The 70th anniversary of Auschwitz: How one woman survived three Nazi death camps

Holocaust survivor Gena Turgel shares her story to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz concentration camp's liberation.

Alik Keplicz/AP
Visitors walk by barbed wire fences at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland. Tuesday marks the 70th anniversary of the camps liberation, and will be commemorated by visiting survivors.

In the lead-up of the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz-Birkeanau concentration camp's liberation this Tuesday, one survivor shares her story of heartbreak, perseverance, and hope for future generations.

Gena Turgel, 90, was 16 years old when the Nazis bombed her hometown, the city of Krakow, Poland, in 1939, propelling her parents and their nine children into the hardship of World War II. Two of her brothers died fighting the Nazis, and her sister Miriam was shot and killed in 1941 for smuggling food to prisoners at the concentration camp in Plaszov, a suburb of Krakow. Ms. Turgel and her family were sent to this camp in 1942, where she spent the next two and a half years of her life.

In 1944, officials began moving prisoners, including Turgel and her family, to Auschwitz. Here, she and her mother were stripped and forced into the gas chamber with hundreds of other prisoners to await their execution. But for some reason, the gas was not released.

“We were trembling. I didn't know where we were. Inside, it looked terrible,” recounted Turgel in an interview with The Telegraph in 2005. "We waited a while and then water came through the walls. It was wonderful. For many weeks we had had no water on our backs. We were all drinking it.

“As we came outside, the women there said how wonderful it was to see us. They screamed with happiness. I didn't understand what they meant. I said 'What are you shouting about?' They said 'Don't you know? You were in the gas chamber.' I lost my voice.”

After this remarkable event, Turgel and her mother were sent on a death march, forced to leave behind her sister Hela. They walked for several days before being transported to Germany's Buchenwald concentration camp via truck, an ordeal that lasted three to four weeks under terrible conditions. They were then sent on cattle trucks further north to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, arriving in February 1945. Here she shared barracks with Dutch teenager Anne Frank, before her death. Turgel worked in the camp's makeshift hospital until the camp was liberated in April of that year.

By the end of the war, Turgel lost seven siblings and her father. Her full story is told in her memoir, “I Light a Candle.”

"When I think back, I have to pinch myself sometimes to see if I'm really alive," the 90-year-old told NBC News. Turgel continues to honor the six million victims whose voices went unheard during this dark time in history.

Tugel and other survivors now share their stories with nearly 100,000 young people from every background annually, reliving their most painful memories multiple times a week to ensure the next generation understands the gravity of what happened during the Holocaust.

"Those people were real. They were mothers and father, uncles and aunts, doctors and teachers, poets, wonderful people. Composers. And now they scream in silence," she said, reported NBC News. "My story is only one story, but it is the story six million others cannot tell. I was, and always shall be, the witness to . . . mass murder."

Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Education Trust, wrote in the Jewish News about the importance of survivors sharing their firsthand accounts of the brutality of WWII. She said soon, as time passes and more survivors reach the ends of their lives, there will be no one left to ensure these stories are told.

“The sad reality is that there will come a day when there will be a hole that cannot be filled, when there are no survivors left and when the Holocaust is no longer in living memory,” Ms. Pollock said in the Jewish News. “While there is nothing that can replace Holocaust survivors, it is down to all of us in the field of Holocaust education, and the community as a whole, to look at ways to ensure that this doesn’t just become a footnote in the history pages.”

Turgel is one of at least 200 Holocaust survivors that will return to Auschwitz this week to commemorate the 70th anniversary of its liberation in 1945. Many survivors have expressed fear after a recent spate of anti-Semitism in Europe, but will stand together with their families in honor of those who lost their lives.

“Their voices have been silenced by gas chambers and crematoria, so we the survivors have the duty to honor their memory and speak the best we can for them, and tell this unprecedented story of destruction of millions of people,” said survivor Marcel Tuchman, 93, reported by NBC News.

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