The Last Days Of Auschwitz

ON THE AFTERNOON OF Jan. 27, 1945, Sal De Liema, a 30-year-old Dutch Jew, five months resident in Auschwitz, ventured into the snow outside his barracks door for the first time since the Germans had evacuated the camp nine days earlier. He had climbed into his bunk on Jan. 18 expecting the SS to blow him up along with the barracks, but as the alternative was a forced march to an unknown destination through the icy Polish winter, De Liema chose to die lying down. He slept four days, then survived by sucking on sugar cubes foraged by another prisoner who had stayed behind. On Jan. 27 he felt better, pulled himself to his feet, and walked out the door and through the gate of the camp. The first thing he noticed were a number of furry brown dogs in the snow. He thought, "Gee, what nice little dogs." Then they started to move. The dogs were Russian soldiers in fur caps and white camouflage, who had just liberated the camp. In Auschwitz even deliverance came in the guise of absurdity.

Also in Auschwitz at that time, a young Soviet colonel struggled to understand an apparition. Retired Lt. Gen. Vasily Petrenko, the only surviving commander among the four Red Army divisions that encircled and liberated the camp, was a hardened veteran of some of the worst fighting of the war. "I had seen many people killed," Petrenko says. "I had seen hanged people and burned people. But still I was unprepared for Auschwitz." What astonished him especially were the children, some mere infants, who had been left behind in the hasty evacuation. They were the survivors of the medical experiments perpetrated by the Auschwitz camp doctor, Josef Mengele, or the children of Polish political prisoners rounded up after the ill-fated revolt in Warsaw the previous fall. But Petrenko didn't yet know that. "I thought: we're in a war. We've been fighting for four years. Million-strong armies are battling on both sides and suddenly you have children. How did they find themselves there? I just couldn't digest it." Only later did Petrenko realize that this was a place where children were brought to be killed. By the hundreds of thousands they had vanished into thin air, and Petrenko's troops marched by the ashes of their bones.

Caught up in a great war, the world took no special notice of the event. The big news in The New York Times that day was that Soviet troops had swept to the Baltic. Buried in a long list of the towns overrun by the Red Army was Oswiecim, the Polish name for Auschwitz. The place was by then a virtual ghost town. only with a ghost population the size of Philadelphia. Of the approximately million and a half who had passed through it, most of whom left behind only their hair and the smell of their burning bodies, just 65,000 were still there in January 1945. As the Russians advanced from the east, the Nazis retreated to Germany, providently bringing their prisoners to kill along the way. Only about 7,000 stayed behind to be liberated by the Russians, many of them near death.

And liberation did not put an end to their dying. Albert Grinholtz, a French Jew, remembers Mongol soldiers of the Red Army riding into the camp on horseback. "They were very nice," he says. "They killed a pig, cut it in pieces without cleaning it and put it in a large military pot with potatoes and cabbage. Then they cooked it and offered it to the sick." The effects of that meal on people on the edge of starvation were nearly as lethal as anything the Nazis did. For that matter. Auschwitz is still claiming victims, as some survivors realize that the pain of their memories does not diminish with age. The Italian writer Primo Levi, author of "Survival in Auschwitz," threw himself down a stairwell in 1987. "Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured," wrote the Austrian Jewish philosopher Jean Amery, who took his own life 33 years after the Nazis failed to take it from him.

Better never to have been born at all, perhaps, than to live through Auschwitz. Of course, the Carthaginians probably felt that way, too. Each generation marches into history dripping the blood of its respective massacres. But Auschwitz, and the Holocaust of which it was a part, have a unique place in the annals of human slaughter. When Rwandans beat their neighbors to death with clubs, we take it as dismaying evidence that human nature will never change. But Auschwitz was something new on the earth. Its elaborate mechanisms for transporting, selecting, murdering and incinerating thousands of people a day constituted a kind of industrialization of' death. It raised the terrifying possibility that with the advent of modern technology human nature really had changed. No wonder General Petrenko has been uneasy for 50 years. At Auschwitz that day, the 20th century saw itself in the mirror, and turned away in horror.

