When Holocaust survivors speak, we ought to listen!

Finally! This famous old gritty black and white photo has been colourised to bring this human tragedy into a modern context. This photo is one of the most published images of the Holocaust, the surviving children. So what’s in this iconic photograph taken during the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp by Soviet soldiers on 27 January 1945, what does it actually tell us?

There is a lot more to this than just a photo, it carries with it one of the greatest human failings, it also has a remarkable eye-witness testimony of what actually happened at Auschwitz – from both a survivor and a tormentor, and it even has a South African back story.

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To answer, what’s in a photo! just for starters, there are two sisters in this photo, 10-year-old Eva Mozes and her twin sister Miriam Mozes. Miriam is on the extreme right and Eva is next to her sister slightly behind the boy with the cap.

Zwillinge, Zwillinge!

Eva Mozes is still alive and gracefully with us and she has time and again provided a living testimony to horror – the fact is the Holocaust is still in living memory. She has recalled that her parents Alexander and Jaffa Mozes, together with their four daughters (her sisters) Edit, Aliz and her twin sister Miriam were among thousands of jews who were collected in the regional ghetto of Cehei and transported to their final destination – Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Upon their arrival, the Mozes family was immediately separated for extermination ―her father and Mother together with her sisters Edit and Aliz and twin Miriam were all taken aside to be taken to the gas chambers.

The twins survived the death camp thanks to a single trait, being ‘twins’. Eva revisited Auschwitz on several occasions after the war and stood at the same place where she saw her mother, father, Edit, and Aliz for the last time. She recalled;

“The SS was running from that direction, yelling in German, ‘Zwillinge, Zwillinge!’ which means ‘twins.’ We did not volunteer any information. He approached us, looked at Miriam and me, we were dressed alike, looked very much alike, and he demanded to know if we were twins.”

After this was confirmed, the two girls were taken away from their family, none of whom were ever seen again.

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Eva (right) and Miriam (left), in 1949.

Another fate awaited the twins ―they were both subjected to gruesome experiments conducted by Dr. Josef Mengele himself.

The Angel of Death

Dr. Mengele was known to the inmates at Auschwitz as Todesenge (English; Angel of Death).  He was given a free hand in experimenting on human subjects, an approach unthinkable by any ethical standards in modern medicine. He was especially interested in twins, for his genetic research which revolved around improving the birth-rate of German ‘Aryan’ people.

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Josef Mengele pictured outside Auschwitz in 1944

Twins were subjected to weekly examinations and measurements of their physical attributes by Mengele or one of his assistants. The experiments he performed on twins included unnecessary amputation of limbs, intentionally infecting one twin with typhus or some other disease, and transfusing the blood of one twin into the other. Many of the victims died while undergoing these procedures, and those who survived the experiments were sometimes killed and their bodies dissected once Mengele had no further use for them.

A witness named Miklós Nyiszli recalled one occasion on which Mengele personally killed fourteen twins in one night by injecting their hearts with chloroform. If one twin died from disease, he would kill the other twin to allow comparative post-mortem reports to be produced for research purposes.

Eva and Miriam, who were 10 years old at the time, were injected with various substances and they were constantly compared and tested while living the harsh reality of the concentration camp.

Eva concentrated on how to survive the camp, despite all odds.  She said “at Auschwitz dying was so easy. Surviving was a full-time job.” Her first memory of the children’s barracks in which she was placed was the latrine, in which several dead children were piled up on the floor.

On one occasion, Eva said; “I was given five injections. That evening I developed extremely high fever. I was trembling. My arms and my legs were swollen, huge size. Mengele and Dr. Konig and three other doctors came in the next morning. They looked at my fever chart, and Dr. Mengele said, laughingly, ‘Too bad, she is so young. She has only two weeks to live ..”

Eva knew that the moment she died, her sister Miriam would become useless for experiments. She would be murdered with a lethal injection and sent for a comparative autopsy. This left no other option for Eva but to survive her illness, and after the two weeks that she wasn’t supposed to survive, she got better and started to heal.

What’s in a ‘hug’? 

The Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, finding around 180 children among the survivors, most of them being twins. Eva and Miriam were captured on film that day, exiting the barbed wire corridor together with other children.  On seeing the Russian liberators Eva recalled

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A photograph of the liberation of the Auschwitz camp by Soviet soldiers in January 1945. Eva and her sister Miriam are seen holding hands

“We ran up to them and they gave us hugs, cookies and chocolate. Being so alone, a hug meant more than anybody could imagine because that replaced the human warmth that we were starving for. We were not only starved for food, but we were starved for human kindness. And the Soviet Army did provide some of that.

The photographs and films taken at Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Allied forces shocked the world, but oddly enough they knew exactly where the extermination camp was and exactly what was going on in there – and that is thanks to another photograph – and this one was taken by a South African aircrew who discovered the Nazi extermination camp and exposed it to Allied intelligence.

In the spring of 1944 a South African Air Force Mosquito XVI aircraft of SAAF No. 60 Squadron piloted by Lt. C.H.H Barry and his navigator Lt. I McIntyre discovered and photographed the Auschwitz concentration camp whilst reconnoitring a nearby rubber plant which was earmarked for bombing by the USAAF (USA Air Force)..

This image is an enlargement of part of a photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau taken by the SAAF on Sortie no. 60PR/694.

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For more on this remarkable intelligence gathering by the South Africans – click on this link: The South African Air Force discovered Auschwitz extermination camp

Candles

The Mozes twins made it, they had survived a holocaust, even though their parents and sisters perished in the gas chambers. The twins returned to Romania for a while, and in 1950, they both moved to Israel. Eva recalls that only after reaching Israel did she stop feeling the fear of being persecuted for her ethnicity. For the first time in a decade, she slept through the night.

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Eva Mozes-Kor

In 1960, Eva married Michael Kor, who was also a concentration camp survivor. The pair moved to the U.S. and had two children, while Miriam remained and founded her family in Israel. While in the U.S., Eva established the Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors (CANDLES) in 1984. The main purpose of this institution remains the education of young people about the horrors of the Holocaust. It also served as a place to reconnect the survivors of the infamous Mengele twins experiments.

The scars left by the 10 months spent in Auschwitz were not gone. In 1993, Miriam died from a kidney related cancer. Miriam’s kidneys stopped growing in Auschwitz, caused by an unknown substance that was injected into her as a child. She spent her life living with kidneys of a 10-year-old. Doctors were helpless in determining the true cause of the defect.

“A human being in a SS uniform”

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Hans Wilhelm Münch at the time of his arrest

After Miriam’s death, Eva made contact with an unusual person – a former SS physician who worked in Auschwitz by the name of SS-Untersturmführer Hans Wilhelm Münch.

In addition to other duties SS physicians at Auschwitz were required to be present at the line selections of arriving Jews (and other ‘non Aryan’) to select (or deselect for that matter) Jews healthy enough to be kept for labour and those destined to go straight into the gas chambers.  Most of the SS doctors viewed selections as one of their most stressful and unpleasant duties, unlike their colleague Dr Josef Mengele who undertook the task with a flamboyant air, often smiling or whistling a tune.  

In addition SS physicians were also required to oversee the administration of Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide that was used for the mass killings in the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chambers.

Dr. Hans Münch was present at various exterminations at Auschwitz, but he was very different to the rest of his colleagues.  He was so against going ‘selections’ which he viewed as “disgusting and inhuman” that he formerly applied to be removed from this duty (which although the application was dimly viewed by his colleagues in the SS he was given exemption). Then he did something completely at odds to the SS doctrine, but perfectly in line with his medical oath and his conscience – he started to save lives and filed ‘false’ experiments to by-pass the system and save people destined to be executed or maimed.

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“Selection” of Hungarian Jews on the ramp at Birkenau, May/June 1944

In 1945, after evacuating from Auschwitz, Münch spent about three months in the Dachau concentration camp. After the end of the war he was arrested in a United States internment camp after being identified by another Auschwitz physician.

Münch was extradited to Poland in 1946 to stand trial in Kraków with 41 other Auschwitz staff. However, quite remarkably, although accused of performing inhumane experiments injecting inmates, the inmates stood up for him – one after another testified in his favour calling him the “Good Man of Auschwitz” and referring to him as “a human being in a SS uniform”.

