could go there, reasonably calmly, and I did. I was coming back from the camp with a group of girls like me, who were without family, who were alone. We were under the guardianship of a teacher, who had this vocation to take care of us. She brought us back from Germany and then we lost touch with one another. When we retired and Irena retired, she found us through the association of former Oświęcim inmates. Of those who were in Warsaw, there were eighteen of us traveling in that group; nine were found and from that time onwards we would go to Irena on her name day and to some other celebrations. We stayed in touch and she always called us, like she used to in the camp, “my girls”. She died when she was more than ninety; we were more than seventy and she kept calling us “my little girls”. That was very moving. When I came here for the 50th anniversary, I came with the decision that we would look for the rest of our girls. A journalist contacted us and there was an interview conducted for a newspaper. He took a photograph of us and under the photograph it was said that we were looking for missing girls from that return. One girl from that returning group, one who lived somewhere in Silesia, in Chorzów, I believe, came forward and from that time she came to every celebration in Warsaw for that lady, who brought us back. We walked from the camp to Warsaw, beginning in May, because it was liberated in May, and at the beginning of August we reached Warsaw. She was our guide. That was my first contact with the camp. Then I came again and now I come more and more frequently.
Krystyna Oleksy: Thank you very much. Halinka, if I remember well, you also visited Auschwitz quite late when you returned for the second time.
Halina Birenbaum: I left Poland in 1946. I took the illegal route to Palestine, there was no Israel at that time. Starting from 1947, when the state of Israel was proclaimed, I was there. I came back to Poland after forty years; after the liberation I spent one year in Poland before I left. I did not go back to Majdanek or Auschwitz. I thought that I was liberated and I did not need to visit these places. I already knew everything and I wanted to feel free. Forty years later I came back here and this is what I wrote. Before I start let me tell you one thing. I have always been telling this story everywhere. People did not want to hear this. Some people thought I was obsessed. Starting from 1964 I was visiting schools in Israel. I talked to children, students from grades three to six. That was where I learnt to tell my story to these children. They would be sitting there for two hours, no one would want to leave. After many years I met someone at the airport in New York and they told me: “Listen, you came with the story to my school and I remember every single detail.” Now when I come to Poland, I am a member of the International Auschwitz Council, I visit twice a year. Last year I was invited by one young person. She contacted me through Facebook, she wanted me to come to Krakow. I was a bit tired. Let me just tell you that telling stories is not in vain. People remember these stories. Let me read a poem written by this young lady from The University of Education, who invited me to Krakow. “Katarzyna Lisowska to Halina Birenbaum. I remember the door open before us, I remember when after a meeting at the university you were holding my hand and there was a number tattooed on this hand. I felt as if I was in the world from which you evacuated me, into the green meadows, to run to Auschwitz, to see that once again, to understand and remember it forever. I am 27 years old and memory has been saved in me.” This is the result of my work of many years. I have many letters. I have been living in Israel for such a long time and I receive letters from Poland. It was 1986, forty years after I left Poland to start my new life in Israel. At some point, the Communist Poland started to issue visas to visit the country. I decided to join a group of several people who survived the Shoah. My family members were afraid that I would suffer a heart attack if I went to Auschwitz or Treblinka, but these places were the main destination of my trip. I wanted to go there, I wanted to visit them of my own free will. I wanted to touch them without fear and I wanted to be able to leave them whenever I wanted. After a while I received the first letter from the Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau from my new friends. My sons were shocked by the address. Oświęcim was there. They did not know Poland from the postwar period. They just knew my story. This is when I remembered all the pictures from my childhood and I wanted to convey what I experienced to someone, who is close to me, but I knew no one and no one knew me. I doubted whether they wanted to know me. I knew I would not be able to cope alone with my memories and all these feelings that I would be like an alien to people, the new people at this place. On my way to Oświęcim I was unable to utter a word, I was unable to cope with any conversation. Only the view of cemeteries by the roadside would calm me down. When I could see them I felt at home. People around me had no knowledge. There was a young, nice guide explaining to us, that so many people were deported here, that they were murdered, killed, beaten up, that it was awful. It was so good that she was able to explain anything. I felt grateful to her that she could explain it, but I was unable to follow her, I was unable to follow her explanations, it was too polite. The reality was wild, full of humiliation, full of inhumane acts. I can see those crowds of people, deprived of everything. They did not look like human beings. I can still hear the roar of death, here in the air, on the ground, in the air. Everything was so awful that nothing was awful really. The worst, the most impossible thing, was reality. A human being was not a human being anymore. A human’s speech did not express anything. That was the bottom of hell. Beautiful words would die together with people, they were needless. Everything was burning down in this fire from all the crematoria. In my heart, in my lungs, I can feel this smell. Now in the clean air there is wire round and I can still smell it, no one can understand how much and I cannot stand it. The group and I were standing and listening to this lady’s explanation, and this woman was walking through the mud. It was so hard to encompass the present and the past, both at the same time and within myself. I was the small, little woman back then, and now. I entered the barrack, it was dark, I held the frame of the bed with my bare hands and then suddenly I touched the power of evil and the power of victory over evil. I asked my Israeli guide to take me to someone from the secretariat because from the very start I began telling people who I was, who I am. I took out my notes concerning Auschwitz that I wrote in Israel. I was full of tension. I was in so much of a hurry that I did not allow them to invite me to sit down to the table with them and they asked me to sit down and they brought the tape recorder and I was afraid that the group that came with me would leave and I did not have enough time to tell them everything. What I did not expect was that I would start crying while telling my own story. This situation was different because I was here. Never before had I cried and then I felt weak and I was afraid that I would not come out of Auschwitz alive this time. I was hoping to survive and I promised myself never to go back to Auschwitz and to the subject. Luckily I did not die because of these emotions. Because my life was saved I come here to Auschwitz, I come with young people, I tell them what it was like, I tell them in that same barrack, next to my bunk bed. Those who are listening to me or listening to my words, and read my face, they can read my eyes. Until today my energy and my strength lies in my experiences and what I gained from September 1939 until I turned ten. These experiences gave me strength to explain it to all those, who are listening to me. I do it honestly without any grievances, without hate. These young people and adults listening to me are made aware of the sense of life, friendship and love. Of dedication to another human being. They start developing a new outlook on life. They do not have provocative questions, they do not smile in an ironic way when they hear the word “Jew”. There is no hate. Maybe whatever is holy is born here.