Auschwitz was only one-the largest-of several Nazi extermination camps, and there's no reason to think it was the worst. it owes its prominence to its size and its special role as both a death camp for Jews and Gypsies (technically, the gas chambers were located in neighboring Birkenau) and the headquarters of a network of slave-labor camps housing Jews, Polish political prisoners, POW's, homosexuals and com-mon criminals. Although newcomers were routinely told that the only way out of Auschwitz was through the chimney, that was never quite true. Along with more than a million who died there, tens of thousands lived there-worked, schemed endlessly and obsessively to stay alive - and even fell in love. Those who succeeded brought with them memories of how men and women lived in the shadow, the smell and dust of death. Their stories-some never before told covering the period from the last great killing spree that began in the spring of 1944 to the "death marches" the following winter have been collected by NEWSWEEK correspondents on three continents for this, the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

In the spring of' 1944, as the war increasingly turned against the Germans, trains bearing the first of Hungary's Jews began arriving at Birkenau. Until then, Hungary's 800,000 Jews, although oppressed, had been spared the worst of the Nazi terrors, and it is likely that none of them had even heard the word Auschwitz. On one of these trains rode 17-year-old Rita Yamberger, her older sister Berta Morganstern and Berta's two children. Eighty people stood together in boxcars for lour sweltering days and nights. There was a bucket to drink from and another that served as a toilet. At one stop, Yamberger got off to refill the water bucket and almost missed getting back on. As the train to Auschwitz began to pull away, she ran after it so she wouldn't be forgotten.

Yamberger's train arrived at Auschwitz late at night and parked there until dawn, when the doors were flung open and the dazed passengers formed into lines for a "selection." Five by five, they marched past Mengele himself -- "as beautiful as a statue," Yamberger remembers, in his glistening boots and crisp black SS uniform. Old people, sick people, young children and their mothers went to the left and potential workers to the right. Yamberger's sister saw that mothers with children were going off together, but, of course, she had no idea why. "So she put a scarf over my head so I would look older, and I took the hand of her son as if I was the mother," Yamberger remembers. "We all went left. We were happy because we were together. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Mengele. "How old are you?' he said. In that second I was hypnotized. I had the boy by the hand. I told the truth. He shoved the boy away. He fell down, and I was thrown to the right. And that's how I didn't go to the crematorium."

Other families were more successful at staying together. Gloria Lyon, who was 14 when she was rounded up with her family in eastern Czechoslovakia, recalls how her 12-year-old sister, Annuska, was sent off with the old people and children, but managed to sneak back into the other line and rejoin the family. "My mother was very angry that she did this," Lyon said, "because we conjectured that the old people will take care of the children, and our group would have to do the hard work." Never was disobedience in a child better rewarded; both sisters survived the war and are still alive.

Sometimes the inmates who met the trains and escorted the victims to the gas chambers would -- at the risk of their own lives -- whisper to young mothers to give their babies to older relatives. Not many obeyed, of course. Helen Farkas, arriving at Auschwitz as part of an extended family from Transylvania, recalls that "my sister Ethel said, "He's crazy. What do they mean I should give my child to an older person?' " But in the confusion the baby began to cry, and her mother-in-law took charge of him and disappeared off to the left; guards beat Ethel back when she tried to join them. The sisters, selected for work, were stripped and shaved to the skin. "We started to look for each other, shouted each other's name," Helen says. "We couldn't recognize each other, naked, without hair. When we found each other, we started laughing, we laughed so hysterically it turned into crying."

So the transports arrived, with their cargos of innocent flesh, from anywhere the SS could lay their hands on a Jew: France, Holland, Slovakia, Greece and, of course, Hungary, until the government halted the deportations in mid-July, after 438,000 Jews had been shipped to Auschwitz in little more than two months. The victims, unsuspecting, walked to the gas chambers under the blank and baleful gaze of the SS, and then were turned into smoke that blackened the skies, and a stench so awful and pervasive that Lyon lost her sense of smell for nearly five decades after. Those selected for work were shorn, tattooed with a number on their left forearm, issued uniforms, bowls and spoons and turned out into the barracks. Hundreds slept in triple-tiered rows of bunks. The newcomers faced the scorn of the Polish and Czech Jews who had come earlier. "They told us, "While you were going to theaters, we were already here'," recalls Judy Perlaki, who was brought to Auschwitz from a town in Hungary in May. The religious ones would pray. The old-timers taunted them: ""Go ahead, pray. But do you know where your mother is? Right up in that chimney'."

