For Auschwitz Survivor, Being Alive Is the Best ‘Revenge’

Renee Ganz, 86, originally from Oradea, Romania, discusses her time at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. (Debbie Hill for USA TODAY)
Renee Ganz, 86, originally from Oradea, Romania, discusses her time at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. (Debbie Hill for USA TODAY)

Shortly after the Nazi invasion of what was then Hungary in May 1944, Renee Ganz’s family and most of the 25,000 Jews in the city of Oradea were forced into cattle cars and transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

Men and boys were placed in one line, while women and girls were led to another when they arrived at the camp in Oświęcim, Poland. Ganz was just 15 at the time.

“I asked a German soldier why we were being separated and he said, ‘You’ve had a long journey. You need to take a shower,'” Ganz, now 86, recalls. “That’s when the selection began.”

German officers took one look at the prisoners and decided who would live and who would die.

“If they pointed left, you went to the gas chambers and crematorium. If they pointed to the right, you became a slave,” she says. “We were sent to the right, but I never saw my father or brother Nikolai again.”

Ganz, a self-described optimist, tries not to dwell on the horrors of the Holocaust and the 100 relatives she lost, but the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau has stirred up painful memories. She spent two months at Auschwitz before being sent to a slave labor camp along with her mother, who also survived the war.

On Tuesday — Holocaust Remembrance Day — Ganz will return to the death camp for the first time, along with nearly 100 other Auschwitz survivors from 19 countries.

“It will be very difficult, but it is important,” she says.

A medical team of 12 doctors, psychologists and nurses will accompany the survivors, ages 73 to 96, because of the “emotionally powerful and physically taxing” nature of the visit, the World Jewish Congress said.

“This may be the last major anniversary we will be able to remember with those who experienced the Holocaust firsthand. From this historic event, their voices will echo across the generations,” says Robert Singer, secretary general for the Jewish congress, which helped organize the event.

Of the more than 1.1 million people who died at Auschwitz, about 90% were Jews, according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust World Center in Jerusalem. About one in six of all Jews killed during the Holocaust died at the camp. Also killed there were homosexuals, Soviet prisoners of war, Christian Poles, Romani and others.

Hundreds of thousands of prisoners transported from all across Europe were sent to the gas chambers, then cremated at the camp. Those who survived the daily death “selections” often died from infection or starvation.

As the Soviet army was approaching in January 1945, the Nazis stepped up their exterminations and — in an attempt to destroy evidence of their genocide — sent the surviving prisoners in Auschwitz and its satellite camps on a series of death marches.

Emaciated and dressed in flimsy uniforms unsuited to the frigid cold of a Polish winter, thousands of prisoners died as a result.

“After the war ended we learned that my brother died just two weeks before the liberation,” Ganz says, her voice cracking.

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Michele Chabin

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