Auschwitz survivor returns to Poland to recreate liberation image

To mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a Canadian woman who was held there as a child is returning to the notorious concentration camp to recreate a famous photo taken of her and fellow inmates in 1945.

Toronto resident was held in Nazi concentration camp as a child

Taken just after the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp by the Soviet army in January 1945, this photo shows a group of children in camp uniform. The girl holding out her arm, showing her ID tattoo, is Miriam Ziegler. (Associated Press)

Canadian Miriam Ziegler has gone to a place she vowed she never would.

Back to Poland. Back to Auschwitz.

She was pulled back by a picture, a single image created 70 years ago when Auschwitz, the infamous World War II Nazi death camp, was liberated by the Soviet Red Army.

For decades, she did not know the picture existed.

This is the picture. The girl showing her prisoner tattoo number, is Miriam, age nine. 

"I was excited. I was excited because we were free, there were no more experiments, no more Germans to kill us, to take us away and that was something to be happy about," she said recently.

Shared around the world

The picture of 13 children was shared around the world, a still image taken from the reels of film the Red Army shot of Auschwitz and the connected death camps that were liberated in 1945. It can be found in official records and books.

Ziegler was an inmate at Auschwitz until the Soviet army liberated the camp in 1945. (Courtesy of Miriam Ziegler)

Auschwitz has been called the most evil of all the concentration camps created during World War II. According to the World Jewish Congress, an estimated 1.1 million people, most of them Jews, were killed in Auschwitz between 1941 and 1945. The term Auschwitz is used to describe several, connected camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Ziegler was held.

Ziegler initially knew nothing of the picture. She emigrated to Canada, married and had children, all without realizing she was part of the photographic history of the Holocaust.

The tattoo is still visible on her left arm. Recently, at her home in Toronto, Ziegler spontaneously rolled up her left sleeve to show it and recite the numbers Nazi officials had given her when she was first sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the summer of 1944.

"They called me by numbers," she said sadly. She was prisoner A16891.

Initial reluctance

Ziegler became aware of the picture in 1981, when she spotted it while visiting a museum in Israel. There is another photo of her, amazed, just after that discovery.

Ziegler points poses with the famous 70-year-old photo on Jan. 25. (Havard Gould/CBC)

"I couldn't believe it," she said. "That there was a picture of what happened. That there was proof. I was shocked."

The story made headlines at the time. With the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz approaching, she was asked by Jewish groups to return to the camp for a reunion with as many survivors from the picture as possible. As many as five may be able to make the trip and pose once again for a camera.

At first, Ziegler didn't want to go.

She tried to visit Auschwitz in the 1980s but became so upset she cut short her visit and left, saying she would never return.

'It's going to be very hard'

But knowing this is likely the last anniversary that many Auschwitz survivors would be able to attend, she agreed to make the trip.

Ziegler and her daughter, Adrienne Shulman, visited Auschwitz on Jan. 25. (Havard Gould/CBC)

"It's going to be very hard," she said.

"I have to tell my story. And I have to go there and say after the hell that I lived through here, I am 70 years older and I am still alive. And people have to know the real story."

Her daughter, Adrienne Shulman, accompanied her, which is deeply important to Ziegler.

"I want my daughter to see, and to say, 'Here we are the two of us, after living through all that hell.'"

Ziegler is bracing for the flood of memories and nightmares the visit will trigger. Over the years she has kept in touch with two of the survivors, both of whom live in the United States. One she speaks with on the telephone almost every week. She wants to see the others as well.

But mostly, she wants to make sure the picture and the horrors it represents aren't forgotten.

"I was one of the youngest ones. It has to be told. It shouldn't happen again. There shouldn't be anything like that again."

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