Krystyna Oleksy: Thank you very much Halina. Thank you very much for this very emotional account and contribution. When and why did you come again as a free man to Auschwitz, Professor?
Zbigniew Kączkowski: At the very start I have to say I am 96 years old and, as Ludwik Solski used to say, if you are 96, you are fully allowed to forget about many things. I do not remember when it was very well. I know that I came here for the first time with my wife and I showed this place to my wife, I showed her how I escaped from the camp, I showed her my route and everything about the escape plan. I showed her what I — despite my age — remember really well. I told her about my escape, I told her how I was captured and how I managed to survive. I have told this story many times. I have four children and seven grandchildren, and each of them wanted to come here with me. Each of them was guided around this place by me. One of the first visits that I made was when I told the story about my time here in the concentration camp to the team working at the Museum. I was telling future guides about the story, I was taking them around the camp and that was one of the first public reports that I made, a public account. I am not good at telling it, although I am not a poet unlike my neighbor. I am a civil engineer and I dealt with mechanical issues related to construction, so I was walking the earth more but I was not so emotional about these visits. I did not experience them in such an emotional way. I think we need to remember the difference. There is the concentration camp Auschwitz I and there is Birkenau. Birkenau was the place where the Holocaust was effected, this is where the entire nation was being annihilated in gas chambers. This is where dead bodies were burnt down in crematoria. I was in the camp and I knew about what happened there on the basis of the reports of other people, not on the basis of my own observations. For some time I did stay at Birkenau and what made a great impression on me there, the most shocking impression was the smell from the crematoria. You could see the sparks falling from the chimneys at night. The smell of burning bodies was something terrible, something awful. I knew what was going on there. I knew that from the reports of other people; from the people, who knew more about what was happening in the gas chambers. In a way I am an indirect witness. I was not as close to those who murdered people there, who carried out this mass murder of people there, as others. We were fully aware of the fact that when we started telling our stories people would never believe us. Very often I had meetings with young people at technical universities, for example. I would tell students what life in the camp looked like from the perspective of an inmate, from the perspective of a prisoner, who was working in this or that commando and this or that unit. I remember the escape the best because they captured me and every escape was supposed to end with death; that is how it was punished. Especially failed escape. I was put into a cell in block 11. There were two more people sentenced to death because of their attempt to escape. One of them was Edek Galiński, his escape was famous. He escaped together with Mala Zimetbaum, a Jewish woman, whom he led out of the camp dressed up as an SS soldier, in his uniform. That was an exceptional escape but unfortunately they were both caught and sentenced to death; they were hanged. There were three people there, one of them was Edek and one of them was me. And Edek was there with me for ten days in the same cell. When I get to this bit of my biography in my story, then sometimes my voice breaks down, because Edek Galiński would stand by the door every evening and there was this little crack in between the door and doorframe and he would whistle a beautiful melody. I am not musical, I am not able to repeat this melody, though I wanted to remember it. After he finished whistling it, it would echo through these winding corridors of the bunker and it would return to us and it was not an echo, it was Mala. Mala was whistling the same melody, she was also waiting for her death in a different cell. It was something extremely poignant. This melody that they whistled was a melody of love and saying goodbye to each other. Sometimes in my stories, when I get to this point, my voice breaks down. These were my emotions. But I am not answering the question you asked. Maybe I can comment on what I heard during our morning session. We have talked about the good that can also arise in people. We should believe that people are good, not bad. It would be better for the world if it was like that, but sometimes it is. When escaping from the camp, I experienced good from the SS soldier, who was guarding the entry. He could see us in the night when we tried to cross the line. Unfortunately we got caught up in some kind of barbed wire that was there in the grass next to the road. We fell down, there were two of us. We were trying to cross this line. The SS soldier was standing over us on the other side of the ditch that separated us from the road. He was standing above us for quite a while. I was wondering what he was waiting for. He moved away to talk to a person on a bike and then he came back to us. He was guarding us. At some point he walked away. We could hear his steps from a distance. Probably he did not want to be responsible for the death of two people escaping from the camp, that he could see, and he left us free. Regardless of the barbed wire we ran out of the place and we crossed the street, we went down to the river, we crossed the river and got to the other side of the bank but unfortunately we were caught and we went back to the camp. That is something that I treat as an expression of conscience of a person who is touched by what he saw. Other inmates said that SS soldiers were not good, there is no need to talk about it because they were not good. Yes, indeed, but sometimes among them there was one or two with a conscience. Thank you very much.
