In the cold of Auschwitz, Israeli survivors relive harrowing ordeals
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In the cold of Auschwitz, Israeli survivors relive harrowing ordeals

On the 70th anniversary of their liberation, dozens of former inmates tour the death camp that almost claimed their lives

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Alex Speiser, 86, from Tel Aviv, accompanied by his daughter and grandson, Etti and Roi Naor, on a tour of Auschwitz on January 28, 2015. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
Alex Speiser, 86, from Tel Aviv, accompanied by his daughter and grandson, Etti and Roi Naor, on a tour of Auschwitz on January 28, 2015. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

AUSCHWITZ — In one of the few armed Jewish uprisings during the Holocaust, on October 7, 1944, a group of Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoners working in the four crematoria staged the Sonderkommando Revolt.

The carefully planned scheme was born in 1943 when women assigned to Weichsel-Union-Metallwerke, a munitions factory at one of the 45 Auschwitz satellite camps, began to smuggle gunpowder into Birkenau. The powder was transported on corpses bound for the crematoria where the sonderkommando worked, or taken to “Canada,” the sorting area for prisoners’ possessions.

Canada — thus named because it was seen as a place of plenty — was close to Crematorium 4. Women working there conveyed the powder to the sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners who worked in the death camps. Among their duties was disposing of corpses and their belongings.

Knowing that whether they succeeded or not they were scheduled to be put to death that day, at about three in the afternoon, rebels in the four crematoria began the uprising.

They killed three SS guards, injured a dozen more, and cut through camp fencing. Some ran off, but those in Crematorium 4 detonated their charges — “grenades” formed from smuggled gunpowder in sardine tins. They blew up the ovens, destroying the crematorium, and themselves.

The preserved crematorium at the museum at Auschwitz 1 during a tour of Israeli Holocaust survivors on January 28, 2015. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
The preserved crematorium at the museum at Auschwitz 1 during a tour of Israeli Holocaust survivors on January 28, 2015. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

The Nazis quickly overcame the uprising, shooting all prisoners in their path. Those who had escaped were hunted down; all were caught with the help of the local townspeople and killed. Another 200 sonderkommando were executed with a single bullet to the head.

According to some sources, a total of 451 sonderkommando were killed on October 7, 1944.

Months later on January 5, 1945, four of the smuggler women were hanged. Witnesses claim that one Canada sorter, Roza Robota, shouted seconds before her death, “Be strong and be brave.”

Although this episode physically affected relatively few in the horrid history of Auschwitz, it was clear at the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp organized by the World Jewish Congress this week that for many in the 36-strong Israeli Holocaust survivor delegation, it is a story that strongly resonates.

Israeli Holocaust survivor Batsheva Dagan (center), a former worker at the 'Canada' sorting center, describes the sonderkommando revolt on October 7, 1944. At far left is David Leichman, a witness to the revolt. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
Israeli Holocaust survivor Batsheva Dagan (center), a former worker at the ‘Canada’ sorting center, describes the sonderkommando revolt on October 7, 1944. At far left is David Leichman, a witness to the revolt. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

On Wednesday, dozens of Auschwitz survivors went back to Birkenau for an emotionally cathartic tour. Some, returning for the first time since their freedom, were overcome at the entrance to the camp and remained on the bus. Another, near collapse, was cared for by an ambulance and doctors accompanying the delegation.

‘Starting the revolt was a way for the prisoners to show they still have power to influence their own lives’

Among those in attendance were first-hand witnesses to the uprising that is, for some, a symbol of the New Jews they were to become shortly after the war in the fledgling State of Israel.

“Starting the revolt was a way for the prisoners to show they still have power to influence their own lives,” said the Polish guide assigned to the group at Birkenau. She recounted the episode in English, reciting from a script memorized by rote, and was translated — with annotations — by the Jewish polyglot guide, David Weintraub, who sensitively led this group of elderly experts.

Following WWII, these survivors remade themselves into the embodiment of the strong sabra. They forged a nation after seeing a people brought to ash. With their own state as refuge and fortress, they were no longer willing to be the pawns of fate they had been under the Nazis.

On Wednesday, standing in the freezing temperatures at Auschwitz, these 80- to 97-year-old survivors are statistical anomalies. All are miracles. By fate, or perhaps divine intervention, they were somehow spared.

The bombed out remains of Crematorium 1 at Auschwitz-Birkenau, destroyed by the Nazis prior to the Death March retreat. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
The bombed out remains of Crematorium 1 at Auschwitz-Birkenau, destroyed by the Nazis prior to the Death March retreat. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

One handsome man with a shock of white hair, Alex Speiser, 86, traveled to Poland for the anniversary from Tel Aviv. He’d been back to the camp some 25 years ago, but this time he was accompanied by his daughter and grandson, Etti and Roi Naor.

On his way out the door, he tore off a scrap of paper from the Zyklon-B label of the poison canister, which he has to this day

Speiser is one of the luckiest men alive. Taken to Auschwitz from Czechoslovakia in 1944, of the 1,200 Jewish children imprisoned in the Roma camp at Birkenau, he says he is one of only three there who lived.

