Auschwitz death camp survivors relive atrocities, 70 years on

Auschwitz death camp survivors relive atrocities, 70 years on

Poland - The piercing screams of a woman electrocuted on a barbed wire fence, children sent to the gas chambers and the constant threat of death: Auschwitz survivors recall life in the world's most notorious death camp with remarkable clarity.

Mostly in their nineties now, some are still well enough to attend Tuesday's ceremonies marking 70 years since the Soviet Red Army liberated Auschwitz, the largest German death camp, on January 27, 1945 in what is now southern Poland.

"You can't imagine the cries of someone who has been electrocuted," says survivor Zofia Posmysz, 91, describing how fellow prisoners chose to commit suicide by flinging themselves at the electric fence surrounding the camp.

The memory still haunts this beautiful woman who spent three years at the Auschwitz and Ravensbruck camps: "I saw bodies hanging on barbed wire. At night, the girls came out of the barracks and threw themselves on the electric fence. It was horrific."

"We were woken by these piercing screams," recalls Posmysz, who still bears the camp's tattoo - prisoner number 7566 - on her left forearm.

The executioner's barber

With his eyes shut tight, former Auschwitz prisoner Jozef Paczynski, now 95, relives the ritual of shaving and cutting the hair of the camp's infamous commander, Rudolf Hoess.

Tattooed as prisoner 121, Paczynski was among the first 700 Polish prisoners of war that the Nazis shipped to Auschwitz in June 1940. He was assigned to the hairdresser's unit soon after arrival.

"There were eight or 10 professional hairdressers from Warsaw and Hoess ordered that an apprentice like me cut his hair," Paczynski told AFP.

"My hands were shaking. But an order is an order. I had to do my job."

"The cut was simple, the standard German style: you had to shave the neck with a razor and then use clippers on the sideburns. I had good tools and my colleagues kept my razor sharp."

One question he gets a lot is whether he ever contemplated taking the razor to Hoess's throat.

"I was aware of the consequences, I wasn't crazy. If I had slit his throat, half the camp's prisoners would have been immediately executed."

Posmysz and Paczynski were both 19 years old when they were deported. They emerged alive because they were young and learnt quickly how to survive at the camp.

Avoid dogs and Kapos

"I learnt how to survive there. It was crucial to not end up at the front or on the sides when we walked in groups. You had to keep yourself in the middle of the crowd to be far from the dog, the guard, the Kapo who could beat you," says Posmysz.

"You basically had to do everything possible to not expose yourself to punishment."

Ninety-two-year-old Kazimierz Albin survived because he managed to escape on February 27, 1942 along with six other prisoners.

"It was a starry night, around minus 8 or minus 10 degrees Celsius (17 or 14 Fahrenheit) outside," says Albin, prisoner number 118.

"We took our clothes off and were half way across the Sola River when I heard the siren... Ice floes surrounded us."

Once free, Albin caught up with the Polish resistance.

Escapes were rare. Of around 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, only 802 -- including 45 women -- tried to flee, according to estimates from the museum now located at the site of the former camp.

Only 144 succeeded, while 327 were caught. The fate of the remaining 331 is unknown.

"Can we forget all these murders, can we forgive them? I'll never be able to forget all those women and children taken straight to the gas chambers," says Paczynski.

But he adds: "Will we be waging an endless war? It won't bring back the dead!

"I'm glad there was reconciliation, that there's peace and the borders are gone."

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