Christoph Heubner: Now, the same question to Roman Kent, now living in New York. How do you remember coming back here, to Oświęcim, to Auschwitz?
Roman Kent: First I would like to say that I heard here, during the first panel, someone giving us specific honors. I can ensure you, there is nothing honorable to go through the war and a concentration camp. For this we do not deserve to be called honorable, to be given honor and so on. It is an experience that we wish we did not have. For me, the first visit to Auschwitz was many years after the war, when I had already been in the United States for many years. When I went first to Auschwitz I was really very quiet, I did not want to say anything, I wanted to be by myself. I was walking through different parts of Auschwitz, starting from the railroad station where we were greeted by the Germans. I was trying to relive the greeting part which was something I remember. I remember that we were actually locked in the cattle car. The family, I mean those who were still alive: my mother, my sister, my second sister and my brother. We were locked in the cattle car for about three days with no food and no water. You can imagine what a stench there was in the cattle car. A lot of children and grown-ups actually died during this trip. When the door suddenly opened the sun blinded us, we could barely see, because we were locked in the cattle car for three days. We heard the command. This actually was a very welcome order because we could get out from the stench of the car and be able to straighten our legs. Little did we know that the command was leading us to something that we did not really experience in the ghetto. I want you to know that the difference between what happened to us at the railroad station and in the ghetto was tremendous. In the ghetto at least we were together, the whole family. In a way it was peaceful. The police and commandos were seldom walking in the ghetto beating us, killing and so on. What we saw there at the railroad station was a tremendous shock. This shock — it is not that I relived it when I first came to Auschwitz, but I just have to close my eyes for a second and I can see the scene at the railroad station. The command “alle raus” was of course given, together with beating us with guns and whipping us with whips. Then the Germans had another “pleasant” surprise. They were riding their horses at the people coming out from the car and dividing families. I can say that this was my first remembrance of Auschwitz and this is when I remember how I arrived. In a way I can say as a reflection that Auschwitz today is not a word anymore. Auschwitz is an expression of evil. The worst evil that could happen to mankind at that time and I hope it will never happen again. Maybe the only thought that it was in my mind then — Auschwitz itself is the thought — that Auschwitz in the near future may become just a small footnote in history. It would be a tragedy for me, for survivors and for mankind to forget about it. Of course, later on, my memory is of being separated from my mother and sister. Me going with my brother to the shower place and from there being given some old clothes that did not fit us. Little did we know that it was irrelevant. I remember going to the barrack where we were placed, about one thousand people in a barrack. That was my reception in Auschwitz. Next time I went to Auschwitz I was together with a group of about thirty teachers. When we came to Auschwitz I really did not say anything, but when we went to Birkenau I told them the story about what happened in Birkenau. When you look at this picture here, you see chimneys. To me those are empty chimneys, which remind me of thousands of barracks that were there, in each of the barracks there was about a thousand of us, suffering, living or dying at the whim of the Kapo. We of course did not know, but we learnt very fast what that meant. This, more or less, was my first day and night in Auschwitz.
Christoph Heubner: Thank you Roman, and now the same question to Marian.
Marian Turski: You may find it surprising but maybe it is good that I am the last in this round of questions, because what can I say? I was touched by amnesia. When I got out I was touched by total, -maybe that is an exaggeration — amnesia. It was not total because I have always remembered the first day of my stay, so I remember the arrival and I remember the first day and obviously I cannot get rid of the number “B9408”. I know many who wanted to get rid of this tattoo, so that they would not have to look at it. I did not find it painful. I thought of it as the greatest award, order. In this sense I could not forget. Apart from some episodes where I have a void in my mind. You researchers may find this interesting, how this happens. Maybe you will find how I recovered my memory interesting. That was an unusual story. I was with a group of acquaintances, I went through multiple camps. Some died but out of the ten there were six of us left after the Second World War and we always met on the liberation anniversary. That was 9 May, after the death march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald and after the second death march from Buchenwald to Theresienstadt. We were liberated one day after the war was over. We always meet on the anniversary of this liberation. Yehuda Bauer will know who I will be talking about, because one of those from this ten was Stefan Krakowski. His number was right next to mine. I remember once we were sitting in Warsaw in his apartment, those of us who survived, we met together with our wives. At one point he raised his glass and set a toast to me. And I asked why. He said: “Because you saved my life.” I asked, “I saved yours?” He said that on the second part of our death march, after those many kilometers through Pszczyna, Żory, to Wodzisław. 