Article and video published on CBSnews on February 16th 2020
The pictures were an afterthought. Once Soviet soldiers had liberated Auschwitz in January 1945, they realized they needed a record. They needed to show the world the horror they had discovered. So, they dressed survivors back up in their uniforms and paraded them around for the cameras.
Who were they, these human beings the Nazis had reduced to numbers? What became of them?
The little boy, B-1148, four years old then? His name is Michael Bornstein. Now 79, he lives in New Jersey and tells his story in schools, showing his numbered tattoo.
The nine-year-old girl, number A-60989? Ruth Muschkies Webber, now 84, from Michigan.
Correspondent Martha Teichner asked Webber, "Did you, as a child there, understand what was happening at Auschwitz?"
"The woman told me that gave me the number that if I don't behave myself, I'll go up in smoke," Webber replied.
Webber and Bornstein were among the 200 or so survivors who went back last month to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz – their numbers dwindling. They sat in a tent covering their Ground Zero, the spot where the railroad tracks ended, where the cattle cars filled with people stopped.
This tribute to the living was also an elegy, a lament for the dead.
One-point-one-million people died at Auschwitz, most of them Jews, but also Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, gypsies, and others as well. Mainly, they were herded into gas chambers, and then incinerated in adjoining crematoria … efficiently, as many as 6,000 a day.
Auschwitz 1 was the camp with the famous gate; its motto, Arbeit Macht Frei ("Work makes you free"), a mockery to anyone who passed under it. Auschwitz 2 was its much bigger neighbor at Birkenau, where Dr. Josef Mengele carried out his gruesome medical experiments.
Just before the camps were liberated, the Nazis blew up the crematoria at Birkenau. Nearby is where they dumped the ashes of the people they killed.
You think you're prepared for what you'll see – the evidence of mass murder – but you're not, even if you've been here before. Witness the suitcases, eyeglasses, toys, a mountain of shoes.
"The children's shoes, what it says … look at this: this child couldn't have been more than two or three years old, if that. What a shame," said cosmetics billionaire Ronald Lauder, who helped raise the $40 million it cost to open a conservation lab at Auschwitz.
Teichner asked, "The 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, as opposed to the 70th or the 60th or 50th. Why is this one so very important?"
"They're all important, but this is very important, 'cause it's one of the last ones we will do when we have the survivors," Lauder replied.
Preserving Auschwitz has been Lauder's mission since his first visit in 1987, while he was the U.S. Ambassador to Austria. He is chairman of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation, and president of the World Jewish Congress.
Teichner asked him, "When you walk around here, when you see what's here to see, what goes through your mind? What do you feel?"
"Well, for me, I feel ghosts," Lauder replied. "I feel people all around me, 'cause I've been through here with survivors, and they told me, 'This is the place where my father was killed.' 'This is the place where my little brother was taken away from me.' Every place here has a story, and I've been there with survivors, and they tell me what happened."
He won't say how much exactly, but admits he's personally given tens of millions of dollars so that these objects will bear witness long after survivors of Auschwitz are dead.
"The one word that symbolizes what happened to the Jewish people was the word Auschwitz," Lauder said. "It's the largest cemetery in the world. There are a million people buried here. We are now three generations later, and what do we see over and over again is that people forgot."
According to a recent Pew poll, fewer than half of U.S. adults (45%) know that six million Jews died in the Holocaust. A 2018 study found that more than six out of ten American millennials can't identify what Auschwitz is, and more than one out of five haven't heard of the Holocaust, or aren't sure.
For Ruth Webber, the memory never goes away. Teichner asked her, "To this day, do you have flashbacks?"
"Yes," she replied.
"And from the minute you got off the train, were you afraid?"
"Afraid? I was always afraid. There wasn't a minute that I was not afraid, except when I was in my mother's arms. Or at night, when I hugged her and held onto her. I was always afraid. You never knew when something is going to happen. Never.
"You saw a German with a gun, and my mother would say to me when we passed by, 'Don't look, because if somebody sees you looking, they'll shoot you.'"
Her mother survived; her father did not.
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