January 27, 2005 marked the 60th anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland. On that same day, the U.N. declared International Holocaust Remembrance Day to reaffirm the truth that “one third of the Jewish people along with countless members of other minorities” were murdered by the Nazi regime. The resolution condemned all “manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on their ethnic origin or religious belief, wherever they occur.”
To comprehend a crime of such magnitude and the significance of January 27, I sometimes think of the fates of three individual prisoners: Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, and my father, Wolf Manheimer. Days before the liberation, the SS had conducted a hasty withdrawal westward, forcing 58,000 prisoners on death marches. None of these three, therefore, was among Auschwitz’ 7,650 prisoners when the Soviets entered on January 27.
In his memoir, Night, Wiesel describes the evacuation scene:
“The procession was about to begin its march… ‘Form up! Quickly!’ In a few minutes we were all in rows, by blocks. Night had fallen…The searchlights came on. Hundreds of armed SS men rose up out of the darkness, accompanied by sheepdogs. The gates of the camp opened. It seemed that an even darker night was waiting for us on the other side.”
Indeed “the other side” was the deadliest period for the inmates, who had until then managed to survive the brutality and depravations of existence in Auschwitz.
Wiesel and his ailing father marched for days with little food or shelter before finally being herded onto an overcrowded train car bound for Buchenwald. There, on the night of January 28, his father succumbed to exhaustion, dysentery, and a blow to the head by an SS officer. It would be another nine weeks before U.S. forces entered Buchenwald and tended to the captives.
Anne Frank arrived at Auschwitz with her family on September 3, 1944.
Anne and Margot had been put on an earlier death march at the end of October, 1944 bound for the Bergen-Belsen camp, a vastly overcrowded dumping ground for thousands of evacuated prisoners. Deprived of shelter, food, and medicine, many died of typhus. The disease took Margot, and days later Anne in early March, 1945. Their bodies were buried in one of the mass graves at Bergen-Belsen.
Their father, Otto, had been liberated at Auschwitz four months earlier by the Soviets. After the war, he returned to Amsterdam, where he recovered Anne’s diary.
My father was among the last inmates to be marched out of Auschwitz. How do I know this? During my first visit to the former camp, I entered a door marked “Archives” near the main gate. Inside, I wrote the names of my father, paternal and maternal grandparents, aunts, and uncles on a request form. The clerk came back with a single document – Wolf Manheimer’s prisoner ID card. The number on the card matched the digits tattooed on his arm: A149719. He had been among the camps 405,000 registered prisoners; the vast majority of arrivals had been selected for immediate extermination.
The document noted that my father was transferred to the Mauthausen camp on January 25, 1945.
This was a devastating revelation. Had he remained in Auschwitz for just two more days, he would have averted the worst calamities to befall him in his more than five years of Nazi captivity.
After marching for days in the bitter cold without food or shelter, Wolf and his younger brother, Pinchas, were crammed into a cattle car. Pinchas died in Wolf’s arms. In a moment of desperation or madness, my father threw himself from the train. He was shot through the chest by an SS guard.
Locals took my father to a hospital, where he was patched up before being turned over to the Gestapo. Three weeks after the shooting (the Nazis kept good records) he arrived at Mauthausen, where he was branded an escapee and subjected to special punishment.
When the American GI’s liberated Mauthausen on May 5, 1945, they pulled my father from a mound of corpses. He would never fully recover from the injuries he had sustained in the weeks following his departure from Auschwitz.
Today, as the nations of the world consider the historical and moral significance of the Holocaust, let us remember individuals, those known and unknown, who inhabited what Elie Wiesel called “the Kingdom of Night” and, despite everything, struggled to hold on to their lives and to their humanity.