The new inmates entered a life of roll calls, beatings and work, punctuated by surprise selections for the gas chambers, which the Nazis kept busy even if no trains arrived. The roll calls were held twice a day, always in the open, and prisoners stood at attention until the count was complete, which might take several hours. This was hard enough even for prisoners who weren't suffering from the camp's rampant diarrhea. Standing became even harder, naturally, as Poland's harsh winters set in. Kapos, the prison trusties -- many of them criminals -- whom inmates feared almost as much as the SS, roamed the ranks. They would hit anyone who stepped out of place, or stamped his frozen feet, or whom they felt like hitting. By a whim of the commandant, an orchestra of inmates was commissioned to serenade the prisoners as they marched off to the factories, mines and construction sites. "This was the unreal thing: this beautiful music," says Rachel Piuti, who came to Auschwitz in 1944 from a labor camp in central Poland. "We marched out, the music accompanied us. We marched back, the music welcomed us. This is why it seemed already like life after death." The orchestra also played for the deportees on their way to gas chambers, and one inmate remembers the elderly Hungarian men tipping their hats appreciatively as they marched by.

An inmate's rations were ersatz coffee in the morning, a pint or so of watery soup for lunch and a half pound or so of bread for dinner. A person doing heavy labor outdoors obviously could survive this diet for no more than a few weeks or months. So those who lived, by definition, had some means of obtaining extra food -- a skill the SS valued, a job where they could steal, or a protector somewhere in the camp. A large number of the survivors worked in the unit where the belongings of new arrivals were meticulously sorted, tagged, logged, stored and immediately stolen. The warehouses were known as "Canada," after that fabled land where everyone had warm socks and cigarettes. In August, Siggi Wilzig, a German Jew who had been in Auschwitz since 1942, landed one of the most sought-after positions in the camp, organizing the Canada warehouse. One whole room was for storing toilet paper -- "a huge room, 12 or 15 feet high full of toilet paper. It just stayed there and no one knew why." He had labeled each roll and stacked them in order as the Germans wanted, and then filled the insides of the tubes with rings, watches and other small valuables he could barter for food.

Another job which provided enough toeat was sonderkommando -- the Jewish prisoners who met the trains, escorted thecondemned to the gas chambers and then hauled their bodies to the crematoriums. "When they got off the train, they had to strip in the dressing room," says Henryk Mandelbaum, who worked as a sonderkommando in the fall of 1944. "Whole families wentin, supposedly to take showers. When the chamber was more than half filled, theyrealized something was wrong. There was commotion. The SS beat them brutally with sticks." The sonderkommandos' was hard physical work, made worse by the burden of never knowing when a relative might turn up in the gas chamber. Mandelbaum tells of one legendary sonderkommando who voluntarily walked into the gas chamber with his own family; and another, who encountered his mother and assured her until the last minute that she was only being taken to the showers. For that sin, the sonderkommando's own colleagues were said to have killed him themselves.

Some people screamed in the gas chambers, at least one group sang the Czech national anthem and some prayed. Sonderkommando Yehoshua Rosenblum escorted a venerable rabbi to the gas chamber and warned the naked old man that he was going to die. "I told him he should say a prayer: "Put something on [meaning a hat; Jews pray with their heads covered] so you can say a prayer before you die.' I had a chance now to talk to someone about what was going on here. "Children, parents who never did anything in their lives -- why should such a thing happen?' He said: "Quiet. It is forbidden to complain; this is the will of God. You cannot answer these questions.'

"He told me: "Tell the world what these evil persons are doing to the Jews'."But Rosenblum answered: "Rabbi, todayit's you, tomorrow me." All the sonderkommando expected to wind up in the crematoriums themselves eventually; it was part of the job. The Nazis assured their silence by periodically killing them and starting fresh with a new batch.

