On this day in 1945, Russian soldiers liberated the prisoners of the Auschwitz-Birkeneau concentration camp. In 2005, the United Nations declared January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
There is no exact figure of the number of Holocaust survivors in Minnesota, but the Transfer of Memory project has documented the stories of more than 40 survivors living around the state. Every story is different, from hiding in remote Greek mountain villages to being led on a death march in the final days of the war.
Eva Gross, who now lives in Plymouth, Minn., joined MPR News host Tom Weber to discuss her experiences during the Holocaust. She was joined by Laura Zelle, director of Tolerance Minnesota and a co-curator of the Transfer of Memory project.
Gross was 16-years-old in 1944 when her family was forced to board a train in Hungary bound for Auschwitz. The journey took three days, and the cattle cars were so overcrowded there wasn't room for everyone to sit. There was no food or water. Gross recalled the cramped conditions and the lack of privacy — there was simply a pail in the corner for the whole car to use as a bathroom.
When the train doors were opened on the platform in Auschwitz, the relief that came with the flood of fresh air was replaced by fear: Nazi SS guards were sorting the passengers as they disembarked. A prisoner working on the platform warned Gross and her mother not to admit they were related — if they did, the guards were likely to split them up. Gross's mother gave her maiden name, Eva Weiss, to hide their connection.
Gross's grandparents were sorted to one side, Gross and her mother to another. Her mother wanted to join them, but a guard repeatedly forced her back. The group with her grandparents, Gross said, was led straight to the crematorium, where they were gassed. She remembers watching them be led away.
"The picture will never get out of my mind," Gross said. "Two old people, who never did any harm to anybody, holding hands and walking way. That was the last time I saw them."
Gross and her mother were transferred to six different camps in the year that followed. By hiding their relation and carefully counting spots in roll call, they managed to stay together.
Near the end of the war, they were led on a brutal death march as the Germans tried to empty the camps. Anyone who could not walk was shot, Gross remembered. Her mother, too weak to continue, lost hope.
"I don't want to live anymore. I can't walk. I've had it. I want to die," Gross remembers her mother saying. A guard approached, but he did not raise his weapon. "Why don't you just drag her?" Gross remembers him saying. "I can't shoot anymore. I just can't do it."
Both Gross and her mother survived the war. They returned to their village in Hungary, but eventually immigrated to the United States. Her mother died in 2011, at the age of 100.
Gross now travels to universities and other organizations, sharing her experiences.
"The reason that I'm here, or wherever I go to talk, I want people to be aware of what hate can do," Gross said. "What I would like people to think about is this: Why would we hate? If we could eliminate hate out of our lives, how much better this world could be."
When asked about the current state of the world, Gross said, "We are doing terribly. You hear the news, all the bad things. People are killing each other for no apparent reason."
"I always say: I don't care if you are a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian or anything, we all should be able to live together in peace and harmony, and practice whatever religion we want. Why do we have to kill?"
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