120 of us were loaded into cars, and we spent three and a half days between Wodzisław and Buchenwald. We were in those railroad cars. He said that in this railroad car, when we reached Buchenwald, there were thirty six dead bodies. He said: “Do you remember? We were in this cattle car, people were dying and all the dead bodies were dumped into one corner. You were shouting ‘This is my brother! You are going to suffocate him with those dead bodies!’” That was him. They started moving those dead bodies and I saved his life. I did not remember anything about this. I came to him the next day and I said: “Stefan, start telling me about it.” It was stimulating my memory, it was whipping up my interest. Only half a year later did I decide to go to, as Krystyna calls it, the Museum. I would call it our memorial site. I went there on my own. I wanted to walk the route from the offloading ramp, through that section towards Canada, to what turned out to be the Sauna, which I was convinced would be a gas chamber until the very last moment. I also dirtied my pants out of fear. I covered the same route. Then I came one more time and I cannot avoid this impression from those days. I felt alien, I felt strange because today the historians would say that it was the process of de-Judaization of Auschwitz-Birkenau. I felt this not because I was a Jew deported there, whose family was gassed except his mother, but I went there because I am a citizen of Poland, just like others were citizens of Hungary. I had this feeling that I am alienated from this. I never felt the need to come back again. There is one interesting thing. This amnesia made it easier for me and it kept me from what other acquaintances experienced later. They had nightmares, they could not sleep at night and so on. That was some kind of self-defense in my body as it did not allow this. I avoided this. This was my lucky escape. Previously I wrote dissertations about other topics and I never dealt with the Shoah. I dealt with the Potsdam conference, I dealt with colonialism. This shifted me to a different kind of research. I can say that it seems to me, though you can never be certain, that it actually gave me a chance to distance myself, as a historian, from the topic of the camp, so that I do not react only emotionally. I can look at this like a historian, as a research topic. I read through various dissertations, publications, memorials. I would read everything I could. This is where I should actually stop because this answers the question. I have to tell you two other things. I will only mention two other important meetings for me later when I became a member of the International Council. One day I was called by a well-known BBC producer and he said: “I know you were at the camp, I know you are working on this. I have this favor to ask. I want to bring the leader of young British Neo-Nazis, the leader of French Neo-Nazis, the leader of German Neo-Nazis and Austrian Neo-Nazis. I asked them if they would come with me to Auschwitz on my expense and they said yes.” When my wife heard this, she said that I will die of a heart attack. I said that this is my duty. If I do not do this then who will? I went there with them. This was portrayed in a movie that you can find on YouTube, it is called Another Journey. This is a movie where I travel with them and we are talking about it, I did not try to convince them, that was not important. But because it was being filmed and you may remember that this was the peak time of Holocaust awareness. I thought that this was my second duty. Then the opening of the Sauna where I talked about my experience. I think that is enough.
Christoph Heubner: Thank you Marian. I would like to go on at this point of the discussion. Most of you were talking about contacts you have with students, with young people. You are telling them about what happened. You take them with you to places to talk about your memories. It was Simone Weil, who was mentioned here before, who told me that at first nobody wanted to listen, nobody wanted to hear about Auschwitz and you were not really able to talk about it. Where was this point that you had a feeling people want to know, they ask and now you have to tell them? How have you found the words to express what you feel inside?
Roman Kent: I did not tell you about my experiences relating to what you said about most of the people not wanting to hear, discuss it or know about it. Let me tell you that in America, the American people did not want to know what happened here during the war. They were complaining to me and my brother how difficult it had been for them during the war in the United States. They had to have a ration for gas. They sometimes had a limited supply for gas, or for tires, or for some other things. They were more interested in what had happened to them during the war, rather than hearing what happened to us. These were particularly the elderly, who came to the United States way before the war. They came from small cities in Poland, where they did not have running water and they did not have electricity. They told us that we lived in Łódź or in Warsaw in the same way. They did not realize that we had a more advanced intellectual life than they had here in the United States. In Łódź we had a few Jewish theatres. They did not realize this. It was very difficult, if not impossible, to talk to the American people. Of course, there were exceptions as to how bad it really was during the war. I wanted to mention one thing, which Marian said, about amnesia. I did not say it because it had been when we — I should not say left — because I suffered complete amnesia about how we got from our apartment, where we lived in the ghetto, to the railroad station. I knew nothing, I had complete amnesia. When years ago my sister told me, that we were hiding in our apartment and the Germans found us and they put us on a truck and brought us to the railroad station I still did not believe it, I could not understand it. Today I still have amnesia about how we ended up at the cattle car on the railroad station. Finally I would like to mention the awareness I had, in 1980, about doing something for the future when nobody was doing anything. I came to Poland to make a film, Children of the Holocaust, devoted to the one and a half million Jewish children who were murdered during the war. Marian’s wife was working with me on the film. She was the sound engineer. We brought Liv Ullman here, she came to Auschwitz with us for a few days at the beginning, and then the film was shot in Auschwitz. This film received the New York International Film Festival Award in 1980.
Christoph Heubner: Mrs. Iwańska, would you like to add something to this? About talking to young people, about your remembrances?
