STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This day marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It was the largest extermination camp run by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II. One-point-one million people were killed there, including 960,000 Jews, before the Soviet army arrived to open the gates. NPR's Rob Schmitz brings us the stories of the few remaining survivors.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Alina Dabrowska was 20 when she first heard about Auschwitz. She was an inmate at a prison in Nazi-occupied Poland. One day while walking the grounds, a new arrival told her about it.
ALINA DABROWSKA: (Through interpreter) She said, you're all going to Auschwitz. Do you know what kind of camp that is? She told us that if someone is out of strength, they were immediately killed. She told us many horrible things. None of us believed her. It turned out to be worse.
SCHMITZ: Dabrowska is 96 years old. She's short, thin, with shoulder-length wavy, gray hair and bright blue eyes. She lives in a rowhouse on the outskirts of Warsaw. When she was 20, German soldiers imprisoned her for helping the Allied forces. They executed her accomplices - among them, her brother. After a year in prison, in June of 1943, the Nazis transferred Dabrowska to Auschwitz.
DABROWSKA: (Through interpreter) When we got off the train, we were taken to a large hall where we were stripped down completely. Our hair was shaved, and they tattooed numbers on our arms.
SCHMITZ: She rolls up her sleeve to show hers, a small, black faded 44165 on her forearm. Dabrowska remembers her first morning taking stock of the camp, beginning to realize what she heard about it was true.
DABROWSKA: (Through interpreter) I noticed an electric fence around the camp. Whenever we came back from working in the mornings, there was usually someone glued to it. If someone couldn't take it anymore, they jumped over the ditch and threw themselves onto the electric fence, and their lives were over.
SCHMITZ: A year later, she says she had had enough of the cold, the hunger and the death, that she found herself in front of the fence about to jump when a guard yelled at her. She instinctively turned around and never tried it again.
DABROWSKA: (Through interpreter) I focused on doing whatever I could to survive. I had hope, but sometimes, an officer with a cane selected some of us to go to the gas chamber. What left the deepest impression on me were watching those marches to the chambers where so many were murdered.
SCHMITZ: Of the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, 1.1 million of them died; 865,000 of them were Jews who were sent to their deaths in the gas chambers upon arrival. Another Auschwitz survivor, Janina Iwanska, is now 89 years old and living in Warsaw. She arrived to the camp at the height of the killing, an eight-week period in 1944 when guards killed 330,000 people. She was 14, separated from her parents, and she arrived at Auschwitz alone among hundreds packed in a train car.
JANINA IWANSKA: (Through interpreter) We were taken off the train at night, and the air was thick with smoke that smelled like burning hair. We walked through a forest, and I asked a prisoner, what are those bonfires? And she said, you'll find out, child. It was only later that I learned they were burning bodies because they couldn't keep up with the crematoriums alone.
SCHMITZ: Iwanska slept in the children's dorm, and she quickly made herself useful by taking care of the younger children at the camp. This and the fact that she isn't Jewish were the reasons she believes she survived.
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SCHMITZ: Today, Auschwitz is a museum commemorating the evil humans are capable of inflicting on each other. Tour groups quietly shuffle from an exhibit holding two tons of hair shaved from the victims of the gas chambers to the gallows where the former commandant of Auschwitz was hanged after he was tried by a military tribunal. In his years as an Auschwitz guide, Pawel Sawicki has seen thousands of tourists.
PAWEL SAWICKI: Sometimes I think that when they leave a candle or a stone or they put a flower or they say a prayer and they leave the memorial and they go back to their life, they think our job is done. We remembered. But I think there should be a next step. People should look at this place and think about our moral responsibility. And this is not anthropological discovery that people - oh, people 75 years ago were able to do something like this, and we are surprised. They are able to do, they did it before, and people still hate each other.
SCHMITZ: Each December, the Polish director of the Auschwitz Museum sends a holiday card with that reminder. This year, it was a photograph of Chinese soldiers marching past Uighur children in Xinjiang, where China's government has sent an estimated 1 million ethnic Muslims to internment camps. But talking about the lessons of Auschwitz is painful, especially for those who were there.
DANIEL FABIAN: We did not talk about it at home about - the Holocaust was never a topic the way I remember it.
SCHMITZ: Berlin Rabbi Daniel Fabian says his grandmother never talked about her time at Auschwitz. He grew up thinking this was normal.
FABIAN: When I lived in the United States, I realized that Holocaust is a very big part of Jewish identity in America. And that seemed strange to me because, in Germany, it is not.
SCHMITZ: Fabian says that doesn't mean Germans ignore it; on the contrary, he says. There are reminders of it everywhere. It's just that not much is said about it. But he thinks more personal stories should be shared while the few remaining survivors are still with us. Back in Warsaw, Janina Iwanska thinks so too. It took her decades to talk about it. Now she does so on visits to Germany. She tells stories like this one from the end of the war when she and her four friends kept each other from freezing to death while Nazi soldiers transferred them to other camps on a death march.
IWANSKA: (Through interpreter) We were put into open train cars, and we huddled together to keep warm. When it snowed, we collected it to drink because they didn't give us water. We were in such complete solidarity that when one of us fell asleep, none of the others would steal the snow that accumulated on her. That snow belonged to her. Thanks to our solidarity, we lived.
SCHMITZ: It's also taken decades for Alina Dabrowska to share her stories. It was only when Dabrowska returned to Auschwitz 56 years after the war that she felt strong enough to share her memories of it. Like fellow survivor Iwanska, the 96-year-old now travels to Germany twice a year to share her stories with young people. And she says she plans to live as long as she can to pass this Earth on as undamaged as she possibly can to future generations.
Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Poland.
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