One after another they took the witness stand. In a crowded and hushed auditorium they broke their 40-year silence. In quiet, level voices they told stories of horror, stories of heroism, stories of desperate attempts to retain their human dignity in a world which had lost all remnant of humanity.
Thirty survivors of the Birkenau concentration camp — where Josef Mengele carried out his notorious medical experiments on twins and others — took the stand during a three-day public hearing at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem last week.
It was the main event of the first international convention of survivors of Mengele’s experiments, which marked the 40th anniversary of the liberation of the camps.
The panel of six judges was headed by Yad Vashem Council chairman Gideon Hausner, who acted as prosecutor at the Adolf Eichmann trial 23 years ago. It included lawyers, experts on the Holocaust and on terrorism, and a geneticist. Judge Zvi Terlo, who helped prepare the case against Eichmann, interrogated the witnesses.
It looked almost like a real trial — except for one detail. The accused, Josef Mengele, known to the camp inmates as the “angel of death”, was missing.
Recent stepped-up efforts to locate and apprehend the Nazi war criminal have so far been unsuccessful. Mengele, who fled Germany in 1953, is now thought to be hiding in Paraguay, protected by President Alfredo Stroessner.
AN EYE-WITNESS ACCOUNT
The atmosphere in Yad Vashem was tense as the witnesses talked about the atrocities.
Aliza Baruch, 57, recalled her memories as a 15-year-old girl in Auschwitz’s experimental Block no. 10: “We were put, twenty girls, in a closed room with no windows. Our first fear was of death, because we knew that a sealed room meant gas. When the door finally opened we all crowded into a comer. Nobody wanted to be singled out. But somebody had to be first, of course, and a girl was taken into an adjacent room.
“We wanted to know what was going on inside. We couldn’t hear crying or complaining. Through the keyhole we could see she was standing naked in the middle of the room, between two machines. It was radiation of course, but we did not know that then.
“When she came out, she told us: “It’s nothing, it’s nothing!” Thinking we would be let out of the closed room afterwards, each girl wanted her turn to come quickly.
“But by the time the third girl’s turn had arrived, the first had begun to vomit. After the treatment was over, it took us almost six hours to return to our block. We were very weak and vomited the whole time. There were terrible signs on our bodies. Our skin was a black strip where the machine had been.”
Baruch pointed to her stomach and said “All our body hair fell out — we became like four-year-olds.” She received radiation treatment three times, and then was operated on.
‘THEY SPLIT MY STOMACH OPEN’
“They split my stomach open,” she said. “They gave me a double injection because I struggled. I was asleep for four days. When I awoke, a Jewish doctor called Shmuel said to me in French: ‘It is over, my little child.’ I put out my hands and felt tissues covering my stomach. He gave me another injection to make me sleep again, so I would not cry.”
Baruch’s voice quivered as she talked of the doctor who saved her life. Continuing, she said:
“The second day my whole stomach was infected, the stitches came undone. Shmuel took them out, looking me in the eyes all the while, as if to say: ‘Have mercy on this girl.’ My stomach opened as if lava was pouring out. It was full of pus. He told Mengele I had a small sore that hadn’t quite healed.”
Baruch recalled that “when one of the girls asked for water, they injected something into her spine. We did not know what death was then. We thought she had gone to sleep. She snored, and from time to time her body quivered. We called a nurse to give her more blankets, and she looked at us as if we did not understand. She said: ‘she will soon fall fast asleep and then we will take her out’
‘WE WERE AFRAID TO DIE’
“But from the way they dragged her out, we understood, and from then on we learned silence. With each girl who died we become more and more silent. With the pain in our stomachs we tried to twist our mouths into a laugh. We were afraid to die.”
In 1946, after the war, Aliza Baruch came to Palestine. Sixteen years later she underwent a second operation. The doctors found that one ovary and half of her womb had been removed in Auschwitz, Baruch said. They had to remove the rest then as it was full of tumors.
“Do you have any children?” asked interrogator Terlo. “That’s what Shmuel meant when he kept saying to me just stay alive.” said Baruch, crying. “I have two children.”
In addition to the public hearing, which lasted three mornings, a symposium and workshops on ethical, medical and sociological aspects of the Holocaust took place during the afternoons. Survivors discussed with experts the dilemma of Jewish doctors forced to help Mengele with his experiments, the moral implications of experiments on humans, and other topics.
At the end of the public hearing, the panel called upon governments throughout the world to help apprehend Mengele, now 73 years old. “It cannot erase our memories, but I want to know that the ‘angel of death’ is not allowed to live and die in peace,” said one survivor.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.