“There was smoke and a smell and I knew most of my friends were gone”
Every year on his birthday, Arek Hersh’s wife, Jean, says to him, “Here’s Arek, that’s one more year that Hitler didn’t intend to make you spend.”
He is now 93 years old, has three daughters, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; several members of his family accompany him as he returns to the place that still haunts his nightmare; Auschwitz.
Holding up his still heavily tattooed number B7608, he said: “It’s important that people know that.”
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He stands in a barracks at Auschwitz, part of a dwindling delegation of treasured Holocaust survivors, here to ‘pass the torch’ of memory for the March of the Living – an educational program that begins with a deep dive in Polish Jewish history and the horror of the Holocaust – to a new generation.
Arek, of Polish origin, entered his first concentration camp when he was only 11 years old. He spent two years as a child slave in the Otoschno concentration camp – they took him away because they couldn’t find his father. One of his tasks was to clean the house of an SS officer. Another picked up the corpses of men who had preferred to jump in front of a moving train in the camp rather than continue to live there. He grew up fast.
He got a brief reprieve when the camp was closed at age 13 and, to his surprise, was taken home to join his family in the Lodz ghetto. He dared not tell the other women left behind in the ghetto that the sons and husbands he had been there with were all dead. ‘I told them, ‘They went to another camp.’
His happiness at being reunited with his family lasted only two weeks when, along with his mother, sister, brother and cousins, he was taken to the Polish Catholic Church in Sieradz. A chance encounter while searching for water saved him.
The Nazis had decided they needed a few more slaves in the ghetto and ran into him as he was looking for a drink. As he was being hunted, his family was rounded up and taken to Chelmno death camp where they all died upon arrival.
For the next two years, he again worked as a slave in a textile factory while living in the ghetto orphanage. In 1944 the Nazis liquidated the ghetto and he was sent to the hell of Auschwitz.
He escaped death – just – once again by switching lines in tryouts when he realized Dr Mengele had put him in the line with the old, the young and the infirm . When there was a story in front of him – a woman wouldn’t let go of her baby – he would switch lines, pretend he was two years older – 16, not 14 – and had a talent for locksmithing. His previous camp experience had taught him well.
“There was smoke and there was this smell and I knew within an hour of going from line to line that most of the friends I had made in Lodz were gone” , he recalls in a neutral tone. ‘They told me when I entered the barracks. Only a handful of the orphanage’s 185 children escaped the gas chamber.
He stayed there for eight months. As the Russians closed in, he was sent on the death march to another concentration camp – Theresienstadt – followed by a month’s journey in open-top cattle cars where he was so hungry he died. started eating his leather shoes as the Nazis grew more and more desperate. to realize their dreams of total genocide. His resilience is truly astounding.
Only a handful of the orphanage’s 185 children escaped the gas chamber.
He was only saved when the Russians caught up with the Germans and peace was declared. Over the next few days, he saw his torturers arrested and humiliated. Arek told a group of SS men that he only had to give the word to a Russian soldier and they would be shot: “But we are not murderers like you.
There’s nothing more dramatic than hearing him describe what happened in an Auschwitz barracks, seeing his tattooed number as he reminisces about the hell of life there.
“We would sleep six to a bed,” he said, surveying the room. ‘There were no blankets. We slept with what we had on our heads. He points to the fireplace in front of which he is seated; “Nobody ever started the fire, even when it was snowing outside.”
He remembers the meager rations of soup: “There was a lot of hunger. Ordinary people around me were dying.
It’s a rare survival story, as it’s set in a former barracks on the grounds of the death camp that saw the murder of 1.1 million Jews. For the march, he is surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of young Jews from around the world all ready to take over to tell this story for him.
As Holocaust survivors reach their mid-90s, they know they don’t have much time left to tell their stories, which is why they’re all here in Poland while they still can.
“It’s important for people to remember that,” Arek says defiantly.