The court acquitted Dr. Hans Münch on 22 December 1947 with this statement; “not only because he did not commit any crime of harm against the camp prisoners, but because he had a benevolent attitude toward them and helped them, while he had to carry the responsibility. He did this independently from the nationality, race-and-religious origin and political conviction of the prisoners.” The court’s acquittal was based, among other things, on his strict refusal to participate in the selections.

No small matter, of the 41 Auschwitz staff tried in Kraków, 23 of them (including the Auschwitz commandant, Arthur Liebehenschel, the Political Department head Maximilian Grabner, and Women’s Camp Director Maria Mandel) were sentenced to death, the rest received heavy prison sentences. It was only Hans Münch who was acquitted and who walked away from the trial a free man.

“Silence helps the oppressors”

Eva Mozes-Kor and Hans Münch, two eye-witnesses to horror – one the Jewish victim and one the SS tormentor, both survivors of the Holocaust in their own way, met and agreed to attend the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1995 arm in arm.

In an act of mutual catharsis Eva formally forgave Münch and her Nazi tormentors and Münch in turn formally apologised and attested the fact that he was part of the SS run systematic genocide machine at the same time also confirming the existence and use of gas chambers to fulfil this end. His document was intended to put to bed once and for all a growing revisionist lobby who try to deny that the Holocaust ever happened.

Gas Chambers copyAs living witnesses Hans Münch and Eva Mozes-Kor signed their respective public declarations regarding what had happened there and declared that such a thing should never be allowed to happen again.

Eva is a woman of substance, she has every reason to hate and demand retribution, but she refuses to be a labelled a victim, she is a survivor. In her journey she has realised that to purge herself of demons and monsters she would forgive them – and only in the act of forgiveness could she move on, she believes that; “Getting even has never healed a single person” and would go on to say  “forgiveness is free. It does not cost anything to let go of grievances and remove the victim label from oneself”.

As to another Holocaust survivor, Leslie Meisels who said silence helps the oppressors”, Dr. Hans Münch later felt compelled to further comment on Holocaust denial. During an interview Münch was asked about the claim that Auschwitz was a hoax, he wearily responded:

“When someone says that Auschwitz is a lie, that it is a hoax, I feel hesitation to say much to him. I say, the facts are so firmly determined, that one cannot have any doubt at all, and I stop talking to that person because there is no use. One knows that anyone who clings to such things, which are published somewhere, is a malevolent person who has some personal interest to want to bury in silence things that cannot be buried in silence”

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Eva Mozes-Kor,and Hans Münch at the 50th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau

In Conclusion

Although Eva’s views stress we should never forget the Holocaust her views on forgiving the perpetrators of the Holocaust sits at odds with many in our modern-day who view the Holocaust differently and demand continual retribution and compensation for it.  In many respects her view echoes in modern-day South Africa – where Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and others (the principal victims of Apartheid) who whilst never forgetting Apartheid also sought reconciliation and peace through the act of forgiveness, and it was in this way they sought to remove the label of ‘victim’ which so crushes the human spirit – and not surprisingly their view is also at odds with modern South Africans who are still seeking continual retribution and compensation for Apartheid victimisation.

It’s a very sensitive subject and there are grounded issues on both sides of the argument, but a lot of learnings must be taken from the people who were ‘there’ and experienced a human failing like the Holocaust (or even Apartheid) at its very worst – first hand. Eva Mozes-Kor founded CANDLES to shine light on the both the dark and bright side of history, because the ‘human spirit’ must always prevail and as Charles Dickens once wrote many years before;

“There are dark shadows on earth, but the lights are always brighter.”


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

References and extracts: Lessons from a Holocaust survivor by Tyler Tucky.  The Jewish Virtual Libuary –  article on Hans Münch.   War History on-line article – SS Dr. Hans Munch, called the “Good Man Of Auschwitz”, How is That Possible?  The Vintage NewsEva Mozes Kor, a Holocaust survivor and a Mengele twin, chose to forgive the Nazis. 

Photo Color by Mikołaj Kaczmarek
https://www.facebook.com/KolorHistorii/

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