One Jew who escaped the gas chambers that summer was Roman Friester, who was 15 and an orphan when he arrived in Birkenau from a small labor camp elsewhere in Poland. He talked his way into a job by volunteering as a specialist in running a lathe, a machine he had never laid eyes on. Survival had a cost. Lying in his bunk one night, he was raped by another prisoner, an older man who had access to food. "He put his hand with a piece of bread into my mouth. I badly wanted this bread. I wanted to swallow the bread quickly before he finished, so he would have to give me another piece of bread. I got a second, and a third.

"He went off and in a moment I realized that I didn't have my prisoner's cap. Any prisoner at the morning roll call without his cap was shot. He wanted to liquidate me and so he stole my cap.

"That night, I stole a cap from some other prisoner. So the next morning, some other prisoner was killed instead of me. I never looked to see who it was."

One more prisoner killed -- who was to notice? Lives were saved and lost all the time that summer. Max Garcia, a Jew from Amsterdam, was saved by his appendix. After four days of severe stomach pains, he was sent to the camp hospital, which often would have been a ticket to the crematorium. But the SS surgeon had never seen a case of acute appendicitis and decided to open up Garcia for the experience. Sal De Liema was saved by a kapo, who had smashed his eyeglasses out of spite. Shortly after, he went through a selection and saw healthy men sent off to the gas chambers. He asked another prisoner why, and was told: "They were wearing glasses."

But the great news at Auschwitz that summer was the escape of Mala Zimetbaum and Edward Galinski -- the most famous of the hundreds of Auschwitz escapes, because even in failing it gave courage to the thousands of inmates who knew about it and witnessed its legendary end. Zimetbaum, who was barely 20 in 1944, was one of the most extraordinary prisoners to pass through Auschwitz. Fluent in several languages, she was put to work as a messenger and interpreter. She apparently made full use of her position to carry out assignments for the camp resistance, even managing to replace the identity cards of women selected to be gassed with those of women who had already died.

Zimetbaum fell in love with Edward Galinski, a Polish political prisoner, and they resolved to escape. They succeeded in bribing an SS man to supply them a uniform, and Zimetbaum filched a pass from the guard room. On June 24, Galinski marched out the gate of Auschwitz with a female prisoner in tow. But Auschwitz did not give up its victims so easily. They were caught two weeks later, still in southern Poland, and brought back to the camp for execution. The hangings were scheduled for Sept. 15. Galinski went first: he slipped the noose over his head, and, by one account, kicked over the stool that served as his scaffold, shouting "Long Live Poland!" Zimetbaum was stood in front of the assembled women prisoners, who were subjected to a lecture on the consequences of trying to escape. But before the guards could hang her, she pulled out a razor blade and slit her wrists, spraying her executioners with her blood.

But even while the camp was awaiting the fate of the two lovers, something else happened to give them hope. On Aug. 20, more than 120 Flying Fortress bombers from the American air base in Foggia, Italy,flew over Auschwitz en route to bomb the factories of Upper Silesia. One of the targets was, in fact, a satellite camp of Auschwitz itself, the giant I.G. Farben plant (known as "Buna") that converted coal to synthetic fuel. "We heard the sirens in camp, but there was no cover," says Max Sands, who worked in a warehouse at Buna. "We stayed in the barracks and when I looked out, the sky was covered." At his next shift two days later,the damage made such an impression on him that he swears he saw locomotives on roofs. The downside of all this was that he and his brother lost their soft warehouse jobs and were put to work hauling bags of cement on a repair crew, but it was worth it to see the Germans bombed.

But no bombs ever fell on Auschwitz itself, nor on Birkenau. American Jewish leaders, by this time well aware of Auschwitz, pleaded with Washington to bomb the crematoriums. Hundreds of inmates might have died in such an air raid, of course, but it might have saved some ofthe thousands of new victims who arrived every day. For that matter, the prisoners in the camps were hoping for the same thing. "Our greatest anticipation was when theair raids were on," recalls Celia Rosenberg,66, who was brought to Auschwitz from Hungary in May. "It would have been our pleasure to be bombed. It never occurred to us to be afraid." But the War Department -- contravening even President Roosevelt's wishes -- seems to have stuck to a policyof not mixing military and humanitarian objectives. "The best way to help those people," Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy insisted, "was to win the war as quickly as possible."

