NEW YORK - January 27th, 2022 marks the 77th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
It was an extermination camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, where more than a million innocent men, women and children were murdered.
Every year this date is recognized as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is personal to me.
I’m Dana Arschin and I am the granddaughter of an Auschwitz survivor, my Poppy, I wouldn't be here without him. It’s my mission to share Holocaust victims’ stories, out of a sense of pride in my ancestry and an obligation to keep the memories alive.
We are taking a look at how this global pandemic we’re all living through has impacted the way Holocaust victims are honored and remembered. We will also share with you some incredible stories of strength, bravery, perseverance and hope from this last generation of survivors.
Step-by-step, in a show of solidarity, they march. For more than 30 years, thousands of people from across the globe have come together annually in Poland for the International March of the Living. It’s an approximately two mile walk from the notorious main entrance of Auschwitz I over to Auschwitz II, which is the death camp more commonly known as Birkenau. I participated in the march in 2018 and documented my entire journey.
This tradition, which takes place every spring, has been put on hold for two straight years.
"Not being able to travel to visit the sites of destruction of so many of our ancestors has left us feeling quite helpless," said Phyllis Greenberg Heideman, President of the International March of the Living.
The organization’s mission— to bring visitors to Auschwitz annually— has been paused due to travel restrictions and COVID safety concerns. This year, the march is set to resume in April, even as we see new COVID strains. However, fewer than half of the 10,000 participants who usually come are expected to join.
"We are here. We remember, we will not forget. And no matter what obstacles we face, we are committed to coming to Poland," said Heideman.
With each passing year, the number of survivors dwindles. The nonprofit Holocaust organization, Claims Conference, estimates there are only about 300 to 350-thousand survivors still living across the globe.
This is our last chance to hear these survivors' first-hand accounts of the horrors, while they are still among us. Throughout this pandemic, we not only had the chance to meet some remarkable Holocaust survivors, but we also got to hear their COVID* survival stories and their celebrations. Long Islander Esther Kosiner turned 100 last year.
"I have children, that’s why I’m still alive, my kids are wonderful," said Kosiner. Her kids give her strength to keep living every day to the fullest.
Kosiner was born in Germany in 1921, right as the world was recovering from the Spanish Flu pandemic. She and her parents managed to escape, but her sister Rosa was killed in a Nazi camp. Despite the decades that have passed, the scars of Kosiner’s childhood have never faded.
"I was a little girl and it was very nice until Hitler came. We had to go to the street and say Heil Hitler, if you didn’t, they came after you," said Kosiner.
Another survivor with vivid memories of her past is Lee Fruchtman. We met near her home in Washington Heights, soon after she turned 101. She recounts life in Germany during the war and her escape on a ship to the U.S.
"We went under the bed when they marched on our street, Heil Hitler," "Very sad, very sad and on the boat I was sick for seven days, very sad," said Fruchtman.
But Lee worked hard, creating a family and a successful life here in New York. Even as she hits this impressive age milestone, she feels like she still has so much life left to live. She says working and not sleeping keep her alive!
If strength has ever been tested, here’s the story of Jack Holzberg. He was imprisoned in several Nazi camps, including Mauthausen and Płaszów. His mother and two siblings were murdered. This New Jersey man in his 90’s survived a three-week battle with COVID. While so many COVID survivors were getting wheeled out of the hospital, Jack was on his feet.
"I survived, I came home, and I’m alright. Thank God I’m here," said Holzberg in May of 2020.
Sadly, Jack Holzberg has since passed away-- driving home the need to hear these firsthand accounts now, while we still can.
Josef Mengele was known as "the angel of death." He was a notorious Nazi doctor who conducted inhumane medical experiments on prisoners in Auschwitz. I spoke with twin brothers who survived those experiments when they were only 11 years old.They’re speaking out now, many decades later, to make sure the world never forgets.
"He didn’t save me! He just kept me alive for himself!" exclaimed Peter Somogyi.