On Wednesday, with two generations by his side, Speiser recounted a few of his unbelievable true tales of a death cheated.

Astoundingly, Speiser was blessed to walk out of a malfunctioning gas chamber. On his way out the door, he tore off a scrap of paper from the Zyklon-B label of the poison canister, which he has to this day.

At another point, he was bound and beaten so harshly he was thought dead, stripped naked, and thrown into an open mass grave.

While visiting Auschwitz, he told his peers and their companions of struggling out from among the corpses, crawling out of the pit, and seeing an enormous almost empty soup pot. He climbed into the pot, finished the remaining scraps inside it and was smuggled back to his father inside the camp.

David Salz, 90, was taken to Auschwitz from Berlin in 1942. He escaped from a subsequent work camp and was taken in by the US Army in 1945. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
David Salz, 86, was taken to Auschwitz from Berlin in 1942. He escaped from a subsequent work camp and was taken in by the US Army in 1945. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

At 13, David Salz’s life was spared for the first time by claiming to be a 16-year-old electrician at his first Auschwitz selection in 1942. Deemed a useful laborer, the “electrician” was sent to the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, one of the Auschwitz factories.

After his father was shot by Nazis in Berlin in 1939, his mother, a laborer for Siemens, was his whole life, the clearly emotional 86-year-old said. She was taken to Auschwitz in 1942, where he soon followed with a few of his mother’s clothes, still hoping to be reunited. He found out later she was murdered upon arrival.

Using shards from Allied shelling, he threw metal pieces against the electric fencing to test for current

From Auschwitz, Salz was taken on a Death March to Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, a munitions factory near Buchenwald in Germany where the V-1 and V-2 rockets were manufactured. The approaching Allies were increasingly bombing the periphery of the mountain bunker and he decided then was the time to attempt to flee.

Using shards from Allied shelling, he threw metal pieces against the electric fencing to test for current. He discovered it was not activated, and carefully made his escape.

He ran until he couldn’t run any more and lay down between graves in a cemetery to prevent discovery. Soon he awoke to the sound of oncoming armored vehicles. Carefully peering out from behind the grave, he saw the vehicles didn’t bear the Nazi cross, but a star. He heard soldiers speaking English and jumped to his feet.

“I am Jewish! I am Jewish! I escaped from the Nazis,” he shouted in English.

He soon found himself on the wrong end of a loaded gun.

“I am Jewish! I am Jewish!” he shouted again.

Soon, an American soldier approached, embraced him, and said, ‘Shalom aleichem’

Soon, an American soldier approached, embraced him, and said, “Shalom aleichem.”

With luck, he’d been met by a Jewish officer, who took Salz to the nearby US Army hospital where he said he was given the best treatment possible. He was gifted with chocolate and other treats by the soldiers who made him a unit mascot.

The US Army moved out, replaced by the Russians. His luck held and again, a Jewish officer looked after Salz, eventually putting him on a train for Berlin with a suitcase full of vodka that in time kept him fed and with a roof over his head.

Salz made his way to Israel, became an electrician and spent 43 years working at the Israel Electric Corporation.

Shimon Kahan from Hod Hasharon recounts an instance in which his life was miraculously spared at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Wednesday, January 28, 2015. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
Shimon Kahan from Hod Hasharon recounts an instance in which his life was miraculously spared at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Wednesday, January 28, 2015. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

There are countless more amazing stories of heroism, luck, and divine intervention. Each survivor in the Israeli delegation has enough tales for a Homeric epic.

But there are those who dislike the word “survivor” — it is too passive for these determined individuals, each of whom was a fighter for his own freedom.

Consider the case of Shimon Kahan from Hod Hasharon, who says his life was spared by the Death March. The then six-year-old had been caught smuggling food and on the day the march began was scheduled to receive a whipping — certain death for a boy his age. Today he rejects the word survivor and calls himself a Holocaust “victor.”

It was a long three days in Poland for the delegation, filled with formalities and few impromptu moments for reflection. But at the end of the Birkenau tour, as they stood in a circle under the blue and white striped banners noisily flapping in the wind, the Holocaust victors who had started the week as strangers prayed as a people for their dead.

With the ruins of the bombed crematoriums behind him, Speiser led prayers at Birkenau’s monument. Armed with homemade prayerbooks, he recited the Prayer of Remembrance to Holocaust Victims, supported by the group.

“If there had been a State of Israel then, none of this would have happened,” Speiser later told The Times of Israel. “Now, when anti-Semitism is raising its head again in Europe, it is even more important to tell our story.”

Imbuing every word with indescribable meaning, they sang “Hatikva” and reaffirmed their faith in perpetuating the life of the Jewish people.

Blue and white striped banners wave in the winter winds at the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial, January 28, 2015. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
Blue and white striped banners wave in the winter winds at the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial, January 28, 2015. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

The writer’s flight and accommodations were sponsored by the World Jewish Congress.

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