70 years on, Holocaust survivors recall Auschwitz terror

File picture of the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz in Oswiecim January 19, 2015. — Reuters pic
File picture of the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz in Oswiecim January 19, 2015. — Reuters pic

KRAKOW, Jan 23 — The piercing screams of a woman electrocuted on a barbed wire fence, children sent to the gas chambers and the constant threat of death: Auschwitz survivors recall life in the world's most notorious death camp with remarkable clarity.

Mostly in their nineties now, some are still well enough to attend Tuesday's ceremonies marking 70 years since the Soviet Red Army liberated Auschwitz, the largest German death camp, on January 27, 1945 in what is now southern Poland.

"You can't imagine the cries of someone who has been electrocuted," says survivor Zofia Posmysz, 91, describing how fellow prisoners chose to commit suicide by flinging themselves at the electric fence surrounding the camp.

The memory still haunts this beautiful woman who spent three years at the Auschwitz and Ravensbruck camps: "I saw bodies hanging on barbed wire. At night, the girls came out of the barracks and threw themselves on the electric fence. It was horrific."

"We were woken by these piercing screams," recalls Posmysz, who still bears the camp's tattoo -- prisoner number 7566 -- on her left forearm.

 The executioner's barber

With his eyes shut tight, former Auschwitz prisoner Jozef Paczynski, now 95, relives the ritual of shaving and cutting the hair of the camp's infamous commander, Rudolf Hess.

Tattooed as prisoner 121, Paczynski was among the first 700 Polish prisoners of war that the Nazis shipped to Auschwitz in June 1940. He was assigned to the hairdresser's unit soon after arrival.

"There were eight or 10 professional hairdressers from Warsaw and Hess ordered that an apprentice like me cut his hair," Paczynski told AFP.

"My hands were shaking. But an order is an order. I had to do my job." 

"The cut was simple, the standard German style: you had to shave the neck with a razor and then use clippers on the sideburns. I had good tools and my colleagues kept my razor sharp."

One question he gets a lot is whether he ever contemplated taking the razor to Hess's throat.

"I was aware of the consequences, I wasn't crazy. If I had slit his throat, half the camp's prisoners would have been immediately executed." 

Posmysz and Paczynski were both 19 years old when they were deported. They emerged alive because they were young and learnt quickly how to survive at the camp.

Avoid dogs and Kapos

"I learnt how to survive there. It was crucial to not end up at the front or on the sides when we walked in groups. You had to keep yourself in the middle of the crowd to be far from the dog, the guard, the Kapo who could beat you," says Posmysz.

"You basically had to do everything possible to not expose yourself to punishment."

Ninety-two-year-old Kazimierz Albin survived because he managed to escape on February 27, 1942 along with six other prisoners. 

"It was a starry night, around minus 8 or minus 10 degrees Celsius (17 or 14 Fahrenheit) outside," says Albin, prisoner number 118. 

"We took our clothes off and were half way across the Sola River when I heard the siren... Ice floes surrounded us."

Once free, Albin caught up with the Polish resistance.

Escapes were rare. Of around 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, only 802 -- including 45 women -- tried to flee, according to estimates from the museum now located at the site of the former camp.

Only 144 succeeded, while 327 were caught. The fate of the remaining 331 is unknown.

"Can we forget all these murders, can we forgive them? I'll never be able to forget all those women and children taken straight to the gas chambers," says Paczynski.

But he adds: "Will we be waging an endless war? It won't bring back the dead!

"I'm glad there was reconciliation, that there's peace and the borders are gone."

The World War II extermination of Jews by Nazi Germany under the "Final Solution" plan began after the invasion of Poland in September 1939 and gradually increased in scale.

 Holocaust by bullets

The first massacres were perpetrated through starvation and mass shootings.

Jews imprisoned in ghettos, notably in Warsaw, were starved to death.

And in what is known as the "Holocaust by bullets" Einsatzgruppen firing squads mowed down a million people.

They were mainly Jews and Soviet prisoners of war in Polish, Baltic and Soviet territories seized from the Red Army after the rupture of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact and Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union of June 22, 1941 in Operation Barbarossa.

However, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi paramilitary SS, realised the limitations of this method of extermination, which had an affect on the morale of his troops and was difficult to apply on a large scale in western Europe.

With his deputy Reinhard Heydrich, he therefore established a more discreet method of extermination: genocide through the gas chambers, a technique already experimented with in Germany in the extermination of handicapped people.

In the Soviet Union, Nazi death squads followed in the wake of the Wehrmacht using special gas vans, while in Poland victims were taken to die in death camps.

The death camps

From the summer of 1941, at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp near to the southern Polish city of Krakow, the Nazis experimented on Soviet and ill prisoners with Zyklon B, the trade name of a cyanide-based pesticide invented in Germany in the early 1920s.

A plan to exterminate two million Jews on Polish soil occupied by Germany but not directly annexed by the Reich was drawn up in late 1941. Under "Operation Reinhard" three death camps were set up in Poland at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.

Once the camps were up and running, the SS and Nazi police emptied the ghettos and deported the remaining inhabitants there.

Belzec was in operation from March to December 1942, Sobibor from May 1942 to October 1943 and Treblinka from July 1942 to August 1943.

Another camp at Majdanek was in operation from late 1942 and took over from Belzec when it closed.

According to the Holocaust Memorial in Washington DC 1.7 million Jews were killed under Operation Reinhard, which was named after Reinhard Heydrich, who was assassinated in Prague in June 1942 by partisans. They were joined by an unknown number of Poles, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war.

The Wannsee Conference

In late 1941, when the "Final Solution" was well under way, it fell to Himmler and Heydrich to coordinate its implementation.

On November 29, 1941, Heydrich convened a planning meeting on the "final solution of the Jewish question", involving the heads of the main ministries and the SS chiefs.

The Wannsee conference took place on January 20, 1942 in the Berlin suburb it was named after.

Heydrich said that the initial plan to force Jews to emigrate from Europe or be deported to Madagascar had been rendered impossible by the war.

It was therefore a question of moving the Jews to the east, and ultimately to the death camps. All the participants agreed on the principle of evacuation under the exclusive authority of the SS.

Adolf Eichmann listed the number of Jews in Europe to be deported country by country,  arriving at a figure of 11 million people. These included those in Britain, and other countries not under the control of the Axis powers, 

After the Wannsee Conference the industrial process of extermination intensified. — AFP