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1945: 'It was a miracle to leave Auschwitz'

Czech-born Yehuda Bacon was just 14 years old when he arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in December 1943.

Six months later his father was killed in the gas chambers. His mother and sister, Hanna, were sent to another camp in Austria where they died two weeks before the war ended.

Sixty years after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, he tells the story of his survival to his daughter, BBC On This Day journalist Hanna White.

"I remember the day I left Auschwitz very well - January 18 1945.

The Russians were coming nearer and the Germans were emptying the camp, sending those who could work to other camps.

Only a couple of thousand prisoners were left and we knew we would be sent away but we didn't know where.

I had been there a whole year so I had good connections with prisoners who had important jobs like distributing clothes. Those prisoners had been told to get clothes ready for those who were leaving.

It was a miracle to leave Auschwitz. But that was the beginning of the so-called death march.

We didn't know what lay ahead and actually the last months of the war until May 1945 were the worst and it is a wonder that I survived.

But I had hope. I always had hope because that was the only thing that was left.

Death march to Mauthausen

It took about three days and it was the winter and very cold. Anyone who couldn't continue, who was last in line, was shot. There were a lot of people that were shot.

My friends and I helped each other to drag ourselves along day and night on foot.

After that first death march to Mauthausen camp in Austria I said to myself, "Thank God my father went to the gas chambers." He wouldn't have been able to do what I had done - it was too much and too horrible.

After two and a half months there we were sent on another death march to Gunskirchen in Austria, a camp in the middle of a forest. There were no facilities, no food, water or clothes.

Liberation

We were liberated on 5 May.

That morning the guards had abandoned the camp but they had poisoned the food before they left.

When we realised the guards had gone we rushed to the store room to look for food.

I tried to take a huge piece of margarine.

Another prisoner, who was still strong, wanted to steal it from me. I held it tight in my pocket, so he just took a razor, opened the pocket and took it away.

But he actually saved my life because not only had it been poisoned but my body wasn't used to so much food and I would have died if I had eaten it.

All the other prisoners went to the nearest village, which was overwhelmed by so many starving people. The villagers gave them food and they died just from eating this food because their bodies weren't used to it.

My friend Wolfie and I went in the opposite direction because we had this crazy idea to go to Switzerland.

We didn't know how far it was but we thought in Switzerland there was the Red Cross and we could get some information about what was going on.

After walking for about an hour we met some American soldiers and they helped us. We only knew a few words in English and we asked for bread.

They said, "We are so sorry, we don't have bread. We are the first ones here - but we can give you some cookies and some little bits of cheese"!

But I couldn't even swallow one bite of this wonderful cheese. I was very ill by then and had a high fever - we both had typhoid.

The soldiers had been told not to take any of the camp prisoners with them because of the diseases they might have.

Luckily one of these soldiers was Jewish and he took us to a hospital in Steier, Austria.

He also spoke German and threatened the hospital staff with his gun saying: "These boys had better survive, or else." And the Catholic nuns who ran this hospital cured us - they were very kind. But we were the only two ex-prisoners in this hospital so they were able to help us.

It was then that I looked in the mirror for the first time in three years and I was horrified by my own face. But slowly I got used it, I recovered and went to Prague.

At that time I hoped that my sister and mother were alive. But I later found out they had died in Stutthof camp in Poland two weeks before the end of the war. They had survived typhus but were given no food, so they died of hunger.

Trying to tell our story

After the war, I dedicated my life to being an artist - at first to describe what I saw, in a childish way.

Later I realised people were not interested in these stories - neither in Europe, nor in Israel. I guess our stories were too strong, too unbelievable, too hard to understand or they just couldn't bear it.

They would go quiet when I started to tell them something. I thought I would tell them and people would learn and behave better.

I think I am somehow obliged because I survived to tell the story of the people who didn't survive but what happens to the story is beyond my control. I hope that maybe someone, some time, somewhere will learn something from it.

My drawings were used in trials and books about the Holocaust. I thought I had to draw, I had to say what I experienced in the hope that someone would learn from it.

In Israel they have one day of commemoration of the Holocaust every year where they have films and lectures and so on - a little too much, in my opinion.

But that is mainly for the other people who didn't experience it. For us, the ones who survived, we live with it every day. We don't have to have a special day.

I know some people are so full of hate they won't speak to Germans and so on.

But thanks to the most wonderful people I met after the war who somehow spiritually and mentally saved me I came to the conclusion that you can forgive someone who accepts their own guilt.

I was a teacher for 35 years and I tried through education to tell my story. That is more constructive than the destructive forces of hate, which mainly kills your own self."

In Context
More than a million people - most of them Jewish - were killed in Auschwitz as part of the Nazis' genocide of European Jews and others during World War II.

Yehuda Bacon was brought to Israel by the Jewish organisation Youth Aliyah in 1946 and lives in Jerusalem.

As a child inmate of Auschwitz Yehuda worked on the transport detail, pushing round cartloads of clothing, wood and sometimes ashes from the crematorium, which he had to spread on the pathways.

He had an overview of the camp and how it worked. The drawings he produced after the war were used in evidence at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who organised the transportation of thousands of Jews to the death camps, in 1961 and the Auschwitz trial in 1964.

He is now retired from teaching at Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem but continues to paint and holds exhibitions of his work in Europe and the USA.

The US soldier who took him to hospital was Stanley Leeper from Toledo, Ohio. He got in touch with Yehuda after seeing him interviewed on TV about the Eichmann trial. He died in the 1980s.

Wolfie Adler later became a rabbi and now lives in Israel and has written a book about his experiences.


Web Links
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum |  Yad Vashem - Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority
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