We come to this world as human beings and we should stay human beings until our death – Part 2 of 2
Dr. Leon Weintraub was born into a Jewish family in Poland in 1926. In 1944, he and his family were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Dr. Weintraub was later transferred to Groß-Rosen and Flossenbürg Concentration Camps, and survived the death marches that followed. After the war, he became an obstetrician-gynecologist and moved to Sweden, where he now spreads awareness about the horrors of the Holocaust.
‘We have to do every possible thing to never forget the Holocaust,’ he says in this special two-part interview for Minority Rights Group International (MRG). ‘Today, we see a growing rise in the right-wing groups who call themselves Nazis – an ideology that has caused so much damage to humanity. But there is only one race of people called Homo Sapiens, and all the racist theories were built on the wrong premise.’
An alumna of our Media, Minorities and Migration programme, journalist Sara Cincurova, spoke to Dr. Weintraub about his story, keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, preventing violent extremism, and the importance of protecting the human rights of all people, no matter which ethnicity or what background.
In this second part of the interview, Dr. Weintraub talks about surviving the end of the war, overcoming anti-Semitism, and defending human rights for all. Click here to read the first part.
Note to readers: This interview contains content that may be disturbing.
What happened after you joined a group of prisoners who were sent to work outside of Auschwitz?
They never told us when or where they would take us. But it was Döhrnau, a subcamp of the Groß-Rosen Concentration Camp. I started to work as an electrician, I had to take care of electricity while they were building new arms factories underground, the so-called ‘Project Riese’.
I have a terrible memory from that time. One day, I came back from the workplace and as I was returning to the camp, I saw two prisoners and two SS men. One of the prisoners was young, the other one was older. Then, the gong rang, summoning us to the Appellplatz, and suddenly, we saw two gallows. They assembled these two prisoners. I will never forget this terrible moment. When they took away the chair the older prisoner was standing on, he fell straight to the ground. But the rope was old and it broke. He began to cry and to beg, saying: ‘Please, please, I am not guilty, let me live’. But they took another rope and hanged him. The same happened to the young prisoner. When both finally stopped shaking, the SS doctor took them off the gallows, put them on the ground, went to the chairman of the camp, and said quietly: ‘They might still show signs of life’. I saw the SS Führer of the camp take out his pistol and shoot both of them in the head. I will never forget that.
How did you leave this camp?
In the 1950s, I received a document from the Red Cross in Bad Arolsen. Based on this document, I now know that I was transported to Flossenbürg, Germany on 25 February 1945.
This transport started with a three day long death march. They took us in the middle of February, I was marching in the snow, with many people around me. The SS men were shooting some of us as we marched. After three days, we arrived in Flossenbürg. It was just cold, hunger, and death. When people sleeping next to other inmates died in the night, we had to take them out to the Appellplatz. To protect us from the bitter cold, we tried to keep each other warm by staying very close to each other. In Flossenbürg, most prisoners did not die at the hands of SS, but due to work accidents, for example from moving big stones in the stone quarry.
To this day, every year on 23 April, I join the Day of Liberation in Flossenbürg. The very moment I step on the Appellplatz, I have this feeling, a vibration in my chest, feeling like I am in this group of freezing prisoners again.
Where did you work?
In Flossenbürg, I did not work; I was so weak that I [was] in quarantine. But at the next place they took us on 22 March Natzweiler – Kommando Offenburg, I had to wash the guards’ underwear because the SS probably somehow found out that my mother used to run a laundry. I can see myself in the bathroom, washing clothes in hot water. For any small mistake I made, I was punished: once, they put me over the table, with my hands and feet tied up, and I [received] twenty-five [lashes] on my naked behind. I was supposed to count, but at number eight, I fainted.
This was already March 1945 and the war was close to its end. One day, they brought us to the train station, and put us into normal trains, not cattle wagons. The train moved slowly, and after a few hours, we heard aircraft above us. They took us out of the wagons in the German Black Forest. All of a sudden, the guards disappeared. As weak as I was, the others helped me climb up a tree and I saw a new engine connected to the train; it started to move to the east. We walked in the opposite direction and in the morning we saw the name of a town: Donaueschingen.
I arrived in Donaueschingen and I was able to see a doctor who told me I had typhoid fever, and I was put in the hospital. I lost consciousness, and I was in a delirium. I weighed 35 kilos at the age of 19.
When I recovered, I had no idea what to do with myself. I had nobody to speak to, whom to turn to or where to go.
While I was standing there, a person passed and probably guessed that I was a former prisoner of the Concentration Camps. He told me that in a nearby village was a group of survivors. Together with this group, I came to the town of Konstanz, at the Swiss-German border. I was put in a sanatorium. There, I was able to go to a big library – and so I started to read, read and read.
One day in Konstanz, I met two young women who had been in Bergen-Belsen look[ing] for survivors and for their family members. When I told them my name, Leon Weintraub from Łódź, they said they had met three girls from Łódź at the camp: Lola, Franka, Mala. My sisters! After a long journey to Lower Saxony, I arrived in Bergen-Belsen. A relative from my father’s side recognised me and told me that my sisters were in deep mourning, that they were sitting ‘shiva’ and grieving my loss. Somebody told them that I had been placed in the youngsters’ Block 10 and they thought I had died in the gas chambers. But they didn’t know that I had escaped. He prepared my sisters before I went to see them, because at that time, I looked like a living ghost.
What did you do after the war?
