Miriam Friedman Ziegler said she had not planned to visit the camp during her visit this week to Poland, where she has joined other Holocaust survivors to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
But at the last minute, she decided to return to the place she last saw when she was nine years old.
"The most difficult day since the war for me was yesterday," Friedman Ziegler told The Canadian Press on Monday from her hotel in Krakow, Poland.
The 79-year-old from Thornhill, Ont., visited the camp on Sunday, accompanied by her daughter. It was cold, snowy and emotionally overwhelming.
Friedman Ziegler said she stopped in front of a barbed-wire fence — the same spot where 70 years ago, a photographer captured an iconic photo of 13 wide-eyed children — she was one of them — looking on as the Red Army soldiers approached.
The horrible memories of experimentation and death flooded back as she stood there. She got back in the van with her daughter and sobbed.
Within hours, however, she rebounded.
"Here I am, I was the lucky one," Friedman Ziegler said.
"I survived and I can talk about it and I'm a witness to it that it did happen."
On Monday she reunited with three of the women who were captured in the black-and-white photo taken by Alexander Vorontsov, a Red Army combat photographer, shortly after the camp's liberation.
She posed with the others for a new photo at the hotel in Krakow between a slew of events for more than 100 survivors. In one photograph, she lifted her sleeve to show the prisoner number the Nazis tattooed on her skin upon entering Auschwitz. It mimics the original image in which she instinctively showed her tattoo to the arriving soldiers.
She spoke with the others, going over their stories and comparing notes.
Friedman Ziegler's daughter, Adrienne Shulman, said her mother is holding up emotionally.
"It's amazing going from a day that really was a living nightmare to her rejoicing and laughing and smiling and sharing stories," Shulman said.
Other Canadians were among the survivors returning to Auschwitz this week. Mordechai Ronen, an 82-year-old from Toronto, made the trip very reluctantly and said he wasn't sure he had the strength to handle it emotionally. After the survivors prayed in Hebrew he cried out, "I don't want to come here anymore!"
About 300 survivors will gather with leaders from around the world on Tuesday to remember the 1.1 million people killed at Auschwitz and the millions of others killed in the Holocaust.
Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, which is hosting the commemoration along with the USC Shoah Foundation, said hatred in the world remains strong.
"Shortly after World War II, after we saw the reality of Auschwitz and the other death camps, no normal person wanted to be associated with the anti-Semitism of the Nazis," Lauder said. "But, as the Holocaust grows more distant and survivors disappear, extremists grow more bold in targeting Jews. Stoked by a false narrative that blames Israel for a litany of the world's problems, anti-Semitism is resurgent and deadly."
Friedman Ziegler is also worried the message of the Holocaust is being lost over time, which is the reason she's sharing her story with the public for the first time. Yet she's also buoyed by the hundreds of children she saw at the museum in Auschwitz on Sunday.
"The young generation should know that it did happen," she said.
"It should never happen again."
— With files from the Associated Press
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