Holocaust survivor in famous Auschwitz liberation photo says rising anti-Semitism 'scares me'

Toronto resident Miriam Ziegler is going back to Auschwitz to honour those who did not make it out — and to remind the world what unchecked hate can do.

Miriam Ziegler was 9 years old when Russians liberated Nazi concentration camp

Holocaust survivor Miriam Ziegler, 84, pictured at her Toronto home, is preparing to return to Poland for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Miriam Ziegler sees it as a call of duty: She's going back to a place of horror to honour those who did not make it out — and to remind the world what unchecked hate can do.

On Jan. 27, the 84-year-old Canadian will stand alongside dozens of other Holocaust survivors from around the world as they gather in Poland to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

"All the six million… I feel I have to honour them," said Ziegler.

She was nine when the Russians liberated the camp, making Ziegler one of the youngest people to have survived Auschwitz. The number of survivors dwindles every year, which means this year's ceremony is likely to be the last major international gathering of its kind.

More than 1.1 million people were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Nazi regime made it the key killing ground for its plan to exterminate the Jewish people.

It was surreal to meet Ziegler in her lovely condo in north Toronto. An elegant and proud mother and grandmother, she surrounds herself with family photos and mementoes of a life well-lived in Canada.

She recounted the trauma and terror she endured as a child during the Second World War in Poland. It's painful to relive. For years, she didn't even tell her own children.

And for years, Ziegler herself didn't know that she had appeared in one of the most famous and haunting photos from the end of the war. The image shows Ziegler standing among a group of children behind the wire at Auschwitz. Soviet soldiers liberated the camp on Jan. 27, 1945. The photo appeared in newspapers worldwide.

'They only knew you by number'

The image is deceiving — the children don't look emaciated, like other concentration camp prisoners. That's because they are wearing several layers of clothing under their striped prison garb. The Germans had fled Auschwitz a few days earlier, and the kids had scavenged leftover clothing from the abandoned barracks in order to stay warm. 

Ziegler, second from left, is wearing an old, oversized coat and holds out her arm. 

This photo was taken at Auschwitz after the camp was liberated by the Russians in January 1945. Miriam Ziegler can be seen second from left, showing the prison number tattooed on her arm. (Associated Press)

At the time, the Russian soldiers were asking the children their names. In response, Ziegler showed them her tattoo: prisoner number A16891.

"In the camp, they didn't call you by name. They only knew you by number," said Ziegler. "So I wanted to show the Russians."

Before they abandoned the camp, German soldiers led tens of thousands of prisoners on a march out, telling them they would be taken to safety. Ziegler and a cousin joined the line, but a great aunt intervened and told the children to stay behind.

She told Ziegler, "'No! You are not going. If you have to live, you can live here. You are not well enough to march.' And she dragged us [back] and she saved our lives, because [the soldiers] killed everybody ... On the march, they killed every single person."

That's how a group of hungry, sick, freezing children found themselves at the gates of Auschwitz to greet the Russians.

Ziegler remembers the moment clearly. "Of course — I remember everything since I was four years [old]."

Sharing the memories

Ziegler wants to put the memories that have tormented her to good use while she can. The Holocaust can be hard to comprehend, especially for a generation that has never known war. But she's been amazed at how young people respond.

After speaking to a class of high school students, Ziegler was overwhelmed with thank-you notes explaining how her story had helped make the horror real for them.

The students told her that reading a book about it was one thing, "'but to meet a person that went through it and the way you told it... We never believed it before. Now we believe it.'"

Ziegler was four when she saw her first murder: Nazis shot and killed a buggy driver that her mother had hired to try to take Miriam to safety in the countryside, outside their hometown of Radom, Poland.

Before that, she'd been a happy child in a large, wealthy extended family that owned several large clothing and general goods stores. But beginning in the late 1930s, Ziegler lived in hiding, sometimes with her parents, sometimes with strangers.

She was hidden in farms, work camps or compounds. She was taking refuge in an attic with several people during one particularly gruesome Nazi raid.

Ziegler holds out her arm to show her Auschwitz prisoner tattoo. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"I heard them coming up the stairs. I hid myself under a pile of rubbish and clothes. I pushed myself underneath and covered myself. And they shot everybody in that attic... I was lucky. This was my first real escape from being killed."

In 1944, her family was taken to Auschwitz. She remembers the train trip, the crowded cattle cars filled with terrified people. When they arrived, she was separated from her parents. Tattooed. Shaved. And then sent to the showers. 

She was eight years old.

"By that time, we knew already about the gas chambers. From the ghettos in the camps, we knew that this is what they were doing. They were killing everybody and we didn't think we would come out from the showers."

'I never saw him again'

Ziegler lived a year in daily fear, but she survived. She would later learn her mother, grandmother and an aunt had also survived. But not her father.

"He was taken away. I never saw him again. He was put through the gas chamber."

In the final months of the war, the infamous gas chambers at Birkenau were shut down. But Ziegler says the medical experiments continued, and she did not escape that. She doesn't remember much beyond that she was taken to a room one day with instruments and people in white lab coats. And she remembers the pain.

Three Holocaust survivors walk outside the gates of Auschwitz in January 2015. (Alik Keplicz/Associated Press)

She knows it won't be easy to return to the scene of this trauma in the coming days. When she attended the 70th anniversary in 2015, she caught a glimpse of herself in a film clip taken on the day the camp was liberated.

"A ghost," she said. "I couldn't believe it. I didn't believe it was me." What happened to Ziegler as a child was unfathomable to the woman watching.

The 2015 trip took a physical toll on her that lasted months. She fell ill when she returned to Toronto. At the time, Ziegler was caring for her husband, Roman, another Holocaust survivor, who suffers from Alzheimer's. 

The Auschwitz anniversary experience left her weaker, but Ziegler said she has no choice but to do it again. She sees hatred on the rise again in the world and wants to speak out.

"It scares me. And that's why I want as many people as I can to tell my story to. I wouldn't want anybody to go through what we went through, it doesn't matter what nation. And that's why I'm scared."

Susan Bonner and the World at Six will host a special edition from Auschwitz, Poland on Monday, Jan. 27  to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz and International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It can be heard CBC Radio 1 and the CBC Listen app.


Susan Bonner

Host, World at Six

Susan Bonner is the host of World at Six on CBC Radio One. She assumed the host's chair after more than two decades of reporting for CBC, including a decade covering national politics in Ottawa and a recent assignment in Washington.