I wanted to do something with my life and continue my education. The British Occupation Army in this part of Germany had a quota for universities, reserving spaces for Holocaust survivors. I got such a place. The dean tried to persuade me not to begin the study of medicine in a foreign language, with only six grades of the public school which I had attended before the war. But I was naive, stupid, and very stubborn [laughs]. I wanted to try it. And I made it. I passed my exams in all the different disciplines of medicine.
My first-born son Michael was born in January 1948. In October 1950, I moved to Warsaw. My family joined me in April 1951. I became a doctor at a clinic for women’s diseases and obstetrics. In January 1966, I finished my dissertation. I became chief of staff in September of that year, and three very happy years followed. My wife was a linguist and translator, and we had two more children, Robert and Andrej.
But in 1968 came a new wave of anti-semitism, and I lost my job in February 1969. I was so shocked: I had returned to Poland to build my country, and now, I was forced to leave. From eighty members of my family, only sixteen had survived the Holocaust. I thought that we had paid enough. I didn’t want to go back to Germany, and I didn’t want to move to Israel either. I decided to emigrate to a neutral country, Sweden, which needed obstetrician-gynecologists at that time, and accepted us with open arms. We crossed the border to Germany on 1 September 1969, exactly thirty years after World War Two broke out.
How was your life in Sweden after you arrived?
Tragically, my wife Katja died on Christmas of 1970, one year after we had arrived.
In 1976, I married my second wife Evamaria, a researcher at SIPRI (Stockholm Peace Research Institute), and we had a wonderful daughter, Emilia. We are still very happy together. Evamaria joins me in my activism and my education projects, because I am quite active in public speaking about Nazism.
Today, we see a growing rise in the right wing groups who call themselves Nazis – an ideology that has caused so much damage to humanity. We have to do every possible thing to never forget about the Holocaust and keep this memory alive. We have to show people what it means to be a Nazi. It begins with some people feeling like they are something better or more than others; then, they start persecuting others. We saw how a state in the center of Europe, known as a country of ‘writers and thinkers’, decided it had the right to decide who is a human being worth staying alive, and who is not. It took people from their homes and from the streets, and brought them into the most inhumane conditions. It transported them to places where they tried to take away all their attributes of dignity and humanity.
When I end my lectures, I try to point out why I am still doing what I do, despite my age of 95. I am still doing it because there still are Holocaust deniers. There is hardly any other historical event that has been described and documented in such depth from all sides – by the victims, survivors, perpetrators and also by the administration. If you visit Flossenbürg and see the map of occupied countries in the permanent museum, you will see that there is hardly any piece left out – there were working camps and ghettos all over the German territory. Millions of people were involved in this – not just the SS, but also all the followers who supported them and their politics.
The Holocaust is different to other wars and cruelties. The industrial methods to take the lives of millions of people, including the 1.1 million who died in Auschwitz, with Nazis using parts of the bodies as industrial material, such as hair – that is something we haven’t seen in other wars.
There are people today, even in Poland, who know what this ideology has done and yet they call themselves Nazis – despite the fact that some of their grandparents were killed by the Nazis during the war!
What are your thoughts on neo-Nazi groups today? What would you tell them?
As a physician, I used to perform surgery, and can promise you one thing: no matter the colour of the skin, when I put a scalpel into the skin, the tissues and organs underneath are absolutely the same in all persons in the world. DNA science shows that there are no human races. There is only one race called Homo Sapiens, and all the racist theories were built on the wrong premise.
When a newborn comes into the world, it has no prejudice and no opinions. We put everything into the human brain: the ‘shoulds’, the ‘cans’, and everything else. But we should never forget that we come into this world as human beings and we should stay human beings until our death.
I am a Survivor, not a victim. The victims are my family members who have perished. I am proud that I am alive and do my best to share my knowledge about what it means to be homophobic, racist or a Nazi.
I erased one word from my vocabulary. It is that word of four characters that starts with an H and ends with an E. This one word has caused so much damage to humanity! I also erased the word ‘revenge’. I don’t want to do to others what was done to me. I cannot forgive, but to end the spiral of evil, the real word we should use is ‘reconciliation’.
How can we fight against extremist groups persecuting minorities today? How can we build more tolerance?
I think that you can hardly change grown-ups’ brains and thoughts. We have to begin in schools. The only way is to explain, to speak to the children. Not about all the cruelties, but rather, in a way adapted to their age and ability to understand. I prefer to speak to students who are 16 or 17, not younger, because I do not want to shock them. I think this is the only way to explain what it means to be a Nazi or to be homophobic. Explain and convince that this is not the way to go.
My mother told me she had a wish for me – not that I should become rich, but that I should always have enough so that I can give to other people. She was a very wise woman. Today, I tell my daughter: ‘You are so gifted. Don’t keep it to yourself, share with others, give to others.’ And she is wonderful.
I am an optimist. I could have died a thousand times, and yet I am alive and happy to be so! I am a very happy person, I have a wonderful family and many friends, and at my age, I am still making new friends.
Astronomy today tells us that there are so many galaxies and solar systems out there – not millions, but trillions of such structures in the cosmos. We are a tiny piece of the cosmos, a little speck of dust. And on this little speck of dust, we have thousands of different opinions and groups fighting against each other. Isn’t this an absurdity? On this little speck in the cosmos, we should be together, and help each other survive.
The first part of this interview is accessible here.
This interview was carried out with the help of the Maximilian-Kolbe-Werk Foundation.
Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Leon Weintraub.
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