Who saved the Holocaust survivors

Student meets concentration camp survivors : "How was it in Auschwitz, Mr. Gardosch?"

How much longer can contemporary witnesses tell? For the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp we have chosen a special interview format: The Auschwitz Survivor Peter Johann Gardosch (90) receives the Berlin student at home Ben Polon. A conversation between a 13-year-old and a Holocaust survivor about hatred of Nazis, the luck of survival, German culture. And in the end, the old man advises the boy not to let the terrible past confuse him. On Monday, Gardosch and Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Auschwitz - the grave of his mother, grandmother and sister.

Ben, have you ever met a Holocaust survivor?
Ben: Not quite. I was in Israel with my mother last summer. There we met a Jewish war survivor whom we got to know through a colleague of my mother's. The man spoke German well. And what he said was very interesting, it moved me. Then we went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. After a little over three hours, we were only halfway through the tour. Unfortunately, time was of the essence. And I have to say: I was a bit ashamed for my people there.

Gardosch: You do not need!

Ben: I know, but it was just like that at that moment. I had a stomach ache from all these impressions. It was only in Yad Vashem that I was able to understand the dimensions of the whole thing. I have so many questions. So I am delighted to be able to speak to you today.

Gardosch: We are on good terms, please. I am Peter. And: ask me! Go ahead.

Ben: Does it still affect you when you report on your story?

Gardosch: I am often asked. And then I answer: It doesn't affect me anymore.

How come
Gardosch: I dont know. My doctor says I have a high level of resilience. In other words, the ability to overlook difficult life situations without permanent impairment.

But you still go to schools to report on what you have experienced.
Gardosch: Of course! But I don't suffer any more.

Did you suffer?
Gardosch: Sure, when I was deported. And after the liberation in my early twenties. I was depressed for a long time. I was only 13 years old when the Nazis took my family and me and we came to Auschwitz - as old as you are today, Ben.

Ben: To be honest, I can't even imagine what it is like to be torn from your environment, from your life, at the age of thirteen.

How was that for you?
Gardosch: Awful!

Ben: What happened back then?

Gardosch: The gendarmes came, pointed their rifles at my grandmother and said: Frau Doktor, we are sorry, but we have to arrest you. You are allowed to take 50 kilograms with you. Then we loaded our few things onto a horse and cart and had to walk to a disused brick factory. We were interned there. That was our ghetto. There was nothing in the building, just dust and dirt. We had to sleep on the floor. It was a terrible shock.

Ben: Did you even realize what was happening back then?

Gardosch: I understood that it was a huge drama. On March 19, 1944, the Germans occupied Hungary. Then everything happened very quickly. Yellow star and all the prosecution. We already knew what was going on. And there was something particularly tragic for our family.

What do you mean?
Gardosch: My parents knew a rich man who owned large forests and lands in the Carpathian Mountains. And he said to us: You know, the Germans want to deport you. I can hide you. The Russians may be here in three months. But my poor mother turned down the offer and said: What if we get sick? And Germany is a civilized state. My mother even bought a straw hat.

What for?
Gardosch: She seriously believed that we would have to work in agriculture in Germany. Imagine this naivety, Ben.

Did you and your families know that the Germans wanted to bring the Jews?
Gardosch: Yes, that was known.

Ben: How long have you been in this brick factory?

Gardosch: Maybe three weeks.

Ben: Did you have a job there?

Gardosch: Nothing there, we just stood around most of the day. Always roll calls, they kept counting us. Then one day we were driven to the train station. There we had to get into cattle wagons. Up to 70 people were cooped up per car. It was horrible.

Ben: I imagine it to be very bad.

Gardosch: It was a hot summer, June 6th. I still remember this very well because our train stopped briefly in the Czech Republic and a railroad worker called out in English: The Allies have landed. So it was D-Day. The next day we arrived in Auschwitz.

Ben: And what happened there?

