AFP — As he looks at pictures of his parents and sisters who perished in Auschwitz, Szmul Icek begins to tremble, tears clouding his eyes.
It may have been 75 years ago, but for this survivor of the Holocaust the memories of life and death in the Nazi extermination camp remain painfully fresh.
More than a million Jews were killed at Auschwitz, in then occupied Poland. The last survivors, now all elderly, still live with the physical and mental scars of the horrors of that time.
Since their liberation three quarters of a century ago, their skin has wrinkled with the march of time and the numbers tattooed on their left arms have faded — much in the same way that the collective memory of the Holocaust is blurring.
These survivors are the last witnesses to traumatic events that, now in the 21st century, are often called into question by anti-Semitic revisionists.
So as Israel prepares this month to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp at a ceremony to be attended by a host of world leaders, AFP reporters met with about 10 survivors to hear their testimonies.
Some have learnt their stories by heart, reciting every detail — without tears.
Others no longer have the strength to speak, some have had their memories ravaged by Alzheimer’s. Others are still consumed by the shame of being one of Adolf Hitler’s victims.
Born in Poland, Icek, 92, struggles to talk following a car accident, and leaves it to his wife to recount the tragedy that befell his family.
In early 1942, his two sisters responded to a notice from the Gestapo that children should present themselves to the notorious secret police in order to protect their family.
“They left, but they were never seen again, never. We don’t know what happened to them,” said Sonia on behalf of her husband, who tensed up as she began to talk.
For many years, Icek, number 117 568, kept his imprisonment at Auschwitz secret from his wife.
After living together in Belgium for years, the couple now inhabits an apartment in Jerusalem where old family portraits hang in their living room.
One shows his father with a full beard, wearing a round hat, while his mother’s hair is cropped short in the style popular in that era.
A month after his sisters disappeared, the Germans came for the rest of his family: his parents, two brothers and him.
“When he arrived at Auschwitz, on getting off the train, he held onto his father’s hand like a little boy,” Sonia said of her husband’s deportation.
But Icek was separated from his dad by a Nazi. “He cried, he wanted to be with his father. But the German said: ‘no, you (go) over there’.”
That was the last time he saw his father, who was sent to the gas chambers. Both his parents died, although his brothers, like him, managed to survive.
Hearing his wife talk about Auschwitz, where he spent two and a half years, Icek, dressed in a blue polo neck and a skullcap, became briefly animated.
“It can’t be, it can’t be, no,” he said, clasping his hands around his neck to mime the killings at the camp.
Burying the ashes
Like Icek, Menahem Haberman, born in the then-Czechoslovakia in 1927, was a teenager when he arrived at Auschwitz and was separated from his family.
Their paths never crossed at the extermination camp, nor in Jerusalem where Haberman now lives in a retirement home.
His memory still sharp, he recounted how he was taken outside of the camp to the edge of some water and given a shovel.
“There was a canal and I had to run to each side and pour ashes into the water. I didn’t know what I was doing. When I came back, I asked a camp veteran: ‘What have I done?’
Haberman told the man he had only arrived at Auschwitz the previous day.
‘I told myself, I don’t want to die here, I don’t want my ashes to sink and flow in this canal towards the river’ — Menahem Haberman
“He told me: ‘All your family were ashes in that canal four hours after their arrival.’
“It was then that I understood where I was,” Haberman told AFP.
His bitter encounter with death at the camp was to drive his overwhelming determination to survive.
“I told myself, I don’t want to die here, I don’t want my ashes to sink and flow in this canal towards the river,” said Haberman.
“There was a guy there who said in Yiddish: ‘Those who don’t have the strength to work, will end up in the chimney.’
“I kept that phrase in mind and repeated: I do not want to die here.”
The experiences of the last remaining survivors, who were children when they were sent to the death camps, remain seared into their minds.
“Every day I think about it, especially at night,” said Haberman.
“It’s deeply ingrained in me. Seventy-five years later, we still live with that, we don’t forget… we cannot forget,” said Haberman.
“We are survivors, we are not escapees. The camps are imprinted in our skin.”
Six million Jews were killed by Nazi Germany. And of more than 1.3 million people imprisoned at Auschwitz, some 1.1 million died, and Haberman remains baffled that he managed to survive.
“I really knew people who were better men than me. Why did they die and why am I still alive?”
Stalked by hunger
In the suburbs of Tel Aviv, 91-year-old Malka Zaken sits in her small apartment surrounded by dolls, some of which are still in their original boxes.
“Don’t worry Sean, he’s not German, he won’t take me,” Zaken reassured one of them, as AFP arrived to talk to her.
While age has muddled some of her memories and her speech is confused, the traumas of Auschwitz remain vivid.
“When I was little, my mother bought me lots of dolls,” said Zaken, recalling her childhood in Greece with her parents and six siblings.
“But she was burned by the Nazis. When I’m with the dolls, I remember her, it’s like when I was a child at home, I think about it all the time,” she said.
Zaken spends her afternoons watching soap operas, at home with a carer.
She remembers friends killed by the Nazis, as well as those who survived the war but have since died.
In Auschwitz, she recalled being beaten “all the time, we were naked and they beat us… I never forget, never, I never forget how much I’ve suffered.
“What hell! I don’t even know how I made it to survive.”
