On the Liberation of Auschwitz: Never Again

The main camp of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp during World War II, was liberated seventy-five years ago today by the Soviets along with the Birkenau death camp and the Monowitz labor camp. By the time the Soviets arrived at Auschwitz, many of the inmates had already been forced out as the Nazis began a hasty effort to cover up their atrocities. Those inmates, mostly Jews, were marched for three days to another camp, Bergen-Belsen. Many died along the way in what became known as the Death March to Bergen-Belsen.

Thirteen-year old Goldie Szachter was one who survived. Only days before the march began, she had been selected, along with a hundred women including her mother, by Dr. Josef Mengele to die in the gas chamber. The “selections” were common occurrences at Auschwitz. Mengele, known as “the Angel of Death,” would line up the Jews, then walk up and down the rows saying, “You to the right” or “You to the left.” If you were ordered rightward, you lived another day. If you were told to go to the left, you had just been selected to die in the gas chamber. Goldie was told to go to the left.

As this selection was taking place, the Soviets were already getting closer to the border. Nazi Headquarters knew it was all over for them. Orders had already begun to trickle down to the camp overseers to start the cover-up. But as they were trickling down, the selections continued.

Goldie’s group was thrown into the gas chamber as the orders reached Auschwitz. The Nazis faced a quandary: Do we have time for one more gassing? Yes. No. Yes. No. I don’t know how intense the deliberations were or even if more than one person was involved in the decision but it took about eighteen hours for a decision to be made. Goldie and the women sat and waited all that time in the gas chamber. No other group had ever waited that long before being killed. Maybe they were already dead, they wondered, and this was what death was like.

And then the decision was made: Time was too precious now even to kill a hundred more Jews. Suddenly the door to the oven opened. Goldie and the one hundred women were released and returned to their barracks, concluding what turned out to be the last selection of the entire war and probably the only one that wasn’t carried out.

They then participated in the Death March to Bergen-Belsen. Goldie, her two sisters, and her mother survived along with a few other family members. After the war, Bergen-Belsen became a home for displaced refugees. Her mother died there in a makeshift hospital.

Goldie and her sisters lived in the camp for, I believe, two to three years before immigrating to America. Goldie, known in adulthood as Golda, met and married Sylvan Kalib, a cantor in Farmington Hills, Michigan, as well as a music teacher at Eastern Michigan University. Sylvan was enthralled by her story, which was complex beyond the selection scene. I was honored when he asked me to help him write it.

The result was The Last Selection: A Child’s Journey through the Holocaust. It was published by University of Massachusetts Press. Portions of the book were used in the ABC Daytime Emmy-Award Winning movie on children in the Holocaust. If you’re interested in learning more about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, The Last Selection is a good place to begin.

* * *

I can’t speak for anyone who endured the Holocaust but I grew up in its shadow and feel it as part of the legacy I have inherited from my ancestors. When I hear opponents of Trump’s barbaric immigration policies call the camps where refugees are imprisoned “concentration camps,” I’m not offended. I don’t see it as a show of disrespect for those who died in the ovens.

Rather, I think the Jews who survived so they could let the world know what had happened so that it would never happen again, as was the stated motivation of many survivors, had exactly such situations in mind.

“Never again.”




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