In a Hungarian internment camp, 15-year-old Eva Gelbman had two options: find refuge at an orphanage on her own, or board the cattle car to Auschwitz with her mother.
“I said, ‘I want to stay with you, Mommy,’” recalls Eva.
Her mother looked older than her 54 years, raising seven children in a poor but loving Othordox Jewish household. Village life was hard — she made everything by hand and never complained.
“I was a strong, young girl. I thought if I were there with mom, I could help her if she is not able to work so hard,” Eva told HuffPost Canada.
When they arrived at the death camp in occupied Poland in the spring of 1944, they were separated immediately. There were so many prisoners arriving — tens of thousands of Hungarians every day — Eva was sent straight to the showers, she said. She was forced to take off all her clothes, don the striped prison uniform and have her head shaved.
She asked a Kapo (a Jewish prisoner in charge of supervising other prisoners) what had happened to her mother. He pointed to the smoke rising from a building’s chimney — one of the camp’s crematorium. Eva knew she’d never see her again.
Now 91, Eva speaks clearly with a Hungarian accent and a bit of help from her daughter, Gabi Avni, in their Ottawa home. She has never regretted staying by her mother’s side for as long as possible, despite the devastation of Auschwitz, and the camps that followed.
Her father, the village Rabbi, was murdered in Auschwitz, too. All of her siblings died in other camps, except one brother who escaped and hid in a goat barn for four months near the Austrian border. Later, Eva would learn that of the 18 Jewish families in her village, she was the only female to survive.
“The absolute evil is like, it’s not human,” Gabi said. “I just don’t know how a human being can do that to another human being, I just don’t get it.”
This weekend, Eva, her eldest daughter Kathy Benjamin and Gabi are returning to Auschwitz-Birkenau to mark 75 years since the camp was liberated by the Soviet army on Jan. 27, 1945, near the end of the Second World War. Eva is among more than 100 survivors and their companions attending the commemoration.
The date, also Holocaust Remembrance Day in Canada, is spurring some of the world’s last Holocaust survivors, now reaching the end of their lives, to retell the horrors they endured.
“Even if it is painful to talk about, I want the next generation to know what’s happened, even if I am not here anymore,” Eva said. She also went back to Auschwitz in 2000 for the educational program March of the Living. “I feel like I go to the cemetery,” she said.
There are possibly 5,000 survivors currently living in Canada, said the Azrieli Foundation’s Jody Spiegel. The charity, based in Toronto, publishes survivor memoirs. About 40,000 Jewish refugees immigrated to Canada after the Second World War.
“Most Canadians don’t know the details of the history of the Holocaust. That’s terrible,” Jody said. “We don’t even know the details we are supposed to be remembering. We need to renew our commitment to sharing the stories of our victims, to make sure we have the lessons from the Holocaust so we can move forward in a better world.”
Hungary sent about 430,000 Jews to Auschwitz in 1944 and 75 per cent of them were killed in gas chambers, according to Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau. An estimated 1.3 million Jews, Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, and people of other groups and nationalities within Nazi-controlled Europe were deported to Auschwitz. More than one million were murdered, the most of any extermination centre.
The Holocaust began in the 1930s when the Nazis rose to power in Germany and in total about six million Jews died.
Alexander (Alex) Spilberg, 89, will travel from Toronto to Poland with his daughter Lisa Ashley for Monday’s commemoration.
“I kind of blocked it behind my mind. If I dwell on it, it’s going to kill me,” he said of his time in Auschwitz. He’s going back to “revisit the sad year he spent there” because he’s not getting any younger. And he wants the world to know the truth.
Alex was 13 when he was deported to Auschwitz from Romania along with his mother, four younger brothers, aunt and grandparents. His father had already been sent to a labour camp.
They spent five days packed into a cattle car with dozens of others with no food or water. The train pulled into Auschwitz, the car doors opened and Alex said he saw chaos and confusion.
“It was a relief to get out of the train. I didn’t know what was going on,” Alex told HuffPost. “There was lots of yelling and screaming, Germans and inmates screaming to leave everything and just get in line.”
Alex turned to his family, asking his mother to come with him to be assigned to forced labour, where they had a better chance of survival.
“My mother would not leave my siblings,” he said. He was the only member of his family not sent to the gas chamber that day.
In the camp, Alex discovered the true purpose of Auschwitz — the Nazis were exterminating as many Jews as possible in a monstrously efficient system. From the barrack where he stayed with other kids, Alex watched trainloads of people sorted each day.
“Some of them came through the camp like we did. Most of them, maybe in an hour or two, the chimney of the crematorium was black with smoke. It smelled like flesh. Terrible,” he said. “This was only the beginning of my knowledge of what was going on.”
