How a 98-year-old Auschwitz survivor is paying his ‘duty to the dead’

Leon Schwarzbaum is one of the last survivors of Auschwitz -- the Nazi death camp that Chancellor Angela Merkel will be visiting for the first time on Friday.

How a 98-year-old Auschwitz survivor is paying his 'duty to the dead'
Schwarzbaum at a ceremony in Potsdam in July. After 80 years he received his high school diploma. Photo: DPA

At 98, he says his “duty to the dead” is to bear witness about what happened to him.

“I had the good fortune to survive. My family did not,” Schwarzbaum told AFP in an interview in his elegant apartment on the outskirts of Berlin.

Schwarzbaum was sent to Auschwitz in occupied Poland at the age of 22. His
parents were gassed to death on the day they arrived at the camp in July 1943.

In total, 35 members of his family were killed.

Schwarzbaum survived two years in Auschwitz, working as a forced labourer for Siemens, until he was taken away by fleeing Nazi troops as the Allies advanced.

READ ALSO: 'I weighed 32 kilos': Auschwitz survivors remember a living hell

Of the terrifying things he saw, one image of prisoners being driven to the gas chambers has haunted him his whole life.

“Naked people in a truck — their arms in the air praying to the heavens. They were crying,” he said.

Schwarzbaum in 2016 holds up a photo of his uncle and his parents, all three who lost their lives in Auschwitz. Photo: DPA

A cold sun shines through the windows of Schwarzbaum's apartment, filled with antique furniture, paintings and memories of a lifetime.

He shields his eyes from the sun with a wrinkled hand as he remembers the actions of the SS paramilitaries who ruled Auschwitz.

“The SS were there to take away people's names, to destroy their existence,” he said.

They tried to reduce Schwarzbaum to a prisoner number.

He lifts up the left sleeve of his woollen jumper to show the tattoo on his arm: “132 – 6 – 24”.

'I did not know whom I could tell' 

Schwarzbaum, who is Jewish, grew up in Bedzin, a town some 60 kilometres
from Auschwitz.

He visited a few years ago and the poster of a documentary about his return
hangs above the mantlepiece.

But he has never wanted to move back.

Despite the painful memories, he moved to Berlin after the war because he had some friends there.

“They were now my family,” he said.

In divided Berlin, he fell in love with the woman who became his wife and they opened an antiques shop in front of the KaDeWe department store.

His wife, who died in 2012, still smiles at him from a framed picture in front of him.

For decades, Schwarzbaum kept his story to himself.

“I did not know whom I could tell about these monstrosities,” he said.

Nobody wanted to hear the survivors.

But in the 1970s, a wedding party on Wannsee lake outside Berlin brought back the horror.

Someone sitting next to him at the party asked: “Where were you during the war, my friend? I was in the SS.”

Schwarzbaum's wife answered for him: “My husband was at Auschwitz”.

'There is no forgiveness'

In his last years, Schwarzbaum has started to bear witness more frequently to younger generations and in front of the courts.

In February 2016, he told his story at the trial of former Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning, 93, one of the last on the Nazi era.

Schwarzbaum came out of it profoundly disappointed.

Schwarzbaum at a trial of former Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning in 2016. Photo: DPA

Hanning did not speak during the hearings, only providing a written confession.

A few minutes before the verdict which sentenced him to five years in prison, Schwarzbaum gave him a letter that he now reads, sitting on the edge of his sofa.

“There is no forgiveness. Only the people you killed as a member of the SS can forgive,” he wrote.

Hanning did not reply to the letter. He died in 2017.

On January 27th, the freezing weather means Schwarzbaum will not go to Auschwitz for ceremonies to mark the 75th anniversary of the camp's liberation.

A few days later, he will celebrate his 99th birthday.

READ ALSO: Merkel set to visit Auschwitz as Germany battles resurgence of anti-Semitism

By Yannick Pasquet

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‘We will fight for our Germany’: Holocaust survivor issues warning to far right

Holocaust survivor Charlotte Knobloch on Wednesday called for a stronger defence of the country's "fragile" democracy and issued a searing rebuke to the far right: "We will fight for our Germany".

