At a certain point in time and by all accounts, Hitler’s Germany already had lost the war. But that didn’t keep Germany from pursuing its program for our elimination.
In the beginning, once plunged into the abyss of Auschwitz, where dying was the norm and living the miracle, I was convinced that I would never leave alive. I didn’t dare say it out loud to my father; in fact, I didn’t dare even think about it. But in the very depths of my being, I felt that I would never again see my town, my street, our garden, my house, the yeshiva and those whom I loved most in the world. I did not know how long I had left to live, but I knew that my life would conclude inside this barb-fenced universe. I would share the destiny of those who preceded me. It could take a month or a year, it would take the time that it took, but in the end, death would decide. Death would triumph. With the passing weeks, we got used to living with death, or better yet, living in death.
Then January 18, 1945, arrived. Its recollection remains engraved in my memory with letters of fire and blood. I touched on this a bit in my memoir, “Night.” I was at the infirmary, having surgery on my knee, when rumors began to circulate: The Russians were approaching, the outside commandos are being summoned, and we will all be evacuated.
I remember: A familiar but more sobering agony invades me and tightens my chest. Where am I going to find my father? We must absolutely not be separated, not now. Without me, he will not make it; without him, I will let myself die. In the chaos that ensues in the camp, I succeed in leaving the infirmary and run toward our block. He’s already there. What to do? Everywhere they say that the SS will not forego liquidating those who stay: Wasn’t it a part of their declared plan to make sure that no witness could recall their crimes? Their goal was not only to kill us, but also to silence our memory.
The choice? To stay and die tomorrow or to leave and die the day after. The unanimous decision: I will not go back to the infirmary, not even with my father, who could have hidden there. Always the same principle: Never separate from the community. Stay together; what will happen to other Jews will happen to us too.
So began the horror-filled death march in the snow and then squalls, surrounded by the SS and their dogs. Wrapped in two or three blankets, supplied with a whole loaf of bread, we left the camp marching in step and in file at first, eventually in a disorderly crowd. Whoever fell behind was shot. What was better: to stay ahead of the pack or drag toward the back? Without thinking I let myself be carried by the shadows of night.
This march of the living dead is inscribed in history as the last proof of the enemy’s murderous brutality. Screams on one side, frozen tears on the other. The wailing, the shivering. After several hours, gathered in a brick factory, we were given permission for a brief respite. “Be careful,” it was said around us, “do not let yourself be overtaken with sleep, or you may never get up again!” Exhausted, my father and I, like everyone, spread out in the snow, my arm hooked to his, determined to not fall asleep. But I did fall asleep, and my father woke me. A minute later, I fell asleep again. It was soothing, soft and peaceful to sleep, to dream in the snow. Once again, it was my father who woke me. It is to him, to my poor father, already feeble and bruised, that I owed the power to stand up. And to walk to Gleiwitz. Scenes from hell, the sensation of evolving in an unreal universe. I was sleeping as I walked, dreaming as I ran. If someone tells you that’s impossible, refer to these eyewitness accounts: That night, we slept, yes, slept while walking, while running. Perhaps the whole planet was running? No, not with us. Like the cursed place we had just left, we were alone.
How did I succeed in holding on until Gleiwitz, and in Gleiwitz? And in the open railroad cars bringing us to Buchenwald? More than once I was at the end. There were moments when, bundled in the frozen blankets among dead bodies, I told myself that I was maybe dead without knowing it.
Years later, during an official visit to Moscow, I met General Vassili Petrenko, whose troops liberated Auschwitz. I asked him why, since they were so close, they hadn’t come earlier. He gave me an evasive answer. One question among so many others that will forever remain an open wound.
Translated from the French by Jamie Moore.