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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 January, 2005, 16:36 GMT
'I met my future wife in Auschwitz'
By Elliott Gotkine
BBC News, Buenos Aires

David and Perla Szumiraj
David and Perla now have three great-grandchildren
Amid the horrors of the Nazi death camps, somehow, some people managed to survive. One such couple is David Szumiraj and his wife Perla, who actually met in Auschwitz. For the past 58 years, they have been living in Buenos Aires.

With a hose in his hand and the sun on his face, David Szumiraj sprays water on his beloved potted plants.

Looking at this jovial octogenarian, with his infectious smile and healthy tan, you would never guess that he had been through the horrors of Auschwitz - or that 42 members of his family were murdered in the Holocaust.

David's nightmare began in the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, in central Poland, towards the end of 1942. He describes how one day, everyone on his street was rounded up by German soldiers and taken to train wagons.

Because through our eyes we were sure - both she and me - that we'd found the person we loved... we felt that we were made for each other
David Szumiraj
"We travelled for three days in the wagons, without eating, without drinking, going to the toilet in the wagons, because there was nowhere else for us to do it," he says.

David found himself in Auschwitz. His left forearm was branded with the number 1 4 5 0 8 6.

Life became a daily battle for survival.

"Every now and then there were selections to separate the strong people from the weakest ones. Naked, they looked at you from one side to the other," David says.

"On one occasion, the person in charge looked at me and said: 'Links' (German for 'left'). He sent me to the left, which was for the gas chamber. He was about 2m tall. I jumped up. And I grabbed his lapels and I shouted in his face: 'I'm young. I'm very strong. Let me live. I can work.'

"And you could see that he and the other SS who were there were itching for their revolvers. Who was going to kill me? [But] he said: 'Leave him - go to the right.'"

First kiss

During his three years at Auschwitz, David passed a total of 19 selections.

Inmates that were not despatched to the gas chambers and crematoria were made to work. David attended to the potato fields, and that was where he met his wife Perla, who washed vegetables.

Number branded on David's forearm
David still has the number on his forearm
Sixty years on, she still finds it too upsetting to talk about her experiences.

David explains how the two of them would make eye contact when no-one else was around.

"We couldn't talk, so we just looked at each other," he says. "We didn't meet until they [the Germans] told us they were going to evacuate the men and women out of Auschwitz separately.

"When we arrived at work that morning, we walked the 25m to the middle of the field and we began to talk. It was already inside us, the idea that we were a couple, that we were going to get married.

"Because through our eyes we were sure - both she and me - that we'd found the person we loved. So, we took each other's hand, we embraced, we kissed for the first time, and we felt that we were made for each other."

Separation

Just days before the Soviet army would liberate Auschwitz, the Nazis began evacuating the camp.

Perla and David in 1945
The couple were separated but found each other after the war
More than 50,000 men and women were led deep into German-controlled territory, in what became known as the Death March.

"The day we had to leave Auschwitz, we left on the trains. And the wagons were open, with no roof. There were 140 people in each wagon, cramped together.

"We started one day, two days, three days, four days. Snow was falling. But that was nothing. It helped us because we gathered the snow to eat. But once a week had gone by, people started to die."

By now, the Nazis were in full-scale retreat. The train David was travelling in came under attack by British fighter planes.

He and his fellow inmates fled into some nearby woods. He weighed just 38kg. Starved and exhausted, he ate the grass. To this day, David says he cannot bring himself to eat lettuce.

He was eventually picked up by US troops. With the war over, he joined the US army in Berlin as a translator.

But he knew nothing about Perla, where she was or even if she was still alive.

Reunited

He heard about a camp in Hamburg where the women had numbers tattooed on their arms. A friend of David's went to the camp to look for Perla. He returned a few months later with some good news.

"He told me Perla had said: 'David's alive? And he loves me? And he wants to get married? Yes, I'm coming.' So, she came [to my army base]. She jumped out from behind a tree which she was hiding behind. And we looked at each other. And we both cried. We both laughed, and that's where we found each other."

After they were married, they moved to Paris and had their first child, before deciding to emigrate to Buenos Aires, where David's remaining family members were living.

But getting to Argentina was not easy for Jews. Argentina's government had supported the Nazis during the war, and had issued a secret order, effectively banning Jewish immigrants.

To enter Argentina, many Jews said they were Catholic. For others, the only way in was to pay large bribes.

David's family didn't have the $20,000 needed to secure visas for him and his wife, so they went to neighbouring Paraguay, where they got in touch with people smugglers who would take them to Argentina.

They left by boat in the middle of the night.

"I had to tape up my daughter's mouth," David says, laughing.

When they finally arrived in Buenos Aires, David's family was waiting.

"They'd already prepared for us a lunch the likes of which I hadn't seen for more than six years," David says. "That was 12 March 1947. And then in 1954, they gave us Argentine citizenship."

Next month, David and Perla will celebrate their 59th wedding anniversary. They have two children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Sixty years after they passed through the centrepiece of Hitler's Holocaust, David and Perla Szumiraj know they are lucky to be alive.



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