Even so, the bombing raids and the news filtering back to the prisoners in the fallof 1944 made it clear that the war hadturned decisively against the Germans. For the sonderkommando, who never expected to survive the war, this was a call to action. They enlisted the help of prisoners who worked in a munitions plant -- most of them women -- to smuggle out gunpowder, a few grams at a time. Aplan took shape to blow up thegas chambers, attack theguards and break through the electrified fence that surrounded Auschwitz and Birkenau. But before they could act, on Oct. 7, the SS demanded 300 sonderkommando for "transfer" -- barely a euphemism -- and the victims decided to die fighting.

Unplanned, unorganized and vastly outnumbered, the rebellion had no chance. The sonderkommando fought the well-armed SS troops with knives, chains, stones and perhaps homemade grenades. One part of it worked: bales of human hair, destined for German carpet factories, had been stashed in the attic of Crematorium 4; the sonderkommando sprinkled them with gasoline and ignited them, setting ablaze the roof of the whole vast structure. Three SS men were killed. But no one escaped, and of the 663 members of what became known as the Last Sonderkommando, 451 were shot by the SS and tossed in the ovens by the end of the day.

And of the women who helped them, four -- Roza Robota, Ester Wajcblum, Ala Gertner and Regina Safirsztain -- were arrested and taken to the infamous prison Block 11, where they were tortured for weeks, although without revealing the names of any other conspirators. In a letter smuggled out to her sister Anna, Ester wrote about how "the familiar sounds of the camp -- the screams of the kapos, the screams for tea, soup, bread, all those hated sounds now seem so precious to me and so soon to be lost . . . Not for me the glad tidings of forthcoming salvation; everything is lost and I so want to live." Ester was 20. On Jan. 6, 1945 -- less than two weeks before the Germans abandoned Auschwitz altogether -- the four women were taken to the gallows. Their fellow prisoners had been assembled for the spectacle. Two women grabbed Anna and pushed her into a barracks to keep her from watching, but she heard the groans. It was the last public execution at Auschwitz.

As fall turned to winter, and theRed Army drew closer, new orders arrived from Berlin. The transports stopped coming, the crematoriums went cold -- in fact, the whole vast operation went furiously into reverse, as the Germans began dismantling the evidence of what was to have been the crowning achievement of the Third Reich. Crews sent to clean out the chimneys had to scrape out deposits of human fat 18 inches thick. The prisoners greeted these developments with mixed emotions: happy to see the Nazis losing, but troubled by the general assumption that the Germans would slaughter them all first.

The Soviet offensive on Upper Silesia began on Jan. 12, and the Germans quickly fell back. Red Army guns boomed over the roll call on the evening of Jan. 17. The next day, long columns of prisoners began marching out of the camp, thousands at a time -- past the famous sign with its mendacious promise arbeit macht frei (work makes one free), leaving behind the remains of the chimneys that were supposed to be their only exits. Most were in various stages of starvation; many had only wooden shoes or rags to cover their feet as they tramped over the freezing mud. The German officers enforced one simple rule: anyone who fell behind, for any reason, was shot dead on the spot. "You were outside, without fences, but you were not free," said Siggi Wilzig. "If you thought the camp was bad, just wait until the death march." Wilzig had usable shoes, but several days into the march a shoelace broke, which could have cost him his life. Just then he spied a sapling poking out of the snow; he worked it free and lashed his shoe together in time to rejoin his march. "An act of God!" he exults.

