They were just children. Four of them, three girls and a boy, growing up more than seven decades ago in upper or middle-class families, surrounded by arts and culture, without many cares in the world.
And then, unspeakable horror. Uprooted from their lives and torn from their families, they found themselves at the world’s most notorious death camp, Auschwitz, trapped in the gruesomely efficient Nazi killing apparatus, where 1.1 million people were murdered during World War II.
Each somehow found a way to survive, whether through sheer inner strength or being plucked from certain death in the gas chambers because of their budding talents. One was a musician, another a fashion designer, another a tailor. The other was a twin, whom the infamously sadistic Dr. Joseph Mengele experimented upon.
70 years to the day after Auschwitz was liberated by Allied troops, these four incredibly resilient survivors tell their stories to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in “Voices of Auschwitz,” a one-hour documentary.
Viewers will meet Eva Kor, Martin Greenfield, Renee Firestone and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and hear their remarkable tales of living through the hell on earth that was Auschwitz.
“I never knew it was a problem to be Jewish,” Kor tells Blitzer, as they stand near the tracks where Kor, her mother and her sister Miriam and tens of thousands of others disembarked into the concentration camp. Amidst confusion and chaos, they entered under the infamous sign that bears the motto “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which translates into “Work Will Set You Free.”
That day on the selection platform was the last time Kor would see her mother, who was sent directly to the gas chamber.
For the next nine months, Eva and her sister Miriam were housed in a rat-and lice-infested bunk with 300 other children and subjected to medical experiments daily. They were forced to stand naked for eight hours at a time. She recalls Mengele’s sadistic laugh.
Despite the daily torture, Eva was determined to survive, telling Blitzer, “I was not going to perish here in Auschwitz.” When liberation finally came on January 27, 1945, at 4:30 p.m., Eva and Miriam were at the front of the line as the children were led out of Auschwitz. There’s a photo of them being led to freedom, which she poses with, but says she doesn’t remember being at the front of the parade, just the joy of being liberated.
The three other survivors also tell their stories of torture, loss, hopelessness and, finally, liberation and survival.
Firestone’s skills at drawing evening gown designs and being a seamstress spared her from the gas chamber. Similarly, Greenfield was recruited as a tailor, after his original job laundering Gestapo uniforms. And Lasker-Wallfisch was spared because she could play the cello and was put into a makeshift orchestra.
All went on to use those skills in life-long careers.
“I am not possessed by fear and anger—and that is a victory,” says Lasker-Wallfisch, while Firestone admits, “I’m in shock and awe and amazement that I’m still here. I wake up with it, I go to sleep with it,” she says of her nightmarish imprisonment at Auschwitz.
Preserving the stories of these and other survivors is the mission of the Shoah Foundation, and Blitzer talks to its founder, director Steven Spielberg, about the project’s genesis, which was inspired while he was making 1993’s “Schindler’s List.” An extra on the Holocaust film came up to him and asked if he had a tape recorder to record her own personal story of survival.
“This will be the last significant commemoration,” Spielberg says of the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation. “But all the survivors will become teachers in perpetuity.”
(“Voices of Auschwitz” premieres on CNN tonight, Wednesday, January 28 at 9 p.m. ET.)