Gardosch: We arrived at dawn. Pale light. Infinite rows of fences. Barracks everywhere. Then it started. So-called prison functionaries shouted "Out, out!" They had the order to get us out of the wagons. Then we had to stand in two rows: fit men on the left, the elderly, women and children on the right. Two SS officers stood in front, they only waved to the right or left. And I was lucky.

In what way?
Gardosch: I was as old as you are today, Ben, and wore a so-called city fur - fur inside, fabric outside - that my grandmother had given me. I thought that was nonsensical in June, but my grandma insisted. With the hint that German winters are cold. And so I stood at the ramp, looking stronger with my coat than I actually was. When it was my turn, the officer asked me: How old are you? I replied: 17. He sent me to the left. If I hadn't had that fur, we wouldn't be able to talk here today. My mother, grandmother, grandfather and my little sister were probably murdered on the same day.

Did you know then what was going on in Auschwitz?
Gardosch: No, we didn't know anything.

Ben: How was it in Auschwitz?

Gardosch: We were first led into a large concrete room. Shower heads hung from the ceiling. The SS ordered us to take off our clothes and hang them on numbered hooks. We should remember the numbers. Then we stood under the showers - and suddenly there was warm water. When we got out, our hair was shaved and we were given prison clothes.

And then?
Gardosch: Then it went to the barracks. Up to 1000 people lived in one of these barracks. You were woken up at six in the morning and had to line up in rows of five. There we stood. And stood. And stood. Whenever there was something to eat, it was put in bowls of some kind. These were then passed from front to back. A couple of Czech doctors told my father: You can survive a maximum of two months on this type of food. Then one day when SS men asked who wanted to report to work, my father and I immediately shouted "we". That was on June 17, 1944. We were put in wagons again and driven to Kaufering am Lech in Bavaria. A satellite camp of the Dachau concentration camp.

A couple of Czech doctors told my father: You can survive a maximum of two months on this type of food.

Peter Gardosch on the food in Auschwitz

Ben: Why after Kaufering?

Gardosch: The Allies had flattened the German air defense. The Americans and British therefore had air sovereignty. That is why the Germans decided to build aircraft in underground facilities. The world's first jet aircraft was a twin-engine Messerschmidt 262, which was to be produced in these factories. But there was a problem.

In fact?
Gardosch: The technology and knowledge were there, but there was a lack of manpower. Then, through Adolf Eichmann, there was an order to bring men from Hungary. The organizer of the murder of Jews later stated that he was impressed by the dedication of the Hungarian authorities to complying with it. So my father and I ended up in Kaufering.

Ben: And it was hard work there?

Gardosch: Very hard. But at some point an SS man came and asked us prisoners: Who speaks German? I immediately raised my finger. And he said you'd come with me. It turned out that he was the orderly of the camp commandant. His name was Lehmann and he was a simple soldier. That saved my life.

How did Lehmann treat you?
Gardosch: Very friendly. He was personable, a decent German.

Ben: What did you have to do?

Gardosch: Cleaning boots, dusting, watering flowers, washing.

Ben: How did you survive in the end? Was it just over at some point?

Gardosch: I survived because Adolf Hitler lost the war.

Ben: So you were in Kaufering until the end of the war?

Gardosch: Nearly. At the end of the war we were sent on a death march to Allach near Munich. That is where we should be killed. But one night there was an accident, a car drove into our column. There was utter panic. They used five of us and two of our SS guards to escape. We then fled across the fields and hid in the forest. In a village called Puch we first found shelter in a Catholic parish. We were told there that you had to go to Fürstenfeldbruck to see Father Emanuel Haiß. This prior took us in. I was friends with him until the end of his life.

And then were the Americans there?
Gardosch: Yes, and they were very friendly to us. And then we're back to Transylvania, to my homeland.

Ben: And then you went back to school?