Janina Iwańska: Yes, as I said, when I retired I would not come to the camp for a long time. But when I started coming to the camp I decided I had to start talking about it, because until then I had not talked about it. Ladies from Auschwitz came to me, to carry out an interview with me, and I also had an interview at the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. In 2002 the person who owned an agricultural plot next to me was in a concentration camp as well, it turned out he was at Terezin and I found out about his life and the fact that he had been there. In Neustadt-Glewe a museum was opened in 2002, I was invited to that ceremony. I was very reluctant to go, because until 2002 I would never go to Germany. I would not want to talk to Germans, to hear the German language. It was so strong that when I went to Switzerland, to my friends, I did not want to go out with them because I hated these people. I mean, they were decent people, but I hated them because they spoke German. In 2002, when I went to the museum opening ceremony I was very well received. The entire meeting was around one subject. Whether I forgave them. They gave me all kinds of items. After I went back home, I received a number of letters from the parents of children, who were my age, and their mothers were writing to me saying it is unimaginable that they could go through what I went through if they were thirteen or fourteen. That applies to young people as well. They wrote to me as well. They would write me letters thanking me for coming and having the opportunity to talk to me. From then on I would go there and I would tell them about the camp. I have been travelling there since 2002 and I have been there every year, except for one year. In May once a year there is a meeting with young people at schools. A few years later I gave an interview to the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising and in that interview I said that I hated the German language, I hated Germans and now I go there and I forgave them. One day I opened up a website and it was the website of the Warsaw Uprising Museum and I found my account there. Someone wrote the following comment: “If she forgave Germans, she is a Nazi just like them.” After that I decided to meet Polish young people as well and to tell them about it too, because this is when I realized that young people had no idea what fascism was, what it means to forgive and what the situation under the German occupation in Poland was like. I invited young people to my home, they could come and see me, talk to me, and they took part in competitions. Then, a principal of one of schools in Legionowo invited me to a meeting with school students, then this year she invited me to the opening of the school year. When I was traveling to Germany I thought that German students were more interested in Nazi camps and the Second World War than young people in Poland, but then when I started seeing Polish students and Polish schools, I realized that a lot had to be done in Polish schools but young people were indeed interested in this subject. There was this period from 1945, when the generation that went through the war and camps and uprisings, they focused on themselves, on their personal matters, they did not focus on these issues as they were too painful for them. New generations are interested in those issues. There are special interest clubs at schools, teachers are interested in these issues. This is why I decided to come and visit them, to talk to them. When I first went to Germany, at the first meeting students asked questions like this: “What kind of toys did children have? What did you get for dessert? There was no mommy with you? Your mommy could not come and see you at the camp?” These were young people who were twelve or thirteen, these were teenagers but the questions they asked were very childish. Then I would go to the same school next year and those people were prepared by teachers. They were becoming wiser and wiser and they started asking more relevant questions. This year I was asked by one person whether I believe in God, and I say yes. The next question was: “So how do you cope with the fact that God allowed concentration camps to be established by Hitler?” My answer was that Hitler never asked God whether he could establish concentration camps. He supposedly followed the slogan “Got Mit Uns” (God with Us), but that was just his idea, he had nothing to do with God and he established camps on his own. If it comes to God, I told this person, that God allowed me to survive. God helped me live this long so that I could come here and give you the testimony of what happened. The room was quiet. A moment later he raised his hand and said: “You know, I would have never thought that but you are probably right.” I think that this is also important. I am not interested in politics or any political activity but giving my testimony to young people and adults is extremely important. I was here in this building once and I was invited to meditate with Buddhists. They came and paid tribute to those who died here, sitting on the ramp and praying. Once, I was asked to take part in this ceremony. I came here and I was sitting with them on the ramp, we prayed together. They had lists with names, they read them aloud. These were the names of people who died here. In the evening we would discuss various matters here. We talked about what people went through and everyone would express their emotions. They told us what they went through. They told me that the fact that I was there with them was something new, it was a better experience for them because I was there. It was much better than just visiting the camp and being guided by a guide. The fact that I was with them, that I went with them to the block for children, and I showed them my bunk bed and I showed them the toilets, I showed them where the little children were kept. This is when they felt that they experienced something bigger. I think that, as long as we are alive, we should talk to young people, but also adults. We should contact them personally because their reception is completely different. The man who wrote that I was Nazi, if he had talked to me, he would have changed his mind.
Christoph Heubner: Thank you very much. As a German, I thank you for coming and going to Germany. It is important for us. It was very interesting for me. Just to make a short remark, a Hungarian Jewish survivor, Eva Fahidi, some people probably know her, she just had the same experience you did. She got very rude remarks about going to Germany. Then she decided to go to Hungarian school classes. That is what she does today. From Debrecen to Budapest. She is talking to youngsters in Hungarian and German schools.
Krystyna Oleksy: I know that you have been very much involved in your educational activities and in this collaboration with young people, but I would like to learn a bit more about the difference between meetings at schools in Warsaw, Tel-Aviv or Berlin, or here. What I mean is how you see the importance of this place itself, the place where it all happened, when you come here and talk about it. So is it important that the meeting with you is at a school or at a camp itself?
