On Thursday evening, a room filled with curious Rutlanders was transported back in time by Werner Reich, 91, of Long Island, New York, who was imprisoned in Hitler’s concentration camps as a teenager and lived to tell the harrowing tale.
They closed the papers, they killed the editors, burned down Parliament and stripped millions of people of their rights, dignity, voices and lives: Slowly and systematically, the Jewish people and their culture and many others were eliminated from society, and then condemned, before being re-labeled as a population that was less-than, dangerous, and must be eradicated, Reich said.
But for Reich, the start of the Holocaust began 5 years before Kristallnacht, when his father moved his family from Berlin to Zagreb, Yugoslavia, because Jews were not allowed to work for Germans and his father had lost his job as an engineer at Siemens.
It was too expensive to escape to the Americas, and after Nazis invaded Yugoslavia, Reich was 15. He was found secretly making movies for the resistance movement, and transported to Czechoslovakia to his first concentration camp, Terezin, where he exterminated vermin with cyanide and made willow-baskets.
Ten months later, he was sent to Auschwitz II, Birkenau, where SS men wore the skull and crossbones on their military uniform, and Reich said they were fed acorn water and small bits of moldy sawdust bread and were routinely beaten, if they were kept alive at all.
“There were no vitamins, so we lost our teeth,” Reich said. “They didn’t beat you on the behind, they beat you on the spine. I’ve seen plenty of people dying there.”
The barracks were made of wood, and there was a constant leakage of urine and feces from the upper-level bunks that occasionally collapsed, killing the several people in the bunks below them, Reich said.
The prisoners were counted every day, killed off with exercise if someone was missing, chased by German shepherds that ripped prisoners limb from limb, and prisoners were beaten to death with clubs to intimidate others into obedience.
“They hammered nails from the outside (of a) barrel into (it), they put the man in the barrel, they closed the barrel and rolled it down a hill,” Reich said of one prisoner. “Many couldn’t take the camp, so they committed suicide.”
Many were sent to the gas chambers, and after dead were robbed of their teeth and wedding rings, and Reich recalled the boxes of jewelry and empty suitcases that piled up as people were ushered into the chambers, arms raised above their heads so more could fit in.
Reich said he watched as Dr. Josef Mengele decided which of the men would live or die based on their ability to run laps. Reich was later transferred to Auschwitz I, where he stole the horses’ food: dried sugar beets.
Reich was one of 60,000 prisoners who were given a piece of bread and ordered on a death march through the mud, 15,000 of whom died on the way, and the remaining were transported on a frozen car for four days to a quarry concentration camp called Mauthausen, where the men were forced to haul massive stones up steps to throw into the valley.
“They stripped prisoners in the winter and sprayed them with water,” Reich recalled. “We collapsed, screaming with pain. It was without a doubt the worst pain I’ve ever experienced in my entire life, because we were frostbitten.”
When his feet began to rot, a Serbian doctor cut off some of his toes with a knife and wrapped his feet with paper, a procedure that Reich said saved his life.
When they were finally liberated by the American military on May 5, 1945, 20,000 of the prisoners still alive died eating American military rations because they had too many calories, and once sent home, he found all of his friends were gone.
Reich said he started talking about his experiences as a young man in the concentration camps once he was retired, and quite by accident, as people in Britain and Yugoslavia either didn’t want to speak about their experiences, or were advised against it.
But when he came to the United States in 1955, he found many people who had lost their families in the camps, and Reich found himself in a community.
Reich charged the audience to confront immorality and to remember the injustices of the past, to recall the experiences and to reject indifference.
“How could the Holocaust have been avoided?” Reich asked. “By hearing the voice of the majority ... but the majority was silent. ... Please, don’t be a silent friend. Think how people will remember you years from now.”