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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 May 2006, 17:14 GMT 18:14 UK
Survivor braves Auschwitz return
Roman Halter
The Auschwitz visit rekindled difficult emotions for Roman Halter
German-born Pope Benedict XVI will visit the Nazi German death camp at Auschwitz on Sunday to honour victims of the Holocaust, most of whom were Jews.

Auschwitz survivor Roman Halter went back to the camp and told the BBC's Krzysztof Dzieciolowski about his painful memories.

Sixty-one years after the war ended, Roman Halter has returned to his home town Chodecz, in central Poland.

The memories are fresh and the history is still painful for a man who was born here in 1927 - the same year that Pope Benedict XVI was born in Marktl in Germany.

"It is like a language you haven't practised for a long time... a clock that still ticks away. I see people, the traders, the synagogue, those who went to the market... they are everywhere.

"I see them in my mind's eye, it causes inner pain... and yet the joy when I was here as a child, this was the centre of my universe," he says.

The world of pre-war Chodecz is long gone. It was already gone in 1945. Mr Halter is one of four survivors out of an 800-strong Jewish community and the only one from his family. He doesn't hide his emotions.

"Family, friends, they are no longer here. I am coming to a ghost town. During the war, the dream of coming back to Chodecz was a comforting dream. I saw a form of rejuvenation, a new life... and when I came back after it was liberated there was this utter emptiness.

"Polish people were preoccupied with their lives," he says.

Lost childhood

Today, Mr Halter is a retired artist in London.

Jewish prisoners
You could feel it was a terrible place. We thought without knowing it must be the journey's end
Roman Halter

But there is much emotion here, in a small grey building on the outskirts of this little town where his father once worked as a timber trader.

The Jewish community is long forgotten here.

When Mr Halter came to see the house a year ago he was welcomed. It was different this year.

The fear of Jewish people coming back to regain their property sometimes leads to a painful resolution. This time, Mr Halter was not let into his old home.

"I don't feel any animosity to the people here, even with their prejudices; even when they have benefited in this basic way of occupying my parents' house. They are living and they are afraid they would be evicted. I would not want that to happen," he says.

Family tragedies

When World War II started, Mr Halter was 12 years old. When it ended he was 17.

During those six years, Mr Halter's family was obliterated in the gas chambers of the concentration camps.

In the forest near Chelmno, on the river Ner, human bones are still visible as excavation works at the site of the camp are carried out.

Poland's Jewish population was targeted in the Holocaust
Mr Halter bows his head in contemplation and recalls his closest family. His sister and her two children, aged eight and six, perished here.

"They were brought here... what more is there to be said?

"It went on day after day. They were gassed in these lorries, there were screams, each one of them who went into the lorry was told they were going to be cleaned and bathed," he says.

But he also emphasises that they are still alive, at least in his memory.

Journey to hell

Mr Halter himself ended up in the Lodz ghetto. One day, in August 1944 when the Germans began to liquidate the ghetto, he was on a cattle truck bound for Auschwitz.

"There was no water but buckets for ablution. People fainted. Soon some were lying in a mire. Some passed out, some died. It was a terrible journey, everybody felt despondent," he says.

The journey was two and a half days long. There was no food, no water, no air. The transport arrived at the crack of the dawn. The light was just breaking.

"People used to hug and cry and moan and when they opened the trucks people didn't want to leave. They were pushed out and fell out like pieces of coal from a cart. We were weak and disoriented. Some were already dead and some were semi-dead."

Sombre message

The unimaginable reality of that day still haunts him.

Father George
It's a shadow that will never leave us
Father George
German priest

"You could smell the flesh being burned. They took us out and we had to undress. They shaved us and put us in disinfectant," he says.

On the very railway ramp in Auschwitz-Birkenau where he was once offloaded, Roman Halter met up with young students from Belgium and Germany. He wanted to tell them how it was being their age more than 60 years ago.

"You never looked anybody in the eyes. You learned the techniques of survival.

"You didn't learn Latin or French. You learned how to get on. In the morning, when you stood to roll-call, you never knew if you were going to live five, 10 minutes or a day... nothing was certain," he says.

Mr Halter's best years were stolen from him and children on the ramp could feel it. Asked by a young student from Belgium what kept him alive, his answer was clear, short and with a notion of hope.

"Life. The love of life. A young person nursed his bruises and just wanted to go on," he said.

Here in Auschwitz, Pope Benedict XVI will pay tribute on Sunday to the victims of the Holocaust, including Roman Halter's family.

Roman Halter with young Auschwitz visitors
Roman Halter wants young people to know what it was like
For German priest Father George, who comes here with students almost every year, it is not an easy place, but a thought-provoking one.

"Sometimes I feel guilty. What happens in a world without God is my question. I am a Roman Catholic priest and in every generation it happens, but our German generation, they were guilty," he said.

Roman Halter spent 10 days in the camp. Then he found a shelter in the hands of Germans near Dresden after he had fled the Death March.

For him, it is important these days to convey a message of reconciliation. He does not hate Germans.

"I find that they don't bear hatred, ill-will, but they bear a certain guilt.

"They are slightly shocked to be confronted with someone whose family was wiped out, because they thought I would be spitting into their faces - it comes to them quite as a shock," he says.

Lost community

Before the war, Poland was home to a 3.5 million-strong Jewish community. It was vibrant and the second largest in the world. Today there are no more than 30,000.

In Krakow's famous Jewish quarter Kazimierz, Roman Halter met ginger-haired, 25-year-old Tadeusz Wolenski to talk about Polish anti-Semitism.

"Here in Krakow, I don't feel it. People are curious, they would like to know my story."

When challenged by Mr Halter, who remembers that "there was an undercurrent of softly spoken anti-Semitism" a long time ago, Mr Wolenski has an answer:

"There are different qualities of this anti-Semitism. It's strong in words, in language, curses connected to Jews. But the more loudly we say there are Jews in Poland, the more the people are going to be open."

Watch Roman Halter's emotional return to Auschwitz

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