International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp in 1945.
For Auschwitz survivor Cipora Feivlovich, the date is doubly significant. It will be her 92nd birthday.
She says it is vital the world, especially the younger generations, remember the Holocaust and the reign of terror the Nazis inflicted on millions of people.
On 27 January 1945 Soviet infantrymen walked through the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp into a world of horror.
The troops of the Soviet 322nd infantry division cut the surrounding barbed wire and swept through, becoming the first outsiders to glimpse the death camp in southern Poland.
By the time the Soviet unit arrived, most of the prisoners had been forced on death marches by the Nazis as German troops fled towards Germany.
There were about 7,000 prisoners left alive inside the camp.
Auschwitz was a death factory where the Nazis murdered 1.5 million people, many of them Jews who perished in gas chambers or died of starvation and disease.
Cipora Feivlovich spent time in Auschwitz as a teenager.
Feivlovich’s birthday is also January 27, a bittersweet date for her as it marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz death camp in 1945.
She grew up in a Transylvanian village with a large Jewish population and lived a pretty normal life until she was 14, when she and the other Jewish students were kicked out of school.
Her family hid in their home for the following years, fearful of their anti-Semitic neighbours, and naively waiting for the storm to pass.
But then the Nazis arrived in 1944, yanked them from their house in the middle of the night and crammed them and all the other Jews into the local synagogue.
Feivlovich recalls the moment with stark clarity.
“We were taken from our home, we were kicked out from our home in the middle of the night, we left everything behind. We were taken to our big synagogue, it was left intact. Our town was very religious, very orthodox, there were lots of Jews, and they try to squeeze all the Jews into the synagogue, they threw all the benches outside and there is no room, it is extremely crowded,” she said.
“There are disabled, ill and pregnant women, babies and everyone there and there are horrible screams. Two days we sat on the floor, you can’t leave for the bathrooms, people relieved themselves where they were sitting. After two days we are kicked out to the streets. They arranged us in fives, on both sides of the street. The gentiles (non Jews) are standing and clapping their hands ‘bravo, we are getting rid of the Jews’ Indeed they did get rid us. Not even one Jews remained in that town.”
After a brief stay in a Hungarian ghetto, they were deported. They spent three days in atrocious conditions journeying to Auschwitz, each cattle wagon packed shoulder to shoulder.
“As much as we heard about Auschwitz Birkenau, we heard everything and we still believed maybe they will take us to forced labour camps. We thought of everything, just not about the worst thing possible. Three days and three nights the train travelled non-stop,” she recalled.
“They never opened the door to ask if anyone died. My grandfather died there while standing. You couldn’t even lay him down. And in that miserable state we got to the final destination. The doors are opened and we realised where we were. We got the ramp of Birkenau and immediately the doors opened, people with striped uniforms known as the Sonderkommando (who were prisoners) and they started yelling into the carts ‘young mothers hand your babies to your grandmothers or aunts and maybe you will live.’”
Feivlovich and her younger sister were thrown to one side, the boys to the other. They never saw their parents again.
“We didn’t understand why we were separated from our parents, we wanted to stay with them, we weren’t asked. And immediately when they finished the selection for thousands of young women and girls, we were thousands since the train is very long, and immediately we get an order to come back to the gate,” she said.
“We went back there. There was a road in front of the gate and there are huge blocks. We got to the first block, all of us the thousands of us, and we immediately got an order to go into the first block. We went in the block and the Nazis are everywhere and they immediately gave an order ‘everyone get completely naked’. We were shy so we left our underpants on.”
The girls were ordered to strip. Their hair was cut and they were hosed with freezing water and marched outside naked, shivering with cold and shame.
After finally getting a single dress to wear, they were approached by Josef Mengele - the infamous Nazi doctor at the Auschwitz death camp who carried out horrific medical experiments on prisoners. He was never captured and died in 1979.
The image of Mengele and what he said remains with Feivlovich today.
“We see in the background a tall man arriving all polished and shiny, something unreal, he comes to the head of the line and yells: ‘I am Mengele, do you know why you were led here to Auschwitz Birkenau? Whoever is not needed for the Third Reich will go there’, and he points towards two huge chimneys and we all stand there and look and then he explains “You see the first chimney, that thick black smoke is because the Jews have a lot of fat, and when the fat burns it creates thick and black smoke. But in the other chimney, all your beloved and all your families went up in flames.”
By the time Auschwitz was liberated, Feivlovich had already been forced into labour at a German armament factory.
There a Nazi nurse took pity on her throughout an illness until the camp commander ordered she be given a mysterious injection for talking back and refusing to to the sign of the cross.
She awoke after two days and by then the war was winding down and the allies bombing campaign was getting closer. The Nazis disappeared and soon an American tank broke through with Yiddish-speaking soldiers comforting the dazed and emaciated inmates.
Her parents, brother and best friend all died in Auschwitz. Her sister did survive, and went on to marry and have children, but she died when she was still young.
Despite witnessing daily atrocities and fearing that the toxic food and injections she was given would make her infertile, Feivlovich eventually married a fellow orphaned survivor and together they built a vast new family tree, with dozens of grand-children, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.
Feivlovich says in recent years her birthday has become “obligating,” particularly since her husband Pinchas passed away in 2007 and left her with a lasting plea.
“My husband demanded of me ‘don’t stop talking about the Holocaust because if we don’t speak about it there will be enough Holocaust deniers after us’. Don’t take it (criticisms) to heart and this is what I am doing. I don’t just live the Holocaust. It is important for me to speak about it, but when I’m finished it’s all over and I resume living my life.”
Six million Jews were killed by German Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust, wiping out a third of the world’s Jews.
Some 150,000 elderly survivors remain in Israel today, with a similar number worldwide.
Israel’s main Holocaust Memorial Day is in the spring, marking the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, while the United Nations designated Jan. 27 as the annual international commemoration, marking the date of Auschwitz’s liberation in 1945, and coincidentally the day Feivlovich turned 18.
Feivlovich said: “If they are not remembered it is all forgotten. It is true that 74 years have passed, but we are still living and if we can still remind the youth and the people of Israel and everyone, also in Germany and everywhere (what happened).
“It is important to us, that they remember. What sin did my parents commit aged 48 to be burned alive? Why? And this is my cry in Germany. Look at what your Nazis did. For what? What were their sins? Who did they harm? And that is what’s important.”