The months he was there, he stuck with a group of five or six boys from his hometown. “We make the best of a bad situation, kind of supporting each other and talking about before the war,” Alex said. Only two from that group survived.
Neither Alex nor Eva were in Auschwitz the day it was liberated.
He was on a death march in the bitter cold. The snow was up to his thighs. He walked for more than 300 kilometres to a different concentration camp in occupied Poland and was transported by train to another in Austria.
In the spring, he was forced to march to the Gunskirchen concentration camp. Alex, near the back, watched as Germans with submachine guns shot anyone who couldn’t walk anymore. He remembers a son refusing to leave his dying father’s side and they were both killed on the spot.
“I don’t know how to describe this horror of things. This kept me going, must go on, must go on,” Alex said.
The day American troops liberated Gunskirchen, May 4, 1945, Alex said he felt a weight had been lifted, but the horrors weren’t over.
Drone footage captures Auschwitz-Birkeanu. Story continues below.
He joined a group of prisoners who went into the town in search of food, and they discovered a store of canned preserves at a train station. He watched as others, starving, ate too much and died right there.
“For a full year, my life hung on a little string that could break at any minute. It was just luck that I survived,” he said.
After the war, Alex discovered his family’s home had been converted to a horse barn. Only two uncles had survived. In search of a better life, Alex hid in a truck and smuggled himself to Germany where he lived at children’s camp and learned to sail.
“It was nice to be a kid again,” he said. “I enjoyed sailing. It’s very quiet, and relaxing.”
One day sailing on a lake with a friend, Alex saw another couple’s boat capsize. He said he rushed over and saved the man and woman from drowning. “I was the hero for a day,” he said, laughing.
The man thanked Alex by giving him his watch. In late 1947, he boarded a ship to Canada and sold the watch for $10 to a sailor. That’s all the money hen had in his pocket.
He built a life for himself in Toronto, and now has four daughters, three step children, and 16 grandchildren. They regard him as stoic and empathetic, with a love for life that’s precious, Lisa said.
“When my children talk about him, it’s always, ‘I have my grandpa’s DNA in me and I can do anything,’” said Lisa, through tears. “It has taught them that no matter what, they have strength. They’re so proud of him.”
Eva was deported to the Stutthof concentration camp in August 1944. Carved into the wood of a barracks, Eva spotted a message. It was from her two sisters.
They’d carved their names, “Sapsowtiz, Edith and Margit” and “Tell others who know us that we were here and we don’t know where they are taking us.”
She believes she’d just missed them.
Eventually, Eva was taken to a forest, where she planted rows of wires for land mines. In the winter of 1945, she said she was forced to walk for six days, more than 150 kilometres south, with no food or water — she survived on snow.
On Jan. 25, 1945, she arrived at Torun concentration camp and within a few days the Russian soldiers arrived and released the prisoners, but provided no medical care or provisions, she said. Eva walked again, for months, all the way to Slovakia. She fainted in an eastern town, and ended up in a hospital.
By July she was strong enough to return to Hungary, she said. In Budapest, she lived at a home for orphan Jewish girls, and then met her future husband, Miklos Gelbman. He’d also been imprisoned in Auschwitz and upon liberation, at the age of 21, weighed 66 pounds, Eva said. Most of his family, including his parents, had also perished.
Life was not easy for them. Their first two children died, she said. In 1956, they escaped the Hungarian Revolution with a three-year-old, Kathy, to the United States, but they were deported the next year to Austria. Eva gave birth to Gabi in a refugee camp.
Finally, after 20 years of upheaval, the family settled in Montreal. Miklos died in 1988.
Kathy and Gabi don’t remember a time when they weren’t aware of the Holocaust.
“It’s something I knew, it’s like a language, you speak it,” Gabi said.
“It’s like every cell of your body. It’s as familiar to you as your hand or foot,” said Kathy. “It’s part of your life and their life.”
Watch: Holocaust survivors remind us why we can never forget.
Everytime Eva made soup, she’d fish out the vegetables used to flavour the broth — cooked onion and peppers and celery — and put them aside, said Kathy.
“Before she threw it out, my father would say, ‘Wouldn’t we have given anything to have that there.’ It’s little comments like that you don’t pay attention to until you start thinking about why you’re behaving like you’re behaving. You realize it’s had an impact on you that you’ve never understood.”
Eva now has four grandchildren and six great grandchildren — a dream she’s had since Kathy was little a girl asking why she didn’t have any living grandparents.
“I love all of them. I’m crazy about them and I promised when I was young and Kathy cried because she didn’t have a grandma or grandpa, I decided when I am a grandmother I will be very good and I kept my promise,” Eva said.