Halina Birenbaum: I never thought that my visit at Auschwitz would be an emotional experience. I spent two years in Auschwitz and I saw everything. I was illegal, I was Jewish and I was only twelve in Auschwitz. You had to be eighteen to stay. A German soldier asked me at the selection how old I was and I said I was seventeen, this is what my mom told me to say, and he said that my mouth made me look as if I was forty. He left me there, he did not send me to the crematorium. I spent two years in Auschwitz. I survived everything, this is my education. I am sorry to say this but this is where I learned about life, and all the values that they wanted to teach me at home. I was in the Warsaw ghetto, they taught me manners, they taught me cleanliness, they taught me good behavior. I went only to the first and second grade at school and then my brother was teaching me. He was a bit older than me and he managed to teach me what they taught him at school. He taught me everything that children are supposed to know in elementary school. How to write in Polish, how to spell, how to write sentences. If I made three spelling mistakes or if I forgot to put a comma into the text then I had to write twenty five correct sentences with the same word or phrase. Then I was standing in front of the ramp. Within two years I saw cars full of people. 1944, Jews from Hungary, crowded cars. The camp was so crowded that there was no place in the crematoria to burn people. I was working, sorting out things. I would stand on piles of things, I was fourteen at that time. It was 1944, I was standing on these piles of clothes. These were the clothes of adults and children and there was food there, letters, photographs. It was all there and I was walking to work and I would see people led to the crematoria and we were walking in the opposite direction to sort their things. Once, in this large group of people I saw a couple next to me. There was a woman there and she was holding a baby and the man, who was standing next to her, had a basket and a bottle to feed this baby. They were asking me, “How far is the Jewish colony from here, because we need to feed our baby?” It was just a few meters. I was reading books in Warsaw, I read about morality and they taught me that commas are important, that spelling is important. I was wondering why did they teach me all this if I can see all these people here and I come to work? After two years I could eat as much as I wanted. I was so hungry that I was eating everything I could lay my hands on. It was 1944, that was almost the end of the war. These people had tin with food and I could eat everything. We finally had access to food and I would stamp on those piles of clothes and at that time I stopped talking. Words had no value for me. When you see these people going to the crematoria, when you can smell the smoke of burnt human bodies, when you are standing on their clothes and you are supposed to sort them out. Then they had to disinfect them. Then you had to carry these clothes to railway cars. That was too much. I did not want to speak. I decided that this was the end of the world. They stripped them out of their clothes and everything they had. They killed them and then burnt them. Nothing was really important, education was not important. This is what I thought. I thought this is the end of the world. They will burn them and then they will throw us into this fire. I would participate in roll calls a number of times. I started writing when I was eleven in the Warsaw ghetto. I learnt how to write when I was practising spelling. Those roll calls were until 4 a.m. and from our block you could see ramps, you could see trains, railway cars full of people, full of luggage. You could see these people, and a crematorium, and you could see the smoke. At night you could see as well as during the day, because all the crematoria were working nonstop. Then I thought: “How come they never taught me anything? They never taught me that something like this could exist in the world.” This is when I understood proportions. When I could see those people and then they disappeared I was wondering who is going to tell their story? It was as if they have never been born. They just walked there, they were burnt, there was ash and nothing. So who is going to tell their story? That was my question. I was standing at this roll call, looking at these people and I was wondering, this gravel, these stones, these trees, maybe they will tell the story of these people. Years later I wrote a poem, Trees Remain Silent. They were probably poisoned with the smoke of burnt human bodies and they will not able to tell the story. Everyone at that time wanted the story to be told. Anyone, who could survive, wanted the story to be told but no one believed they could survive. Then the camp was liberated. So from the age of ten to fifteen, I went through the ghetto, I went through round-ups, through Treblinka, through hiding, the Warsaw ghetto, the uprising, Majdanek, the gas chambers and Auschwitz. That was my university, that was my education. This is something that taught me everything. You can never learn everything, there is always something to be learnt. Evil has no borders and evil can become worse and worse. What I mean is that I wanted people to know about it. I was liberated. I went through the same as you did, I went through Auschwitz, walked in a death march, I had a paralyzed arm. We went to Ravensbrück. Years later I wrote a book, Hope is the Last to Die. I went to Berlin in 1989 and the Deputy Mayor of Berlin read my book in German and this is what he said: “Listen, where is Neustadt-Glewe? Come with me, we need to find it.” It does not exist, the camp does not exist. I went with him and I discovered this camp with him. You go there, you meet people there, but no one remembered this camp and I would go with him and I would show him that this was the airport, this was the factory, this is where I worked, this is where we found a boy, who was fifteen at that time, and he used to bring food to SS soldiers. This is where the camp was and then they turned it into a museum. Somehow I managed to connect different people and discover different people and I started telling stories about it. When they took us to Germany on this last train, train number four was the real train. The first ones were cattle cars. The last train was a passenger train. I was sitting by the window and then I realized that Germany is a country with beautiful landscapes, with nice houses and people live there. The train was heated. I realized that it was a separate country. When I thought about surviving, that was the last stage, the end of January 1945, so I wanted to survive. So I told myself that if I survive I will come here and tell them my story. My parents spoke Yiddish at home and it is very similar to the German language in terms of vocabulary, so after many, many years I started coming to Germany and telling them stories. I have always told my stories to my children, they had to know. Then I started telling my stories in schools in Israel. During the Kastner Trial in 1954 I was the first one who started telling stories. People would be telling me: “Oh no, people will have complexes, they will not be able to sleep at night.” But I started telling my stories and this is when others repeated my stories. This is what I do, I go from school to school, from city to city, from town to town, and tell my stories. I once even told my stories to children in kindergarten, where mothers were holding their children.