Gardosch: Yes. But anti-Semitism still prevailed there. I had believed that I would be admired as someone who had survived Auschwitz. Shit, the opposite was true. I even got into a real fight with a classmate who was hostile to Jews. He asked me: Why did you kill Jesus? I replied: Leave me alone, I have nothing to do with it. And then it really got down to business. And who was punished by the school administration? I, the Jew.

Ben: Do you hate the Nazis?

Gardosch: Yes, I hate the Nazis. But not the Germans. I grew up with the German culture and language. I have nothing against Kant, Schopenhauer, Bach, Beethoven or Thomas Mann.

Yes, I hate the Nazis. But not the Germans.

Peter Gardosch

Could you have ever imagined that the Germans could set in motion a machinery of extermination like the Holocaust?
Gardosch: No.

Ben: Should the perpetrators from back then still be brought to justice?

Gardosch: Most of them are very old. I think the perpetrators should be humiliated in court and then sent home to die.

Ben: Are you afraid that something like the Holocaust could repeat itself?

Gardosch: No, not in this form. But if everything goes wrong, I can imagine that there will be a nuclear war. Then many more people die than in Auschwitz. The danger is there.

Germany seems to have right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism problems. Is that how you perceive it?
Gardosch: Now I'm saying something that shouldn't suit you.

Go ahead!
Gardosch: Angela Merkel was the first Federal Chancellor to speak German in front of the Israeli parliament and at the time said literally: Israel's security is the reason of state of the Federal Republic. And what did Ms. Merkel do in 2015? It let hundreds of thousands of the worst enemies of the Jews and the Jewish state into Germany. Many of the Arab children grew up with anti-Semitism, with pictures in school books that are hardly inferior to the Nazi hate speech “Der Stürmer”. These people bring anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism here with them.

Was it a mistake to let the many Arab refugees into the country?
Gardosch: It was a mistake to do this in a completely uncontrolled manner. When people are in need, it is a matter of course for a rich country like Germany to take them in. But the lack of control was a fatal mistake. This has given anti-Semitism a boost. Just think of Jewish students in Berlin who are bullied so much that they have to leave school. Do you have such cases too, Ben?

Ben: I'm at a Waldorf school. We have very little bullying. And I don't even know if we even have a Jew in our classes.

Mr Gardosch, on Monday you will visit the former Auschwitz extermination camp with Federal President Steinmeier. The occasion is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp. Is that a difficult process for you?
Gardosch: Auschwitz is the grave of my mother, my grandmother, my little sister.

Ben: Are you excited?

Gardosch: No, but moved inside.

Were you in Auschwitz after the war ended?
Gardosch: Yes, as a young Romanian television reporter I traveled to Poland for the communist youth festival. A visit to the death camp was also on the program. At that time I was 22, 23 years old.

What did that do for you?
Gardosch: I got depression. These mountains with shoes and hair. Just awful. Do you know Auschwitz, Ben?

Ben: No.

Gardosch: Don't go there! Listen to me. As a child you have no business there.

Does the warning put you off, Ben?
Ben: I will listen to Peter's advice. When he says I should do this as an adult, that's what I act on. But at some point I want to go to Auschwitz.

Gardosch: I would like to say something else.

You're welcome.
Gardosch: Adolf Eichmann always got enough trains to deport Jews to death camps. And with the help of the Hungarian authorities, he almost completely exterminated the Hungarian Jews within eight weeks. Of 500,000 Hungarian Jews, 480,000 were killed in just eight weeks. There has never been a massacre like this in history.

When did you first realize what Auschwitz was?
Gardosch: When I was there. We saw the chimneys, the flames, the smoke, the crematoria. Those who had been in Auschwitz for a long time told us cynically: You are going through this chimney. But my father and I escaped the killing. By the way, I wrote a book about it. The title is: At thirteen through hell. It's an autobiographical novel. It is about life and death, friendship and love. And survival. Finally, I have one more piece of advice for Ben.

Ben: Which would be?

Gardosch: Don't get too immersed in this terrible past. You are too young for that. This terrible part of German history must not seize you. You have to think about the future.

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