Till death do us part
From The National, January 26, 2005
Reporter: Joan Leishman
Producer: Robin Christmas
The Auschwitz death camp has come to symbolize the Nazi genocide against Jews in the Second World War with its forced labour and starvation, its gas chambers and crematoriums. Some survivors of the camp are still alive. A few are in Canada.
Visitors walk through the entrance gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Oswiecim, southern Poland on Jan. 26, 2005. (AP Photo/Herbert Knosowski)
More than one million people were transported to Auschwitz.
Fewer than 55,000 made it out alive.
The last of them are in their 80s and 90s.
In the cruellest of fates, old age is causing their horrible memories of Auschwitz to burn all the brighter.
The Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto touches the lives of more than a thousand Holocaust survivors.
Rubin Bortenstein survived in Auschwitz and spent 2˝ years constructing prison barracks.
"I watched in camp when I walked in and I passed a sign: 'Arbeit Macht Frei,' you know, 'Labour makes you free,'" he says.
"And I walked with my head up and I said to myself; now if a guy comes over, an SS guy comes over to me, a Nazi, and pulls out his gun and shoots me, so what? I know I didn't come here to live. I came here to die."
"People died like flies. We used to carry home from work going back at night at least about 10 to 20 guys that were dead. You needed two guys to carry them, you know. They were dead. We dropped them in front of the gates and some other commander came in, picked them up and put them in the fire ovens."
Toby Kott was a girl of 12 when she entered the first of four concentration camps, including Auschwitz.
"I'm thinking about it every time I'm left alone," she says.
"In 1939, I had a mother, a father, a sister. I had a family from my father, a family from my mother. I don't have nobody from my family. One cousin, I have from my father. From his sister, a son. And from my mother, I don't have anybody."
Chana Szabo was 20 when the war began. In Auschwitz, she laboured digging trenches.
"The Germans took away all our clothes and then they just gave us whatever they had.
They really made fun of us. It was horrible… they gave me two old shoes. One was more like a boot. The other was like a half shoe and that's what I was wearing. And the dress they gave me, it was actually an evening gown. That's what I was wearing, an evening gown."
"Dr. Mengele came and did his selection where the women that were strong were going to go and the other ones were taken away.
"They divided us into groups of 50 women and we were to go and work. They took us out of the camp. There was music playing. But the area where we were, we passed by, they had the bones of the people that were burned in the crematorium.
"And we passed by it and we were making jokes that, you know, soon enough, we were going to be part of that."
"I am still angry. I am. Why not?" Toby Kott says. "I don't even know where my mother is laying. I don't know where my father is laying. I don't know where my sister is laying. Why shouldn't I be angry? What did we do to them? We didn't do nothing."
Paula David helped develop Baycrest's program to better care for Holocaust survivors. She found that throughout their adult lives, survivors were consumed by jobs and family, and could suppress their memories of the genocide. Those distractions are gone. So is the very strength that had kept them alive.
"I've seen where people get terribly frightened and a little bit paranoid and believe they're back in the camps. And everybody around them is a Nazi and their life is in imminent danger. And it's terrifying," David says.
"The people who work with survivors, they recognize that this pain is there and we can't fix it. And it's so frustrating that we can't fix it. Be we can help people trust the process and trust us a little more. So it's very challenging.
"I think it must be very terrifying. I'm sure it brings back memories. At the beginning of the war, the first one of the first groups to be murdered were the old and the vulnerable, the fragile and the weak.
"One of the reasons that this particular group was spared is because they were young adults who were strong enough to either work in slave labour camps or just had bodies that would survive the atrocities that they witnessed and that they experienced.
So now, to be vulnerable and to lose some independence and just not feel as fit and as strong and as capable as they did 40 years ago would be terrifying."
Dr. Joseph Mengele experimented on prisoners and selected who was to die first.
Dr. Josef Mengele (AP Photo)
"We were scared at night, we went to sleep, the smell burning meat," Kott says. "We were seeing the smoke and all that. We couldn't sleep. And then there was Mengele. I guess you heard from Mengele, everybody heard from him. I got sick one day and I went to the hospital. Mengele came there to take out one girl from the bottom and I was laying on the top. He took her out and I got left. It's just luck. Just luck."
Chana Szabo says, "Dr. Mengele, sometimes he used to get drunk or whatever his mood was, you know, he could say, this block, everybody to the gas chamber, right? It was all, you know, on his whim people were killed, murdered."
"There was one time that it was our turn actually and the truck driver that took us back to the camp he deliberately made the truck break down so that we're not, we're not going to be there in time for the selection and that's how he actually saved our lives."
Caregivers are trained to identify the sounds and smells, the seemingly benign daily activities that cause deeply buried pain to erupt. Once understood, they can be avoided.
"A shower for a survivor that saw their family marched into the gas chambers telling them that they were showers, that could be an obvious trigger," David says.
"So different triggers for different individuals and we just keep growing our list so that we can be as aware as possible.
"It's been a longstanding thing for night nurses to carry flashlights around so they don't have to turn on the overhead light in a room and check patients.
"The Nazis rounded people up usually at night. They would come in with floodlights and searchlights and guns going. Also many people tried to hide so that they would be unearthed from their hiding places with searchlights.
"That again is one of the more obvious triggers that isn't really necessary. We have nightlights now," David says.
"I still remember two of my cousins standing by the wires and they both were hungry and cold," Kott says. "You know, they looked like I look now. And I have some bread and some sweaters for them because somebody brought it to me. And I gave it to them. I remember that. But I don't remember yesterday. This is nothing. I don't really care. I care what happened to me before. And this was at the beginning of my life. And what do I care now? I don't care what's happening to me. When I was young I needed a father and a mother and I didn't have. Now I don't need a father and a mother because I'm a mother myself."
"I'll be honest with you. I never think about it," Bortenstein says. "The only thing I think about is our future generation shouldn't go through, I don't mean to say Jewish. Could happen to anybody.
"I wouldn't like to live through another war. No way. People would say, well, you survived this one with the Nazi's you can survive anything. Don't say that. It's not true. You may think that way, but it's not true."
"Once we started looking at the Holocaust survivors and understanding, the next big leap was we realized that there were many, many ramifications for other groups of survivors," David says.
"Mostly as they age, and the genocides that have happened post-Holocaust there aren't that many elderly survivors yet. However, I'm hoping that what we've learned will help the Rwandan community and the Yugoslavian community as their members get older. That they'll understand some of what we had to learn reactively and they'll be in there doing it. Understanding and supporting their elders before it gets that difficult."
Bortenstein says: "The main reason I want to talk is I feel personally, I don't know if I'm right, but talking about it maybe some yokel will come along and try to stop it because the German people, if they were smart at the time, they could have stopped it.
"And I feel that if more people know about it and they got it from me direct, it's not, I'm not writing a book or a novel or a Bible. It's something, you know, which happened to me, and I feel that the whole world should know about it."