AUSCHWITZ — Jan Rothbaum remembers the day he lost his family like it was yesterday. It only took a few minutes for the SS commando to drag his father Schulem, his mother Dora and his brothers Roman and Joseph out of their apartment in Krakow, Poland, one October day in 1942. Jan resisted, striking one of the SS troops, who then beat him unconscious. The SS apparently assumed Rothbaum was dead and left him lying on the floor. When he came to, the rest of his family was gone.
Later, Rothbaum was also captured by the Germans. He managed to survive a year in the Plaszow concentration camp, near Krakow, thanks to his skills as a carpenter. In early 1944, he was transferred to Auschwitz. Seventy-five years later, Rothbaum, now a Canadian citizen who goes by the name of Ephroim "Johnny" Jablon, is standing inside Block 27, where he finds his family's entries in the "Book of Names" of murdered Jewish victims. All his relatives were gassed to death in Belzec extermination camp. "There are lots of other names of my relatives in this book," Jablon says slowly. "I lost sixteen aunts and uncles, and more than 20 cousins. No one survived except me."
Holocaust survivor Ephroim "Johnny" Jablon — Source: Facebook page
Jablon steps out into the cold January sun and tells a class of visiting schoolchildren from San Diego how four young girls were hanged on this very spot. He tells them about the smell in the camp. About how he only escaped being sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp because of a doctor who changed his medical records. And he tells them about the death march that begun in January 1945, when the SS forced him and other prisoners to walk to six other concentration camps, until in May 1945 he was freed by U.S. troops who liberated the Gunskirchen camp in Upper Austria.
Jablon is 94 years old and has been living in Montreal, Canada, since 1948. On the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, he has traveled 6,500 kilometers from Montreal, to speak once again about the mass murders in the camp. Nine other survivors walk beside him through the gate with the famous words: Arbeit macht frei ("Work will set you free"). They pause, cry, or speak in trembling voices about the horror that has suddenly again invaded their present. Standing neabry is Ronald Lauder, an American cosmetics billionaire and president of the World Jewish Congress, who for years has been involved in preserving Auschwitz as a memorial and museum.
Jablon's prisoner identity card used by the Germans during the war — Source: Azrieli Foundation
Lauder was in Auschwitz on Monday to appear beside Polish President Andrzej Duda and address representatives from 50 countries, speaking not only about the past but about the present: about attacks on synagogues and Jewish shops, about how Jews in Paris, Budapest, London and Berlin are once again afraid to walk down the street wearing a kippah on their head.
I didn't want to see my family's ashes.
There are around 1,000 Auschwitz survivors still alive today. Some 200 of them have arrived at the Polish site and the city of Krakow to recount death and survival during the Holocaust. Lauder says it is "more important than ever." In his home country, one-fifth of Americans under 35 don't know what the Holocaust is. Almost half of U.S. citizens can't name a single Jewish ghetto or concentration camp. Lauder is concerned by the rise in anti-Semitic hate crime in Europe: In France, but also in Germany, where Home Office figures show that in 2018 there were nearly 1,800 crimes reported where the motivation was suspected to be anti-Semitic.
The Oct. 9 attack on the synagogue in the central German city of Halle was a further cause for alarm for Lauder. "The perpetrator in Halle learned his anti-Semitic views from the internet," he said. "It is high time that the German government cracks down more strongly on neo-Nazis and all those spreading hate online."
Arbeit macht frei sign in Auschwitz — Photo: Pimke
The organizers believe that the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz may be the last major commemoration where survivors can bear witness to the greatest crime of the 20th century. Johnny Jablon had promised himself never to return to Poland. "Apart from me, there was no one left. I didn't want to see my family's ashes." But his rabbi in Montreal convinced the 92-year-old to undergo the Jewish coming-of-age ritual that the Nazi terror robbed him of experiencing almost 80 years before. In 2018, Jablon returned to Krakow for the first time and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in the synagogue there.
Jablon brought his grandson Daniel for the 75th anniversary. He showed him the house where his family used to live, and what remains of Jewish Krakow, where almost 70,000 Jews lived before the Holocaust. Now Jablon says he wants to come to Krakow and Auschwitz again, in April, to tell hundreds of students from Canada, his long-ago adopted homeland, about what happened to him when he too was just a boy.
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