‘There was smoke and a smell and I knew most
Every year on his birthday, Arek Hersh’s wife Jean tells him: ‘There you go Arek, that’s another year Hitler didn’t intend you to have.’
He is 93 now, has three daughters, seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren; several members of his family are with him as he returns to the place which still haunts his nightmare; Auschwitz.
Brandishing his still heavily tattooed number B7608 he says: ‘It is important people know about this.’
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He is standing in a barrack at Auschwitz, part of a dwindling delegation of precious Holocaust survivors, here to ‘pass on the torch’ of memory for the March of the Living – an educational programme which starts with a deep dive into Jewish Polish history and the horror of the Holocaust – to a new generation.
Polish-born Arek went into his first concentration camp when he was just 11. He spent two years as a child slave at the Otoschno concentration camp – they took him as they couldn’t find his father. One of his jobs was cleaning the house of an SS officer. Another was collecting the dead body parts of men who had preferred to jump in front of a moving train in the camp than continue to live there. He grew up fast.
He was granted a brief reprieve when the camp was closed down when he was 13 and to his amazement, was taken home to joint his family in the Lodz ghetto. He didn’t dare tell the other women left in the ghetto that the sons and the husbands he had been there with were all dead. ‘I told them, ‘They’ve gone to another camp.’
March of the Living (Photo credit: Yossi Zeliger)
His happiness at being reunited with his family lasted just two weeks when, along with his mother, sister, brother and cousins he was taken to the Polish Catholic Church in Sieradz. A chance encounter when he was searching for water saved him.
The Nazis had decided they needed a few more slave labourers back in the ghetto and chanced upon him as he was looking for a drink. As he was being driven off, his family was rounded up and taken to the Chelmno death camp where they all died as soon as they got there.
For the next two years he worked once again as a slave labourer in a textile mill while living in the ghetto orphanage. In 1944 the Nazis liquidated the ghetto and he was sent to the hell of Auschwitz.
He escaped death – just – once again by changing line at the selections when he realised Dr Mengele had put him in the line with the elderly, the youngest and the infirm. When there was a fuss in front of him – a woman would not let go of her baby – he moved line, pretended he was two years older – 16, not 14 – and had a skill as a lock maker. His previous camp experience had taught him well.
Karen Pollock of the (second from right) with survivors Mala Tribich , Eve Kugler, Harry Olmer, at Auschwitz during March of the Living in 2018.
‘There was smoke and there was this smell and I knew within an hour of stepping from one line to another that most of the friends I had made in Lodz were gone,’ he recalls matter of factly. ‘They told me when I came into the barracks.’ Only a handful of the 185 children from the orphanage escaped the gas chamber.
He was there for eight months. As the Russians drew closer, he was sent on the death march to another concentration camp – Theresienstadt – followed by a month travelling in open-topped cattle wagons where he was so hungry, he started eating his leather shoes as the Nazis became ever more desperate to fulfil their dreams of total genocide. His resilience is genuinely astounding.
Only a handful of the 185 children from the orphanage escaped the gas chamber.
He was saved only when the Russians caught up with the Germans and peace was declared. Over the next few days, he saw his torturers rounded up and humiliated. Arek told one bunch of SS men that he only had to give a Russian soldier the word and they would be shot, ‘But we are not murderers like you.’
There is nothing more dramatic than hearing him describing what happened in a barracks at Auschwitz, at seeing his tattooed number as he recalls the hell of living there.
‘We would sleep six to a bed,’ he says, surveying the room. ‘There were no covers. We would sleep with what belongings we had on our heads.’ He points at the fireplace he is sitting in front of; ‘No one ever put the fire on, even when it was snowing outside.’
He recalls the meagre rations of soup: ‘There was a lot of hunger. Everyday people around me would die.’
His is a rare story of survival, as he stands in a former barrack on the grounds of the death camp which saw the murder of 1.1million Jews. For the march he is surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of young Jewish people from around the world all ready to take the baton of telling this story from him.
As the Holocaust survivors reach their mid-90s, they know they don’t have much longer to tell their stories which is why they are all here back in Poland while they still can.
‘It is important people remember,’ says Arek defiantly.