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'You are going to make it:' LIers who survived Auschwitz reflect on 75th anniversary of liberation

Long Islanders who survived the Holocaust commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camps.  (Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevis & Jim Rassol)

Ruth Mermelstein of North Bellmore, now 90, remembers asking at Auschwitz when she’d see her parents again.

“‘Can't you see the smoke? Can't you smell the burning flesh?’” she recalled being told.  

The family of Jack Rosenthal of Roslyn also was slain, nearly all of them at Auschwitz.

“We were a family of eight,” said Rosenthal, now 91.

And, as liberators closed in, recalled Werner Reich of Smithtown, now 92, the Nazis tried to cover up what they’d done, and prisoners were sent on a death march.

“People who couldn't make it were shot. There was no food. We were given just a slice of bread at the beginning of the trip. The only water that we had was ice and snow from the road,” he said.

Mermelstein, Rosenthal and Reich represent an aging number of Holocaust survivors on Long Island and across the world whose dwindling ranks take with them firsthand, eyewitness accounts of Nazi atrocities.

Monday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp complex Auschwitz, to which at least 1.3 million people were sent between 1940 and 1945, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s encyclopedia. Of the 1.3 million, 1.1 million were murdered, and nearly 1 million were Jews.

On Jan. 27, 1945,  Soviet soldiers found about 7,000 survivors. Nearly all the other prisoners had already been slain or sent off to other camps or forced on a death march.

The precise number of people who survived the Holocaust and moved to Long Island or elsewhere in the area is not known, according to Deborah Lom of the Holocaust Museum & Tolerance Center of Nassau County, in Glen Cove.

“After Liberation, particularly in the [1950s], many Survivors didn’t talk about their experiences during the Holocaust. No one kept track of who was in Auschwitz, which Survivors that were in Auschwitz came to the U.S. or how many ended up in NYC or on L.I.,” Lom wrote in an email. “So we also don’t know how many are still alive.”

Located in occupied Poland, Auschwitz was the largest complex of its kind, but far from the only camps established by the Third Reich: According to the American Jewish Congress, there were 42,500 ghettos and camps that imprisoned an estimated 15 million to 20 million people.

As a teenager who could work, Rosenthal was allowed to live when the rest of his family him was condemned at Auschwitz. He was forced to carry cement bags , unload bricks and work at a synthetic rubber factory. He was later moved to Buchenwald, another concentration camp, which wasn't liberated until April 11, 1945.

“To me, Auschwitz was like the French Riviera compared to Buchenwald,” said Rosenthal, recalling how prisoners wouldn’t be fed and would be worked literally to death, with bodies strewn “like garbage.”

“We were there, waiting to die,” he said. 

Rosenthal managed to survive. He would move to the United States, work in real estate, buy a house in Roslyn and become a synagogue president of Shelter Rock Jewish Center and establish a Holocaust studies center at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.

Mermelstein remembers being in a crowded boxcar and the last thing her father told her: "You are going to make it." 

And she did, having two daughters, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, but her journey to North Bellmore was paved with unspeakable horror: a cascade of more restrictive laws against Jews in her native Hungary, then deportation to Auschwitz and elsewhere.

She had been forced to live in a ghetto, leave school at 12 and was "lucky" to be selected to live by the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele then forced into slave labor and a death march. She said she has no photos of her family left.

“There was no humanity,” she said of the Holocaust. "We cannot let this happen again."

Reich, whose family began to suffer the fallout of Hitler's rise early on with laws restricting Jewish employment and business ownership, worked in the resistance. When caught, he eventually found himself at Auschwitz after being selected by Mengele to live. The horror didn’t end for him upon the camp’s liberation. He had already been sent to Mauthausen, another camp.

In the process, another prisoner, a doctor, amputated some of his toes after they were so frozen that they began to rot.

Reich wasn’t freed until May 5, 1945: He was 17 and weighed 64 pounds.

“Look, I’m not celebrating Auschwitz's liberation. I celebrate two days: one of them is July 6. That's the day I went through the selection, through Dr. Mengele,” Reich said, “and I’m celebrating May 5, when I was liberated from Mauthausen.”

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