Krystyna Oleksy: As you can see, we could continue our conversation for a long time but we need to stick to our plan. We will conclude this panel discussion now. Professor, I have a question for you, and, ladies and gentleman, also for you. What do you expect for yourselves and for the future of this place? What do you wish, what do you expect for this place? How would you like to see it? In the 1950s in Poland there was this heated debate concerning the future of this place. Some people were saying it was supposed to be destroyed and only the monument was supposed to be left. Others were saying that the entire camp should be preserved and that a school should be here for war orphans. Then the decision was made to establish a museum. We have this museum today. What are your expectations? Your message concerning the future of this museum that has been created here? We have museum employees here, we have a large group of museum employees here. These people represent the third generation after the war. Those from the first generation after the war do not work here anymore. What is your message to them concerning the future of this place?
Zbigniew Kączkowski: Of course, I want this place to still exist. It is very useful as a place, where people keep their memory about terrible times, the terrible things that took place here. We cannot let people forget about those terrible things. I did not live through those terrible things, because when I got to the camp, older inmates were saying that I came to a sanatorium. That’s what it was called. I know that every camp in statu nascendi was a terrible camp. Once the criminals that were governing the camp died or were killed other ones would come to power, let’s say political prisoners, and everything would improve. The question was why those people led to the gas chambers never protested? Well, this is the question that knocked me as well. There was this period of time, when people did not know one another, they were not a compact group. They were people who were not expecting what was instore for them because that is how it was organized. Until the very end they would be hoping that they were going somewhere else, to work somewhere in Germany. For them that was completely unexpected. Towards the end the Kapos, who were sadistic or criminals, who were killing people themselves, became the victims of their underlings, because the prisoners would start to finish those Kapos off themselves. It was not that they never defended themselves. Even during my time in block 11, there was a big room on the first floor, which was considered to be half of block 11. There was a block leader Kapo, “Sowa”, who was famous for his cruelty. That was a man whom the Germans saved from death because his commando was leading him onto the high voltage wires. Towards the end in 1944–1945, there was not a flock of people who were not defending themselves, they were not being killed defenselessly. Maybe among the Jews, who were being led to their deaths in gas chambers, among them there never was any kind of uprising, but the Sonderkommando, the commando composed of Jews, who were to prepare the new arrivals to walk into the gas chamber calmly, so that they would hope that they will leave after having been showered and then they will get back the clothes and suitcases that they left in front of that block — once the Sonderkommando actually rebelled. I have only heard about it, I never saw this. They were liquidated by the Germans, they were all killed as a result, but the mutiny occurred towards the end of existence of the camp. Things were changing over time.
Krystyna Oleksy: Thank you. Halina, what is your message?
Halina Birenbaum: There were four questions that were asked here and I prepared to answer those. These are quick thoughts. It is extremely important that this site of remembrance, that this memorial exists and people should be coming here because here you experience this, you live it differently. When I first came here I felt that I touched eternity. What meaning this visit had for me! Coming to Auschwitz after forty years had a huge impact and significance for my further fates. Here I am saying that Auschwitz has to exist so that you could get that impression. It had an impact on me and my family in Israel. I have befriended and met almost every employee and management of the Museum. I forged close relations with them as a witness. I started coming frequently. My husband accompanied me on those travels. The cordial relationship with employees of the Museum, and their unusual respect for former inmates of the camp, gave me hope to talk about my experiences and post-war fates. I told my son about the first return to Warsaw, to Treblinka. I was crying on the streets of Warsaw when I was walking them, when I was hearing the Polish language. Those tears were real, not exaggerated. Those were tears about the Warsaw that I was born in. This would make me stronger. I told my son that coming to Auschwitz, to Warsaw, to Majdanek for me was the actual touching of eternity that he could never understand. If he were to understand completely, if he had been there with me, if he had written in his album of songs that eternity is dust and ash. This is the title of his album, Dust and Ash, which is considered to be the best since the foundation of the state of Israel, because it forms a kind of identifying proof of Israel. This album has changed the atmosphere and attitude to the survivors of the Shoah and the subject of the Shoah and Israel. Coming back to Auschwitz also showed me all of myself. The strongest part of me from the years of my prohibited childhood. After forty years, here I felt the most power and the sense of my survival. I realized that the evil that seemed to be invincible, everlasting and most powerful, failed completely. Whereas hope is the last to die. What is most important is that millions of people, who were tortured and killed, are usually presented as one nameless, colorless, unfeeling, unreacting crowd, without any ability to rise. Everyone had their face, their ability to act, even in hell. Everywhere, until the moment of death everybody experiences something, reacts, they may feel failure, they may feel victory, because of the temporary winning in some situations. Some people lasted longer, some gave up much faster. I want people to know how people survived, how they remained in those terrible conditions, in the terrible bestiality. Always at the edge of death. How they felt, how they behaved, what they thought in the last hour of their life. What is the message for young people? To learn it and to remember it. Not for revenge or hatred, but to feel what other people feel, for sympathizing. I want to make them aware, by the power of the facts of the Shoah, what hatred and war can lead to, what people can be in different situations. How strong the power of the will to live, and forces of friendship and love are. Even in the hell on Earth that was Auschwitz during the Shoah. How those values are so important because they were necessary to live and to survive in impossible conditions. When I talk about this, I say this with all of my being and everything else is small and insignificant. My past is so strongly connected to our common presence, it creates the closeness, the close feeling, the close sympathy of common values in life, a step away from death. They are bigger than us and they amuse, they drive us in our fight for eternal life and in our hope. Through the experience of surviving Auschwitz, I want to give back the human faces to the victims of the Shoah.