Emotions are still raw, images of horror are still vivid, more than 75 years after Peter survived the Holocaust. The 88-year-old, who’s now living in Westchester County, New York, was only 11 years old when he arrived at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in July of 1944. The ink is still visible from the prisoner number A-17454 that was tattooed on his arm at arrival. That’s also when he first came face-to-face with notorious Nazi Doctor, Josef Mengele.
"Mengele came around and asked for twins. My mother first didn’t know what to say, second time ‘no,’ third time she said ‘yes.’ Immediately, two gentleman grabbed us and we never had a chance to say goodbye," said Peter
Peter, his twin brother Thomas, their 13-year-old sister Alice and mother Elizabeth had all unknowingly been in line for the gas chambers when the twins were plucked aside. They never saw Alice or Elizabeth again.
"The moment we got into the barrack the man who was in charge of Mengele’s twins, we asked him ‘when can I see my mother?’ The first question. He said just look outside there, flames, and then we understood that we would never see my mother again," said Peter.
Josef Mengele was young, charming and outwardly pleasant. A façade that masked unspeakable evil. He was known as the "angel of death," often personally administering the Hydrogen cyanide gas to his victims. More than a million innocent men, women and children were murdered in Auschwitz alone. Mengele also conducted medical experiments on prisoners and had a fascination with twins.
"I think his aim was to find some kind of formula to help German mothers to conceive and to bear twins or triplets or whatever to increase the German population," said Thomas Simon, Peter’s twin brother.
Through zoom, we spoke with Thomas, who changed his last name and now lives in Toronto. He and Peter were so young when they met Mengele and his cohorts, never really understanding what was being done to them. They remember doctors drawing blood from their arms and measuring their heads.
"The one that I recall vividly, which was the most unpleasant, was taking an impression of my teeth, basically somebody packed what I figured must’ve been gypsum, calcium sulfate in my mouth and I had to keep my mouth open, it was very unpleasant, I was like choking and gag reflex," said Thomas.
"Luckily there weren’t brutal experiments like what was done before because we were just about the last arrivals, after us only another pair came," said Peter.
Peter and Thomas arrived at Auschwitz about six months before the camp’s liberation. They were part of a massive group of more than 400,000 Jews packed into cattle cars and deported from Hungary in just 54 days.
"A lot of children, a lot of 11-year-olds and younger, they were killed right away because they weren’t strong enough to work. Do you think you actually being a twin is why you survived?," I asked Thomas. "There’s no doubt about it. It’s absolutely certain. There’s no two ways about it. I would not be alive today if I hadn’t been a twin," said Thomas.
"One day when another Nazi officer came around and made a selection and he selected us again for the gas chamber and we were taken out from the barracks into another room, locked inside and we waited for the truck to take us to the gas chamber, except somehow Mengele got wind of it and said ‘no, I will decide, not another officer." And that officer apparently angered Mengele and he was sent to Russia," said Peter.
Mengele is the reason the boys are alive-- a dark irony. After liberation, Thomas and Peter made their way to Israel, then London and then Canada, where Thomas stayed and Peter eventually left for New York with his wife, Anna. Anna and her family also survived the Holocaust by hiding in different locations throughout Budapest. The twin brothers worked hard in their new lives and raised beautiful families. Their father, Jozsef, survived the Dachau Concentration Camp and lived to be 105 years old. Peter and Thomas know their story is unique, and despite how painful it is to tell, they understand the importance of doing so.
"In about 10 to 15 years, there will be no survivors. We are all dying off sooner or later. There will be no survivors alive who were eyewitnesses," said Peter.
"As far as I’m concerned, it was the greatest crime in human history and it must not be forgotten," said Thomas.
A plea to future generations to never forget.
An unexpected and extraordinary series of events recently played out for one local Holocaust survivor.
An incredible discovery has unlocked stories from her family's past that had been hidden for decades.