In the confusion of these days quite afew prisoners managed to escape. Louis Zaks, who had been in concentration camps since 1941, was working in the coal mines of the Jaworzno subcamp when the Soviets approached; he declared his own emancipation a day early by refusing to go to work, which in normal times wouldhave meant a bullet in the head. Hewas marched to another subcamp, Blechhammer, where he ran off and hid in a coal pile. After several hours, he felt safe enough to stretch, and the coal began to move, and 20 people stood up from nearby piles. But freedom had its perils also. Walking on the highway north toward Lodz, he and his fellow escapees encountered a group of Soviet soldiers. "They asked for our watches. We told them, "We have no watches, we are from a concentration camp.' "Oh,' they said, "you are Jews. Nobody likes Jews. Germans don't like Jews, Poles don't like Jews, we don't like Jews.' They chased us into the forest and lifted their rifles." Zaks was saved by the timely arrival of some Russian officers, including one who was Jewish.

Those who didn't escape or die on the death marches were eventually loaded onto open railcars for the trip to camps in Germany; having come in sealed boxcars in the summer, they now traveled in the open in the winter. They were so emaciated and pitiable that civilians sometimes threw them bread and even clothing as they passed. The SS guards discouraged the practice by shooting at the civilians. The last few weeks and months, as the Reich collapsed around them, were some of the hardest the prisoners had to endure. Linda Breder, interned near Ravensbruck, in Germany, gives a calm account of her 33 months at Auschwitz and the death march along a road "paved with corpses in the snow." But she breaks down in tears at the memory of a kettle full of soup that overturned as it was being served, leaving the starving women to lick the food from the snow. Freed eventually by the Russians, she set off with some friends to walk back to Slovakia, living off the land. They went into a German woman's house; the table was set with dishes and napkins, there was a tureen of hot soup. The women had seen nothing like it for three years. Anger and hunger waged war within them, until one grabbed the tablecloth and sent everything crashing to the floor. They searched the house and found the woman, hiding, and two SS uniforms in a closet. They roughed her up and moved on.

Meanwhile the Russians, having done their part for history, had moved on themselves. The survivors stood and walked out as free men and women, and miraculously got on with their lives. They went back to being tailors, or jewelers, doctors and writers; some went to Palestine and fought another war. You couldn't pick them out of a crowd, now, in Jerusalem, Toronto or Los Angeles, unless you happened to spot the numbers graven on their forearms. They (and the others who passed through Auschwitz) left behind, according to a subsequent Soviet accounting, more than a million suits, coats and dresses, seven tons of human hair and comparable heaps of shoes, eyeglasses, cooking utensils and other goods, counting only what was found in only six of the 35 storerooms of Canada, the Germans having burned the rest. They took with them the indelible memory of the moment when a tall man in shiny boots condemned them to life, the moment in which Rita Yamberger sees a young boy pulled roughly from her grip and shoved to the left. "From afar, I saw the little boy. He was lost in the crowd, shouting for his mother. He was lost. I hope he found his mother and they died together." THE LOVERS

Jerzy Bielecki amassed the pieces of the uniform over four weeks in the summer of 1944, receiving them from another political prisoner who worked in the storage area. Bielecki, a Polish Catholic, had reached a decision: to escape Auschwitz with Cyla Cybulska, a Polish Jew with whom he had fallen in love. "You are the only one in your family left," he told her. "Maybe I can save you." She laughed. But Bielecki told her he would come for her. In an SS uniform.

On July 21, he put it on, his hands shaking. He marched to the laundry room. He told the SS woman in charge that he had come for Cybulska, who was beginning to totter. Fright would be natural in a prisoner summoned for interrogation, but Bielecki was worried that she might collapse, sinking the whole plan. So he hurriedly told the SS woman, "I have to go. Heil Hitler!" To Cybulska, he barked, "Get moving!" She passed him on rubbery legs. They walked toward Budy, a farm where 350 prisoners worked. As they neared the checkpoint an SS guard strolled out. Bielecki pulled from his tunic a stolen pass and reported, "One guard and one prisoner returning to Budy." The guard unfolded the pass. He looked at Bielecki, then at Cybulska. There was a long pause. "Danke," he said.

The escapees hid in grainfields for 10 days. Soon Bielecki hooked up with the Resistance; he hid Cybulska with friends. When the war ended, each thought the other was dead. But in 1983 Cybulska, a widow in Brooklyn, N.Y., learned that Bielecki was alive. She wrote to him and in June flew to Cracow. Bielecki, 62 and long married, met Cybulska, 63, with 39 roses -- one for every year since Auschwitz.