Krystyna Oleksy: Thank you very much. This will be the last round. I would like to ask Doctor Iwańska to share a few sentences of her message for the future of this place.
Janina Iwańska: It will be brief because I cannot speak in such a beautiful way. I think, I feel that the most important aspect is young people, because we cannot do much, we can remind people of something, but so that young people remember what our history was, what was the evil in it and what caused that evil. Young people have to understand that the future belongs to them. They will now be creating the history. According to what they do, that is how history will turn out. Whether they will be remembered the way we remember other people, in the worst possible light, or if they do something that will make future generations remember them and see them in a good light. After what has happened this year, the German youth, who take care of the camps in Germany and have an active part in commemoration, got in touch with the young people with whom I am in touch in Poland. There is a promise that during the summer vacation, our Polish youth will come to Germany and they will have common workshops about the memory of concentration camps. I think that this contact between young people, for worthy purposes, gives us hope for the future.
Christoph Heubner: Thank you. At the end, we will ask Roman Kent and Marian Turski to answer this question briefly, because they will have to leave after our discussion to go to Berlin and to talk to the German Minister of Finance about the social and living conditions of the survivors.
Roman Kent: I can say one sentence really: that I would like this museum to be not just an education center. What I expect from this museum is to make sure that our past, the past of the survivors, should not be our children’s future. I had questions, which were partially answered. I have been asked the question “Where was God?” and my answer was that basically the people who were alive belonged to two categories. One category said that it was God’s desire to keep them alive, which I do believe. The other one was the opposite. I came to the conclusion that God was there, he saw what was going on and the people who believed could see Him crying. That was the answer. As far as why we did not fight in the camps, I can also present you with a rhetorical question: Did you see children or women fight? They were not used to it. The Jews and Poles were not used to fighting. If we were to ask why they did not fight let us ask another question. What happened in Katyń? In Katyń there were a few hundred officers from the Polish army, people trained to fight. Yet by and large they were all murdered. Why did not they fight? Because you could not fight there. When you look at me now, I have gray hair. But I was a child then, what did I know about fighting? What did my mother know about fighting? What did my father know about fighting? Nothing. Some questions must be answered without a proper answer. Thank you very much for listening.
Marian Turski: Everybody would like to go for lunch and you’re asking another question, which will require at least several minutes of a response! I apologize, but you are forcing us to say things which are banal, because how am I supposed to transmit a message in several minutes? Maybe I will just repeat what I said here on a certain round anniversary. What was the worst there? The terrible hunger? No, the hunger was not the worst. The terrible cold, -20 degrees Celsius? When I cut a bag, to make myself a kind of T-shirt, and then SS man saw me and said: “You have stolen German assets”? Or was the worst thing that there were five or six in your group in a one thousand person barrack? Think about it. You walk into the barrack and you do not know whether you are going to sleep on the top bunk, or lowest bunk. It is better to be at the top because people’s bladders give way and if you are underneath, you suffer. On the other hand if a couple of people come and say that there is a roll call, then before you climb down from the top bunk, you are going to be beaten to death. Was that the worst? No. That was not the worst. Were the lice the worst? In our camp there were no lice, there were lice in the sub-camps. During the death march, there were lice everywhere. I was infected with putrid fever. That was not the worst either. So what was the worst thing, if you ask me? The worst -and this is what I would like to say to people today — the worst was the humiliation. That they stripped you of respect, that they did not treat you as a human being. They treated you as some vermin. Vermin that is to be suffocated, that is to be trampled. Like some cockroach. When you look at the results of American elections today, don’t you feel that there is something about this that we did not understand? That we are disrespecting many people, that we are alienating many people, they feel alienated. I had a meeting in Israel, and I am saying this because Israel is my second homeland, I have two homelands, Israel and Poland. I remember that I told young soldiers: “Remember that when you fight, whoever you consider an enemy, when you are firing at an enemy, it is not as painful as when you are humiliating women, who are crossing the border and they feel humiliated.” Humiliation is something that no man can ever forget, so if there is any great message then it is this: “Please remember not to disdain, not to humiliate, not to bring people down.” If I am to talk about my message, three days ago we were in Płaszów, where we were talking about that camp, about Amon Göth. In fact what has always been a problem for me was why he treated me like a bug, like some cockroach, like some lice that has to be destroyed? Why was there a mechanism which allowed people who listened to Schubert, Beethoven -people who had their own children, they patted them and they did love them, they were normal people, they were ordinary men. How could they slowly become criminals? How could they slowly transform? How did that transformation mechanism work? It is not important here, it is important in other contemporary communities or countries. If we can understand anything from that, then this is the message.
Christoph Heubner: Well, as you stand up, this was an honor for us. Even if you do not agree it was a great honor. Thank you.