Decades after Auschwitz, past horrors haunt a Polish town

Decades after Auschwitz, past horrors haunt a Polish town

OSWIECIM, Poland - Bogumila recalls how as a small girl growing up in the Polish town of Oswiecim she saw prisoners beaten by Nazi guards and watched with her mother the distant glow of the crematorium fires of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

"Everyone sat in their homes in silence, windows shut as tightly as possible," she said.

The 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, to be attended by world leaders and survivors, raises painful questions for residents of Oswiecim where Nazi occupiers created one of the most relentless extermination machines in history, claiming the lives of an estimated 1.5 million people.

How did their parents go about their daily business when such inhumanity was taking place just the other side of a barbed wire fence? How much did they know of what was going on?

"Of course people knew what was going on," said Bogumila, who lived through the occupation as a child.

The mass extermination of prisoners and the incineration of thousands of bodies, she said, were no secret. Some describe having to live with the stench from bodies being incinerated at Auschwitz, but keeping quiet to survive.

"Every now and then, my mum and I would walk towards the camp, and see the disgusting glow on the horizon," she said.

But during the war, survival was uppermost in the minds of most of the town's population. The occupation was brutal.

While some local people recall residents bravely sheltering Jews in their homes, others speak of Jews betrayed to the Nazis by their neighbours.

"Most of them did nothing, because they were scared," said Bogumila.

Bogumila was one of four women, meeting in a cafe in Oswiecim this month, sharing memories of growing up in Oswiecim at the time and of what their parents told them about it.

They declined to give their family names, fearing that by speaking candidly they would anger other people in the town who prefer not to dwell on their wartime past.

Between 1940 and 1945, Auschwitz developed into a vast complex of barracks, workshops, gas chambers and crematoria.

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