Rene Slotkin and his twin sister, Irene Hizme, remember the concentration camp as a bleak patchwork of smells and pain. The acrid wooden bunks. The medical experiments they bore without crying. The memories are nearly primal, because the Czech twins were not quite 6 when they arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau in late 1943.

From the beginning, the Germans made "special" use of the twins, housing them in Czech family camps set up for propaganda purposes. In July 1944 the family camp in Birkenau was liquidated. "I didn't understand what was going on, except they were taking our mother away," says Irene, now 57. "She was screaming and we were screaming," she says. The twins were separated. Josef Mengele, whom the children called "our doctor," stepped up his experiments. Rene was the "control," while Irene underwent injections and surgery. "I knew even as a child that I didn't dare make a sound . . . Whatever was done to me made me sick." Once Mengele gave her a piece of candy after cutting her open. That flash of normal life "made me feel horrible."

As the Russians drew closer, all the prisoners in Rene's barracks were herded onto a truck. "I knew I was on my way to die," says Rene. "Then here comes Dr. Mengele in his green convertible." Mengele stopped the transport. Only he could kill his twins. Days later, Rene was marched out of Auschwitz with most of the prisoners. But Irene, too weak to walk, collapsed among the dead by her barracks. A Polish woman scooped her up and took her home. An American couple adopted Irene and they searched for two years until they found Rene in Prague.

From the beginning, it was a loathsome place of death, torture and depravity. By the middle of 1944, the stench of burning human flesh filled the air. At Auschwitz, murder had become a technological feat.

Heinrich Himmler gives the order to establish Auschwitz. Two months later the first inmates -- 728 Polish political prisoners -- arrive and Rudolf Hoss takes command. With an influx of Soviet POWs, the camp begins to grow.

With orders to make Auschwitz ready to exterminate Jews, construction begins on Birkenau: crematoriums, watchtowers and electrified barbed wire -- where some commit suicide.

The first transports from Holland join Jews from all over Europe, who begin to arrive by the thousands. Those who live long enough to be "processed" could end up in one of roughly 40 subcamps, where hard labor and brutality are their daily bread.

Josef Mengele takes over as camp doctor at the Gypsy Family Camp, where he conducts his "experiments" on children, dwarfs, twins. Soon, the "Angel of Death" is presiding over Selektion -- determining who lives and dies with the point of a finger.

Allies bombard "Buna," the I.G. Farben industrial complex, but not the death camps. Two months later a prisoner uprising destroys a crematorium. Gassings halt in November, leaving more than a million dead.

About 58,000 prisoners set off on westward death marches. Nine days later Soviets arrive to a ghost camp of some 7,000.

At the time, Ruth Elias thought it a miracle she survived the selection. She had arrived in Auschwitz in a transport from Theresienstadt nearly three months pregnant, in December 1943, one of 5,000 Jews marked for death after six months. But as the time approached, Germany needed laborers. The young and strong would go to a labor camp in Hamburg. "We had to go naked in front of Mengele and I was in my eighth month of pregnancy," says Elias, now 72 and living in Israel. "I saw him directing people right and left. One side for young, healthy people, the other side for the old, ill and children. I asked two young women to walk in front of me, and he pushed all three of us to the side of the young" -- those destined for the labor camp. But after four days there, the barracks leader told the SS that Elias was pregnant; she was returned to Auschwitz.

On Aug. 4 she gave birth. "Mengele, he gave the order to bandage my breasts . . . He wanted to make an experiment to see how long an infant can live without food . . . In the beginning, the baby was crying all the time. Then only whimpering. The belly was swollen . . . Every day Mengele came and wrote his notes. [After seven days] Mengele said, "Tomorrow I'll come and fetch you . . .' A Jewish doctor asked me why I was crying . . . I told her, "Tomorrow Mengele is coming to fetch me.' She arrived back with a syringe and she told me, "Give this to your child.' I asked what it was. "Morphine. It will kill your child . . .' I killed my own child. It didn't take long before the child stopped breathing. In the night, they collected corpses. They collected also this little corpse. I didn't want to live anymore."