Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi death camp that has come to symbolize the Holocaust. At its location in the south central Polish town of Oswiecim, camp survivors, representatives of 26 states and Nobel Peace laureates will gather to commemorate the 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, who died there - and the Red Army soldiers who freed about 7,000 prisoners on Jan. 27, 1945. Toronto consulting engineer Nathan Leipciger, 65, and his father, Jack, endured three months in Auschwitz, the first in a series of concentration camps to which they were sent. His mother, Leah, and sister, Blima, perished there. In this reminiscence, Leipciger chronicles the last four months of his incarceration before the Allies forced Germany's surrender on May 7, 1945.
January was a miserable, dark, wet and snowy month. The dampness penetrated our threadbare clothes and added to the harshness of our existence, suspended perilously close between life and death. My father and I had been in the Fuefteichen concentration camp, located in the southeastern part of Germany, since its inception in the fall of 1943. We were among the first transport of 650 Jewish men to arrive from Auschwitz to work in the Krupp armaments factory. The German camp quickly grew to 10,000 prisoners. Most of them were Jews, the others Poles, Germans, Italians, Frenchmen and Ukrainians - prisoners with various designations ranging from political opponents to saboteurs and homosexuals. Hunger, cold, hard work and severe punishment for the slightest infraction of the camp rules were our daily companions. Of the original 650 inmates, only 50 were still in the German camp by January. The others died of starvation or sickness, or were sent back to Auschwitz.
But in mid-January, a ray of hope could be detected in Fuefteichen. The constant talk of food and warmth was replaced with speculation about the end of the war and the progress of the Allied forces. Some of the older German civilians in the Krupp factory, in which we spent 12 hours each shift, whispered words of encouragement. I was almost 15 years old, but years of malnutrition made me look even younger. "Hang on, kleiner [little one], the Nazis are on the run," they would say. To them, I had no name; the number 133628 tattooed on my left arm was my identification.
The Allied air raids were becoming much more frequent. The question on everyone's mind was: "What will happen to us?" Would the Nazis kill us before the Soviet army reached us? Our speculations ended during the last days of January, when we were assembled early one morning on the appell platz, or rollcall place. As usual, we had to stand for hours at attention, motionless. Everyone tried his best to appear healthy and strong. The weaker ones, those who fell or even wavered, were immediately removed. We could only speculate on their fate. Finally, we were given a double daily bread ration and marched out of camp. We looked back at those left behind at the barracks and were glad not to be among them.
We marched west, some 10,000 of us, in rows of five and were counted as we left the camp gate. The line stretched behind me and in front of me beyond the line of sight. For about two hours, we made good progress and maintained our positions. After that, the lines deteriorated: some people started to fall back, the stronger ones surged ahead. Our wooden clogs got soaked as the snow under our feet turned to wet mud. The space between marchers got longer and the guards shouted and beat us with their gun butts to close up the ranks.
At times, my father and I fell behind and suddenly found ourselves at the rear of the column. The guards encouraged the stragglers to sit down on the road. Once, as the column advanced, we heard gunshots a few metres behind us and saw the so-called cleanup commando executing two or three stragglers with one shot through their heads to preserve bullets. My father and I gathered our strength and surged forward, pulling each other as we went. Whenever we could we gathered snow to quench our thirst. The days seemed endless.
On the third day of marching, as we shuffled along village roads, German women rushed out of houses with bread and water, only to be beaten back with shouts and gun butts by our guards. Some disregarded their safety and reached us. Each morsel of food tossed to us caused a fight as the prisoners threw themselves on it. The women watched with horror and cried. Three days later, we reached our destination: the much-feared extermination camp of Gross Rosen. During the six-day march of 80 km, we lost about 5,000 men.
Gross Rosen was overcrowded with prisoners evacuated from various camps as the Allied front lines advanced deeper into Germany. We were packed into barracks so tightly that it was almost impossible to lie down. By the first light of the morning we picked the lice out of our clothing and crushed them between our thumbnails.
I was selected to help remove the dead from our barracks. Two of us grabbed the hands of a skeletal corpse while another prisoner grabbed the feet. The head bounced on the ground, emitting an eerie, hollow sound that has stayed with me ever since. At the time, I resented his death, which required me to spend my dwindling strength on carrying his body to the waiting wagon.
Luckily, after 10 days at Gross Rosen, my father and I were among those able-bodied inmates selected for delousing, and we lined up to be evacuated to another camp further in the German interior. We were issued a four-day bread ration and knew that we would not receive any more food for a long time. We were marched out of the camp and, to our surprise, loaded onto open cattle cars. We were told that we were being transported to Flossenberg concentration camp in the south. The train ride was supposed to take four days. It took eight, and we received no extra food for the entire duration. In the latter part of February, we arrived in Flossenberg, located high in the mountains. The climb from the railroad line to the camp is uphill, and many could not make it.
After about two weeks there, we were transported to Mettenheim concentration camp in the west of Germany. Our strength was diminishing by the day. We had great doubts that we would last long enough to see liberation. In mid-April, as Allied forces closed in on all fronts, we were moved again, this time to a sub-camp of Dachau located deep in a dense Bavarian forest.
After 21 months of living hell, I was a muselmann, a walking skeleton. When orders came to evacuate yet again, I approached the camp commandant and requested permission to stay behind at the infirmary barracks. He agreed and, after much pleading, allowed my father to stay with me.
On May 2, the heavy, overcast sky fit the mood of the inmates in the infirmary. It had been a week since the last evacuation transport left the camp, and the air was thick with the smell of death and decay. Suddenly, the door burst open and someone shouted: "The Americans are here! We are free! We are free!" No one moved. The words so long awaited were incomprehensible to our minds. They promised life and freedom to people who knew only hunger, despair and death. But after a few seconds, the words began to sink in. And like a burst dam, a flood of emotions washed over us. My father and I embraced and danced, laughing and crying for joy. We had survived.
Maclean's January 23, 1995