Occasionally looking dazed, the number 76 979 marked on her wrinkled skin, Zaken said the memories haunted her long after she was freed.
“After the liberation, I couldn’t sleep, I lay awake at night crying, I was scared, and I was cared for for a long time.”
As well as fearing the gas chamber, Zaken also remembers the starvation which stalked the death camp and reduced prisoners to walking skeletons.
Fellow survivor Saul Oren, 90, also recalled the unimaginable hunger with prisoners given watery soup.
“And the soup was for the whole day. Or they gave us a small potato, or they gave us a small piece of bread,” he said.
“We didn’t dare eat the whole bread because we wanted to save it for later, perhaps we couldn’t stand the hunger,” he said.
Oren’s mother was killed at Auschwitz and he has no photo of her, but tries to include her image in the paintings he does at home.
Even after leaving the extermination camp, hunger followed him.
He was forced onto the “Death March” when, as the Soviets advanced, the Nazis made prisoners from extermination camps walk in deep winter towards Germany and Austria.
“We marched for 12 days, practically without eating… we stopped in a forest, we found a dead horse, everyone threw themselves on the horse. Each person took a bite,” Oren said.
Another survivor, Danny Chanoch, marched for weeks in the snow, scratching at the soil in the hope of unearthing some frozen grass.
He is still affected by seeing survivors eating the bodies of prisoners killed by the Germans.
“They couldn’t stand the hunger so they took the human flesh, cooked, ate (it).
“And we know that a red line is not to eat human flesh and not to take the bread from your comrade,” said Chanoch, originally from Lithuania.
After being taken to the Mauthausen and Gunskirchen camps, Chanoch was eventually freed and made his way to Italy as a penniless 12-year-old.
In the city of Bologna he was reunited with his brother, Uri, and a photo of the two boys taken by an Italian man hangs in his home.
Chanoch, who lives in a village between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, was philosophical about his experience in the death camp: “Sometimes I say to myself, ‘how could I live without Auschwitz?'”
“It led me to the right way, to not skip anything, and do what you like to do,” he said.
Chanoch and his brother traveled illegally from Italy to Palestine, then under British mandate, while other Holocaust survivors later arrived in the land which had become Israel.
The new state swiftly passed a law setting out the death penalty for crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The legislation was used to execute Adolf Eichmann, one of the masterminds of the Nazis’ so-called Final Solution plan of genocide against European Jews. He was captured in the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires 15 years after the war and smuggled to Israel, and tried.
For Shmuel Blumenfeld, a 94-year-old Auschwitz survivor, tattooed with number 108 006, the Eichmann affair was a historic turnaround.
Blumenfeld served as one of Eichmann’s prison guards and spoke to the Nazi, telling him who had ultimately won.
“One day I brought him food, I lifted my sleeve so that he saw my tattooed number. He saw it but acted as if nothing was amiss,” said Blumenfeld, who offered Eichmann another helping.
“Then, I clearly showed my number from Auschwitz and I told him: ‘Your men didn’t finish their mission, I spent two years there and I’m still alive,'” Blumenfeld said in German, before translating the conversation into Hebrew.
“Once Eichmann shouted to complain that he couldn’t sleep, because there was too much noise. And I said to him: ‘We are not in the office of Adolf Eichmann in Budapest, you are in the office of Shmuel Blumenfeld.'”
At his home, Blumenfeld keeps a fabric bag of earth collected from the places where all his family members were killed.
“My mother told me ‘never forget that you are Jewish’ and I obeyed her,” said Blumenfeld, who spent his career in the Israeli prison service.
Despite his age, Blumenfeld continues to travel to Poland with groups of young Israelis.
At almost 95, the elegant Batcheva Dagan also remains energetic and determined to use her experiences to educate future generations.
After making it out of a camp alive, she said she had one thing in mind: “Survive to tell (people).”
She worked in the heart of Birkenau camp, which neighbored Auschwitz, at a depot where shoes and other prisoners’ belongings piled up.
“I spent 20 months there, 600 days and nights,” said Dagan, who had to burn the luggage of Jews who arrived at the camp.
“Work out the hours and the seconds, thinking that each second you’re scared of dying. You have an idea of what that means, living each moment with the threat that that moment is your last.”
“I try to make something positive out of my experience for children, educational.
“I don’t only recount the horror of the Holocaust, but also wonderful things like helping each other, the capacity to share a piece of bread, the friendship… We remained human beings.”
The survivors’ sense of victory comes through their poems, memories, but above all through living their daily lives and seeing future generations grow up.
“I’m alive… I suffered, but I overcame!” said Dagan.
Icek, who for years hid his Auschwitz tattoo under long shirts, has recently started to uncover it.
“You didn’t want to show it. Now the first thing that you do when you get into a taxi, you do this,” his wife Sonia said, showing his forearm.
“It’s like he was ashamed… I told him: ‘You have been to the camp, you must be happy, you came back,'” said Sonia, who had to hide during the war in Belgium to avoid being sent to a death camp.
Sitting next to his wife, Icek said just three words before starting to cry: “I have won.”
But Sonia disagreed, saying he “didn’t win anything” and lost his family whose pictures hang next to those of their grandchildren.
“We have not won, but we have taught our grandchildren in a way that they understand what happened.”