"I just cried, I could cry right now, you just cried like a child," said Susi Kasper Leiter as she recalled that painful goodbye-- not knowing if she’d ever see her parents again.
It was 1939 and she was 14 years old, escaping from Nazi Germany on a children’s transport to France. Fox 5 has recovered archival video from two years later, right before Susi boarded a ship from Portugal to the U.S. Her family’s Holocaust survival story is a remarkable one. Susi and her parents miraculously reunited in New York in 1942.
In present day on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, we met with the vibrant 94-year-old and her grandson, Jake, to hear another extraordinary tale. It’s about an unexpected discovery, which meant their family’s story had not yet been fully written.
"I thought it was a magical story that a Bible could’ve been found after all these years." said Susi.
An unbelievable series of events unfolded that Susi and her family never imagined could have played out. Here they are now, united with an irreplaceable heirloom that belonged to Susi’s late husband’s grandparents, named Eduard and Ernestine Leiter, who are Jake’s great-great grandparents. As Hitler rose to power, Nazis forced Eduard and Ernestine to move into a house in Oberdorf, Germany-- crammed in there with several other Jewish families. That’s when it’s believed that Eduard and Ernestine hid a 22-pound 1874 version of the Tanakh, which is a Hebrew Bible, comprised of the Torah and filled with descriptive illustrations.
"Not totally surprised because I knew that many of the Jews during the bad times, during the terrible Hitler years, hid their things between walls and doors of furniture, etc. What surprised me was the years that passed, that no one ever noticed it before," said Susi.
"For 50 years, 48 years, it was hidden behind a double wall. In 1990 a man bought the home, his son and him renovating the house, his son was up in the attic found behind a double wall in the chest, a Bible, letters, jewelry," said Susi’s grandson, Jake Leiter.
That father and son never returned the jewelry or letters, but did sell the bible on eBay nearly 3 decades later for 65 euros. Fortunately, the Tanakh ended up in the hands of an art historian who then donated it to a Synagogue in Germany. That art historian later contacted a staffer with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is based in Washington D.C. That’s where researcher Jo-Ellyn Decker works, who found Jake on linked-in and sent him a private message telling him about the Tanakh. Arrangements were soon made for the heavy bible to be hand-delivered to the Leiters in New York.
"It's never happened in terms of repatriating an item, I've worked at a museum for 13 years," said Jo-Ellyn Decker, research and reference librarian with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
This feat was a huge accomplishment for Jo-Ellyn and her team, who believe stories like this one remind future generations of all the individual lives lost during that dark period in history.
"Without those micro histories, you have no larger history you have no context in which to really put what happened to people together," said Jo-Ellyn.
In August of 1942, Eduard, Ernestine and the other Jewish families packed into that house were sent to the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. It’s believed that the Leiters hid their precious few possessions, including the Tanakh, right before their deportation. The bible has been traced back to their family because a card with Eduard’s name on it and some other information was found inside the bible.
"Part of the family has been regenerated. I look at the Bible and I’m just fascinated by it, the beauty of the script. So periodically now in the evening if I want to be closer to my husband who died almost 12 years ago, I read it like a book, I find it just beautiful," said Susi.
"Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, so I want my kids to know that’s real life, this happened and it wasn’t that long ago so this is a real tangible item that they can see and look at and I could tell them that their great-great-great grandparents once held, I want them to know, that’s it," said Jake.
Eduard and Ernestine were later deported to the Treblinka extermination camp where they were murdered. Susi and Jake vow to make sure their legacies live on and that these unimaginable stories of horror serve to educate generations to come.
According to the non-profit organization Selfhelp Community Services, Inc., an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 Holocaust survivors are currently living right here in the New York-metropolitan area. Numbers from before the pandemic show that about 3,000 survivors in this region pass away every year. Time is running out to learn the stories and the lessons of the Holocaust from the witnesses themselves—members of the last generation.