Contributed by Tim Gray, chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. For more information about the foundation, visit www.wwiifoundation.org
The majority of Holocaust survivors have not the desire nor the will to return to the place where they lived through the most disturbing moments of their life and watched others die in ways still not easy to describe more than 70 years later.
Today in Oświęcim, Poland, 87 year old Israel Arbeiter confronted his past for most likely the final time. He did it on his terms. He held his head high and walked with a crisp step. He wore a Boston Red Sox 2004 World Series baseball cap, dress pants and sneakers and carried a bottle of water with him at all times.
It was a far cry from the striped uniform the German SS made him wear in 1944 designating him as a Jew and that he could die at any time the Nazis so chose.
The German SS could have shot Israel Arbeiter, hanged him, starved him to death, gassed him, thrown him in a pit of already burning corpses or just left him to decompose as a result of disease. In reality, Izzy could die in any fashion his captors could dream up. There also wasn’t any bottled water back then. In fact, Izzy was lucky if he could find any drink or food at all. He was sure he was going to die here. It was almost certain.
Fast forward now to a beautiful Friday in April of 2012. On this sunny and warm morning , thousands of miles from his home in America, Izzy Arbeiter walked through the gates into Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is part of the Auschwitz complex in southern Poland (3 camps in all, about an hour from Krakow). Auschwitz-Birkenau or Auschwitz II as it is also known, is a place where trains pulled directly into the camp from the outside world and as you stepped off your over-crowded, wretched-smelling cattle car, you were told to go to the left or the right. Either way determined whether you lived a little bit longer or died that very day in the gas chambers.
The young and strong had the best chance to live and Israel Arbeiter had one thing going for him, he was a determined teenager from Plock, Poland who had made his father a promise to stay alive and also keep alive his Jewish tradition.
Because of his youth and strength Izzy was “fortunate” in that he would be forcibly worked to death as a slave laborer for the German war machine instead of killed right away. Izzy was told to go to the right.
On Friday, April 27th, 2012 as Israel Arbeiter walked back into Auschwitz-Birkenau he felt free, because inside he knew he could leave the camp at any moment if he so chose and that the gates that once closed behind his train car in 1944 would not be making the sound of metal locking onto metal on this day in 2012.
Israel Arbeiter is a survivor.
This place could not kill him, no German Nazi could, even after they already had murdered his parents and younger brother in another death camp (Treblinka).
As Izzy walked around the camp today he had the air of someone who owned the place and the blue tattoo on his arm that read, A 18651, labeling him a prisoner of Auschwitz, pretty much gave him the right to say so if he wanted to. He didn’t.
His ability to walk freely around this place was enough for him and a silent statement that he had beaten the Nazis at their own game. Izzy was still alive and they were now all dead and residing in Hell.
Israel Arbeiter showed those with him today where people were killed. He stopped to talk about his life in the camp, even visiting what was left of his old prisoner barracks, number 28, now just a pile of bricks. The chimney and the foundation were still visible, but the wood siding and roof were gone. He showed his grandson Matt where his wife future wife (and Matt’s grandmother) Anna lived at Auschwitz II, the exact barracks where she and other female inmates slept and prayed.
He talked about how the gas chambers would be so busy that the Germans actually had a waiting area in the nearby woods where prisoners were politely asked by the SS guards to remain until it was their time to die (or as their guards told them, to take showers or be fed, whatever the lie). He (and we) sat on that very ground, under those very trees today, and listened to Izzy talk about what is what like watching those people wait. He knew what was going to happen to them and could do nothing about it. It was the killing of the young children that bothered him the most. I poked through the dirt with a stick while Izzy spoke, maybe hoping to find something buried by one of those who sat on the very spot I was now sitting on. Maybe if I did find something I could return it to a family member still living somewhere in the world. I found only more dirt.
Izzy talked about the finger nail marks on the inside of the gas chambers, where victims tried to claw their way out through concrete as the SS dropped Zyklon B gas into openings at the top. The finger nail marks remain today, a testament to those who fought to the very last second to stay alive.
I saw them myself and it made me ill. To stand in a gas chamber now and to see those marks on the wall is sickening. Just feet away from the gas chamber at Auschwitz I are several ovens. Victims were cremated within minutes of their death.
Truthfully, ever since we planned to film Izzy’s story here in Poland I have dreaded my first trip inside what today are memorials inside the gas chambers. It was exactly how I thought it would be. Nauseating. I felt like I had just walked into another world. You could just feel the evil that occurred here.
At Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II) Israel Arbeiter visited what was left of several of the crematoria buildings there. Several were blown up by the Germans in 1945 as they tried to destroy evidence of their mass murders and the burning of the victims bodies. The Russians were prepared to liberate Auschwitz. One of the crematoria was also blown up by prisoners using dynamite, part of a revolt in the camp that the SS quickly snuffed out. There were heroes everywhere here amongst the death.
Izzy stopped by a very small pond where fish nibbled at insects. Underneath the surface, the foundation of the pond was a mixture of sand, but mostly the ashes of those killed in the crematoria. Maybe that’s why the water color seemed go grey?
Izzy visited the building where he was given his tattoo and uniform and instead of being gassed, was given a real shower and disinfected.
Mostly, Israel Arbeiter talked. He feels the need to speak for those who did not survive here. Of the 1.3 million who came through the Auschwitz killing factories, an estimated 1.1 million died. Izzy speaks for them and his parents and younger brother. Everyone who suffered.
School kinds from Slovakia stop and talk with Izzy in front of an old cattle car still on the train tracks inside the camp. He tells these high schoolers to go home and kiss their parents and tell them they love them. He tells them to enjoy their day, but stops and laughs and says that “enjoying” was not what they should do here. Learn was probably a better word. He says God Bless America and God Bless Slovakia. They like that. The two generations part and they clap loudly for this 87 year old man. In a place like Auschwitz applause is not a sound heard very often.
It is now time for Israel Arbeiter to leave Auschwitz-Birkenau. Unlike 1944, no one will tell him he can’t. No one will stand in his way. He will no “go out through the crematoria” as his only means of escape, a phrase told to him when he arrived here in 1944. The only way out then they said was to die, be cremated and your ashes blown into the wind of Poland. That would be the only way to freedom.
Our guide on this day told us Auschwitz survivors rarely come back to visit the camp. The majority are now dead or too ill. Also, those still alive find it too difficult.
On April 27th, 2012 Israel Arbeiter and his grandson Matt walked through the front gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau leaving for the last time. Israel Arbeiter never looked back to say goodbye.
Tim Gray is Chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. To learn more about the WWII Foundation and to donate to their projects, including the educational documentary on Israel Arbeiter’s return to Poland and Germany, please visit www.wwiifoundation.org