'We will fight for our Germany': Holocaust survivor issues warning to far right
Knobloch addressing the Bundestag on Wednesday. Photo: DPA

In an emotional speech to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Knobloch told the Bundestag lower house of parliament that extremists and conspiracy theorists were exploiting fears around the pandemic and a diversifying society.

“We must not forget for a single day how fragile the precious achievements of the last 76 years are” since the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp on January 27th, 1945.

“Anti-Semitic thought and words draw votes again, are socially acceptable again — from schools to corona protests and of course the internet, that catalyst for hatred and incitement of all kinds.”

Knobloch, 88, a former leader of Germany's 200,000-strong Jewish community who survived the Holocaust in hiding as a child in Bavaria, warned that the enemies of democracy are stronger than many think”.

“I call on you: take care of our country,” she said, describing right-wing extremism as “the greatest danger for all” in Germany.

'You lost your fight'

Addressing deputies of the hard-right Alternative for Germany, the largest opposition group in parliament with nearly 100 seats, Knobloch accused many of its followers of “picking up the tradition” of the Nazis.

“I tell you: you lost your fight 76 years ago,” Knobloch said. “You will continue to fight for your Germany and we will keep fighting for our Germany.”

Knobloch fought back tears as she recounted the terror of the Nazis' rise and the deportation of her grandmother, Albertine Neuland, to the Theresienstadt concentration camp where she starved to death in 1944.

READ ALSO: 'Fight against forgetting': Germany marks Holocaust anniversary in shadow of coronavirus

“I stand before you as a proud German, against all odds and although much still makes it unlikely. Sadness, pain, desperation and loneliness accompany me.”

The window of a new synagogue which opened in Konstanz in November 2019. Photo: DPA

But she said Germany's enduring commitment to reckon with its history made her hopeful.

“I am proud of the young people in our country. They are free of guilt for the past but they assume responsibility for today and tomorrow: interested,
passionate and courageous.”

However Bundestag speaker Wolfgang Schaeuble, a respected elder statesman,
warned that the German consensus around atonement for the Nazis' crimes, long
seen as part of the bedrock of the post-war order, was showing signs of vulnerability.

He told the chamber it was “devastating” to admit that “our remembrance culture does not protect us from a brazen reinterpretation or even a denial of history”.

“And it doesn't protect us from new forms of racism and anti-Semitism,” said Schaeuble, 78.

Jewish journalist and activist Marina Weisband, 33, also urged continued vigilance.

“To be Jewish in Germany is to know it happened and can happen again,” she said.

“Anti-Semitism doesn't begin when shots are fired at a synagogue,” she said, referring to an extremist attack in the eastern city of Halle in October 2019.

READ ALSO: 'It doesn't change my feeling about Germany': Jewish community fearful but defiant after Halle attack

“The Shoah did not begin with gas chambers… It is not extinct, this conviction that there are people whose dignity is worth more than others'.”

Germany has officially marked Holocaust Remembrance Day every January 27th
since 1996 with a solemn ceremony at the Bundestag featuring a speech by a survivor and commemorations across the country.

Of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, more than one million were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, most in its notorious gas chambers, along with tens of thousands of others including homosexuals, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war.

This year's anniversary is marked by growing concerns about extremist violence and incitement in Germany.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken of her “shame” over rising anti-Semitism, as the Jewish community has warned that coronavirus conspiracy theories are being used to stir hatred.

In a speech recorded for Remembrance Day, Merkel thanked the elderly survivors “who muster the strength to tell the story of their lives”.

“Their first-hand accounts show us just how vulnerable human dignity is and
how easily the values that underpin peaceful coexistence can be violated,” she

Anti-Jewish crimes have risen steadily, with 2,032 offences recorded in 2019, up 13 percent on the previous year, according to the latest official figures.