When the Nazi’s most notorious death camp was liberated by the Soviet Red Army, what they found was grotesque. Bodies piled high in mass graves. People suffering, hanging on to life in sub-human conditions.
And yet for survivors of Auschwitz like Albert Kimmelstiel, January 27, 1945 represents a re-birth.
“My husband observed that as his birthday,” says Jacqueline Kimmelstiel, a Holocaust survivor herself. “That was his birthday.”
Jacqueline escaped death by hiding in France, surviving multiple close calls. On the 75th anniversary of the liberation, she says it is her duty to share her late husband’s story from their Bronx home.
“I definitely feel I have to do that for my husband and for all those who died,” she says. “I don’t want it to be forgotten.”
With the youngest Holocaust survivors mostly in their 80s and 90s, the number of first-hand witnesses is shrinking by the day.
93-year-old Auschwitz survivor Ray Kaner still regularly speaks to classrooms and other groups around New York City. She says the nightmares of her time at the death camp never go away.
“The cries, I can hear them,” Kaner says. “The cries and the pleading.”
As a teenager, Kaner remembers watching young children, pulled from their parents, only to end up gassed to death.
More than a million people were killed at Auschwitz, mostly Jews.
“If I could have a pill or something,” Kaner says. “I would have committed suicide.”
On Holocaust Remembrance Day this year, there was an added urgency from many survivors. With a spike in anti-Semitic violence in America and Europe, their pleas are growing louder.
“Six million Jews and many millions of other people died, and nothing was learned?” Kaner asks. “This is what scares me.”
Kaner can’t fathom that 75 years later, anti-Semitic attacks have happened in and around her home city of New York.
“I thought people will learn. They didn’t.”
Kimmelstiel says it's "the denial that’s so hard to take."
These present day threats have also sparked a renewed urgency to preserve the past. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum says it’s in a “race against time,” to collect artifacts before the last generation of survivors is gone.
Fred Wasserman is leading those efforts in New York and showed NBC New York a recent donation from the family of a survivor on the Upper East Side.
“This fills in a whole world of information and documentation about an aspect of the Holocaust we don’t have,” Wasserman explained.
The collection comes from David Kessler. His father Arthur was a doctor, sent to a small concentration camp called Vapniarka. When prisoners there were poisoned, Dr. Kessler complained about the food.
“And the commander said to him, ‘What makes you think we want you to get healthy?’” recalled Kessler.
Dr. Kessler treated the sick prisoners and they rewarded him with small gifts. Bracelets, medallions, a shoe-horn — watever they could cobble together in the camp.
One of the gifts donated to the Holocaust Memorial Museum is a book, just one inch wide, but filled with sketches that tell the prisoners’ first-hand stories of sickness.
“The fact that these prisoners who were being poisoned had the wherewithal to make gifts for the doctor who saved their lives,” Wasserman says. “It’s the essence of humanity.”
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum isn’t just collecting artifacts from survivors, but from anyone impacted by Hitler and Nazi Germany.
The belief is that these personal items, on display for the world to see on the museum’s website, can humanize the horrors of the past, in the face of a rising tide of anti-Semitism.
It’s the very reason David Kessler donated his father’s artifacts, after reading the following quote from his post-Holocaust manuscript.
“Every survivor’s voice is precious, provides a reminder and a warning of the thin veneer of what we call civilization,” Kessler said.
If you have artifacts, photographs or documents that you’d like to share with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, to be safeguarded and added to their collection, please visit their website here for more information.