Auschwitz survivor shares his stunning story with students

More than 70 years have passed since Werner Reich suffered the horrors of Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz, but the painful memories are still fresh.

"The air was constantly filled with the smell of burning hair and burning flesh," Werner said at Brentwood High School on Long Island in March. "And we heard the screaming of the people as they were driven towards the gas chambers."

The 89-year-old survivor recounted his story of survival to 600 students at the school.

"I once got 15 strokes on my back, I thought I'd die. I've seen plenty of people dying on this," Werner said. "I slept next to a dead man for three days."

For over an hour there wasn't a sound in the auditorium other than Werner's unwavering voice. You could have heard a pin drop. It wasn't just because here was a man who had witnessed countless murders or because he has a numbered tattoo on his arm. The undeniable fact is that this may have been their last and only chance to hear a first-hand account of the World War II atrocities.%INLINE%

Senior Emili Restrepo was overwhelmed.

"When you put a face on something that you've read about and something that you've seen so many times, you feel more personally connected to what they went through because you don't only think that 'Yeah, it was something that happened in the history books,'" Restrepo said. "You think 'This happened to someone that could be my grandfather, could be my brother, my dad."

Werner's story, like those of countless other survivors, is a remarkable one. He is beyond grateful that he can live to tell not only his tale but also the stories of those victims who did not survive.

"I saw people being shot, I saw people being beaten to a pulp, I've seen people being beaten to death," Werner said. "To me, this means something and when I compare myself to these people -- life has been good to me. I'm alive."

Right after liberation, Werner, then 17, weighed just 64 pounds. He had lost the top half of all the toes on his right foot from an infection. He then managed to make his way first to Yugoslavia, then to England and then to the United States. He met his wife, Eva, and they started a family in New York. Werner eventually became an industrial engineer, a profession he held for over 40 years, but he took a long, hard road to get there.

"I had no education, I had no skills and I couldn't speak English," Werner said. "So I started working as a laborer, then as a machine tool fitter."

Eva, who passed away last year, was also a survivor, whose story may be just as extraordinary. She was one of nearly 700 Jewish children rescued by British humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winton. The operation is known today as the Kindertransport. Eva and Winton were reunited several years ago.%INLINE%

Brentwood High student Javier Sanchez couldn't believe he had the chance to hear these unimaginable accounts.

"From 10 to 15 years from now it's going to be something that people are going to wish they heard. I connected with the survivor himself," Sanchez said. "I know that in the future they're going to be able to read about it, but it's not going to be the same. It's not going to be on the level of intimacy that you can achieve from listening to him."

Werner has been speaking in schools, churches, and synagogues for the past 20 years. He also just finished a rough draft of his biography, "When Good People Did Nothing." Beyond his personal story, he also spreads a message of preventing injustice of any kind to anyone.

"Over the last year or so a lot of public hate, dislike of minorities expressed by the public and I don't want it to happen to them either," he said.

Werner never let the number on his arm, A1828, define him. Rather, it shaped him into a strong, passionate fighter.

"How many of you will promise to help a friend without being asked? Let's see," Werner said. "Don't walk away when someone needs help because now you know what happens when we don't take care of each other. Don't let it happen and please keep your promise."

After everything he experienced, Werner doesn't feel any anger or hatred, only a strong will to keep the memories alive and prevent future persecutions against any group.

My grandfather, Nat, 90, is also an Auschwitz survivor whose entire family was killed in the war. I realize I wouldn't be here today if not for his perseverance and strength to keep going. The motto my grandpa has always lived by is: "Never forget your faith and never forget where you came from."

Some photographs in this segment were provided by Rebecca Grella Photography.