KRAKOW - As a young pilot of 24, Avraham Harshalom found himself hospitalized at Tel Hashomer hospital. He suggested to the doctor that while he was there, he could remove the tattoo from his left arm. "At that age you just want to be like everyone else," he says. "People would see the tattoo and look at you differently."
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Sitting in the lobby of the Krakow Holiday Inn, Harshalom is for once surrounded by men and women who are not different to him. He is one of more than a hundred survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau who have been brought here by the World Jewish Congress to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the camp's liberation. The survivors are at the center of attention here, surrounded by family members and well-wishers. Everyone is aware that this could well be the last reunion of such a large group of survivors.
Another thing these grandparents and great-grandparents in their late eighties and nineties have in common is that for decades after liberation, they did not share their experiences. They just tried to be like everyone else.
"After the war when I studied engineering in Czechoslovakia, most of my friends were not Jewish and had no idea of what had happened to us, or didn't want to know. If I tried to tell anyone they just wouldn't believe." Harshalom who spent nearly two years in Auschwitz as part of a road-cleaning detail tried escaping twice and ended up being liberated at the Leitmeritz camp near the Theresienstadt Ghetto.
"I knew none of my family was left so I didn't go back to my hometown Pruzhany in Poland (today part of Belarus). I decided to stay in Czechoslovakia and build a new life and then along came members of the Haganah, who were looking for students to join a pilot's course for the new Israeli Air Force."
The young state was purchasing weapons from the Czech government, including locally-built versions of the Messerschmitt 109 fighter, and the new recruits began learning to fly them in Czechoslovakia before traveling to join the Independence War fighting.
"People flying with me in the air force, when they heard that I had been in Auschwitz, they would say things like 'why didn't you fight back' or 'if you survived then you must have been collaborating with the Germans.' There really was no way of talking about it."
His original plan was to have flown as a volunteer and then return to his studies in Czechoslovakia. During his stay in Israel, however, the Communist Party consolidated power in Prague. He decided to stay and become an Israeli citizen. After leaving military service he founded an engineering company.
"I put everything behind me; I just focused on building a business," says the 90-year-old, who still pilots his own private Piper Aztec. "Even my wife Rachel, who had been in Russia during the war, didn't know the details of what I had been through. Everyone was just focused on building, and I didn't want to be different."
Only in his sixties, when the Polish government began allowing Israeli citizens to visit Auschwitz, did he decide to return for the first time during a business trip to Europe. This led him to start opening up to his family, whom he brought on a subsequent visit to his home town and to Auschwitz, where he finally learnt the fate of his brother.
"My parents and grandparents were taken immediately to the gas chambers when we arrived in early 1943, and my brother and I were sent to work. After six weeks he couldn't go on and they took him to the hospital block. I never discovered what happened to him until I made contact with the Auschwitz museum, who found the records of his death and of my escape attempt."
For many of the survivors, it was the opportunity toward the end of the Communist era to revisit Auschwitz which helped them to open up and recount their stories. David Leitner, who arrived in Auschwitz at the age of 13 in March 1944, came back for the first time in 1990 when he accompanied a group of Israeli teenagers.
"It was so emotional that once I returned home, I couldn't come back again for two years. Since then, I've been here 28 times, together with different groups. I want to show them not only what it was like, but that survivors are happy people who can sing and dance. I dance with them next to Crematorium no.5, where my life was saved. It's the best thing for me."
He tries to make light of some of his experience, telling students how on the train from his native Hungary to Auschwitz he was pleased to be missing studies at heder (Hebrew school), which he detested. At 85, Leitner is in high demand as one of a dwindling group of Israeli survivors still capable of regularly making the trip. He reflects ruefully how the attitude has changed in Israel since he first arrived in 1949.
"They mocked survivors then. When I told some of my new friends in the army that a Gypsy boy had tried to steal my shoes in Auschwitz, they said 'why did you let him? You soap (a derisory nickname in use at the time for Holocaust survivors).' I don't want to blame people from back then, people just couldn't believe this had happened, even we who had been there had trouble believing it happened."
Leitner settled in the religious moshav (agricultural community) of Nir Galim and for years didn't tell his own family of his time in Auschwitz. "Once I was with my daughter in the Moshav's cow shed and she suddenly said to me 'Abba' the cow has a number on it, just like you have on your arm.' I just tried to make a joke. Even my wife Sarah didn't know then what my tattoo meant. We didn't want to talk about it because we thought knowing about it would somehow harm our children."
Many Auschwitz survivors mention two events in the 1960s: The Adolf Eichmann trial in 1962, where the survivors' testimony against the architect of the Final Solution drew wide public attention and then the Six-Day War, on the eve of which many Israelis feared a "second Holocaust."
For Leitner, the construction of a nearby oil refinery spurred his memory. "I kept looking at the refinery chimneys and thinking of the Crematoria in Auschwitz." During the mid-1960s, Leitner and other survivors began taking part in a project of interviews with Professor Moshe Davis of the Hebrew University, at the time a historical innovation in creating an oral history of a major event. He began telling his wife and two daughters his story, trying to link it with happier experiences. "I would say on Shavuot or Shabbat, now we're eating and making merry, and remembering how on this date in Auschwitz my life was saved."
For some survivors though, the indifference and sometimes downright hostility to their experiences after the Holocaust was linked to the challenges and political disputes that came after.
Mordechai Ronen who arrived at Auschwitz at the age of eleven was liberated at the end of the war in Gunskirchen camp in Austria and only a year later reunited with his two elder brothers. "The last thing my father said to me was 'we will meet in Jerusalem.' I was dedicated to that."
In Italy, he joined in 1948 the Irgun Zvai Leumi movement and embarked to Israel in June 1948 on the Altalena, carrying 930 other survivors and weapons for the Jews fighting the War of Independence. A dispute between the Irgun leaders and the provisional government over control of the weapons lead to David Ben-Gurion giving the order to fire and sink the ship. To this day, Ronen, now 82, still deeply feels the humiliation of his reception at the shore.
"It was a massive blow, to come like this to Israel and feel totally rejected. People were afraid of the survivors, many didn't want us in their homes, they couldn't understand what we had been through and didn't want to try. So we quickly understood that we should remain silent."
In 1950, Ronen joined the IDF and served for sixteen years as a career soldier in the Artillery Corps. "I never spoke about my past in all the years in the army. It was very different to the way it is today when the army sends officers together with survivors to Poland to see the camps."