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Thursday, 8 June, 2000, 09:47 GMT 10:47 UK
Fresh look at Holocaust
The UK's first permanent national Holocaust exhibition opens this week, exploring both the horror of the concentration camps and the everyday humiliations the Jews, gypsies and homosexuals suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
The exhibition opens to the public on Wednesday at London's Imperial War Museum, 55 years after the end of World War II.
"This has just come in time because we are getting older and we are old, we are the only witnesses that can say it really happened," says concentration camp survivor Ruth Foster, a German Jew, who appears in the exhibition's audio-visual displays.
Ranged amongst the grainy photographs of hollow-eyed internees and archive footage of Adolf Hitler - "They say we're a bunch of anti-Semitic rowdies - so we are, we want to stir up a storm" - are artefacts from the Nazis' time in power.
There is a box of hair swatches and glass eyes, used by race scientists to test for Aryan characteristics.
A marble table bears testament to grisly experiments in euthanasia which were carried out on psychiatric patients.
There is a scrawled letter to a lover, thrown from a cattle wagon en route to Auschwitz in the hope a railway worker would post it.
Atrocities of war
As Ruth Foster recounts her harrowing experiences during the Nazis' time in power, her voice shakes, her eyes clamp shut with grief and horror.
"I lost over 40 members of my family, they were all taken away.
"They have no graves, they have no resting-place. I don't know where they are, but they were definitely brutally killed," she says.
Ruth was 10 when the Nazis took power in 1933, and her life of comfort and happiness became a struggle for survival: "Life was very difficult, very hard - people were afraid to talk to us."
In December 1941, her family was deported to Latvia and boarded a train to the Riga ghetto.
She recalls: "We had no food, no water. The further east we came, the colder it got. The windows froze over, the toilets were frozen and everything flowed over.
"People died, babies died, people committed suicide."
On reaching their destination, the German soldiers forced them to march four miles (6km) to the ghetto in -30°C and howling winds.
Those that could not walk were loaded onto lorries and gassed.
Ruth says: "When the commandant came to the ghetto, he would at random take people off the streets and shoot them against the wall of the cemetery."
'My poor father'
In May 1942, a fellow labourer gave Ruth's father a few extra hunks of bread. The German guards found the bread, and marched her father back to the ghetto in handcuffs.
"The commandant killed him with a Hess revolver, shot him in the back. That was the end of my poor father."
The Germans also prevented the women from falling pregnant, she says, and those who did were forced to have abortions or emergency caesareans in unsanitary surgeries.
"One mother carried her baby for nine months and this baby was born in the ghetto. She called him Ben Ghetto - son of the ghetto.
"When the SS found out that she had borne a child, she was called to the headquarters. She had to kill her own child by pressing in the soft part of the baby's head which closes after nine months."
The Germans closed the ghetto in November 1943 and sent the survivors to work in labour camps.
Ruth Foster's voice breaks as she describes how the SS played God, deciding who would live and who would die.
"I lost my mother because her working group had come back to the barracks before mine. When I went to her bed, I saw that she wasn't in there.
"I presumed that she had been taken - I tried to either get her out of the group or join her, but I was too late.
"I was beaten by SS, who had surrounded the yard, with rifle butts and I still bear the scars on my back where they had maltreated me. But I couldn't rescue my mother."
"When I was liberated, I weighed just over three stone - not quite 40kg. A body that goes to that has lived through a lot."
Visitors to the exhibition can also examine wartime documents in which the Allies debated how to stop the genocide.
Yet many of the servicemen fighting in Europe had little idea of what they would find when the German forces pulled out.
Jim Wheeler, 81, served with the 11 Light Field Ambulance, which helped clear Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945.
The retreating Germans had requested help to prevent the Jews with typhus from leaving the area - his unit was sent in at dawn.
"It was a lovely morning - the sun was shining, we had the Germans on the run, and then we came across this big red sign in the road with 'typhus' written across it.
"We didn't know what to expect. We found thousands of dead, thousands of emaciated people all over the place."
His 200-strong regiment spent six weeks burying the dead, and treating and feeding the survivors.
"I guess the one image I will never forget is seeing bodies bulldozed into pits."
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