Exactly 75 years ago Tuesday, I was liberated in the Mauthausen Concentration camp. It was a warm spring day. I was 17 years old, weighed 64 pounds, and my feet were rotting. I was too weak to stand. Very little changed for us for about a week, and then we received military rations which killed us. Every day we were closer to death but we were free.
I said I was liberated in the camp and not from the camp as we had to stay there for at least another three weeks before we could leave for another dictatorship. From Nazism to communism. Liberation gave us hope, although about 20,000 died in our camp even after liberation. One man in our camp, who had been in various camps for 10 years, died from a heart attack on liberation day.
People frequently ask me what our feelings were on being liberated, or on Victory Day on May 8, 1945. Most of us didn’t care as the only thing that mattered was food. Anything edible. Grass, breadcrusts, roots, even raw potatoes.
Sure there was a happy atmosphere in the camp, but the liberation did nothing for us or our condition as the American troops had no food or medications and we were all starving, diseased or dead. And the war was still going on.
A few weeks later, I left the camp wearing the clothing of a murdered prisoner and suddenly had the world at my disposal but didn’t know what to do with it. There was no introduction through my parents or friends. We had to figure it out ourselves. We were in a world destroyed by death, hate and bombs. One thing we had learned was that dictatorship and hate would not be part of our life. We had lived it, we had witnessed it. And that’s why I am close to tears when I see slogans of hate and prejudice.
People who make up those signs think they are funny. They have never seen a person dying. Or slept next to a corpse. They are grown people who think that world is their sandbox. I had hoped that through the suffering of the millions in the camps, the piles of corpses and the few witnesses like me, the world would have learned and be filled with hugs. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
Life is beautiful and unfortunately far too short. Please give it a soft kiss. It has given us many reasons to smile.
If you or your family have not been permanently affected by the coronavirus, consider yourself blessed. I think the secret to happiness is being able to differentiate between a nuisance and a tragedy. But it is our responsibility to make sure that neither will occur.
Hugs. Lots of them.
Werner Reich is a Smithtown resident.