The gates of hell: Auschwitz 75 years on
The Nazi death camp where more than one million people perished was liberated on 27 January 1945. As one survivor, now aged 90, prepares to commemorate the date, she explains why the Holocaust must never be forgotten … especially in an age of rising antisemitism and nationalism
by Harriet Sherwood
Renee Salt had just turned 15 when she arrived at the gates of hell. Her journey with her parents to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp near Kraków in German-occupied Poland, was by cattle truck, wedged in with hundreds of other Jews, no food, water or air for 24 hours. On arrival, the men were separated from women and children; Renee, who was born in Poland, never saw her father again.
She and her mother stood in line. The “Angel of Death” – Nazi SS officer Josef Mengele, a doctor who conducted cruel experiments on prisoners – stood at the head of the queue. “Whenever he saw two people holding hands he would split them up with a flick of his hand, one to die and one to live,” she told the Observer. Those sent to the right were taken straight to the gas chambers. By a miracle – “God’s will, I suppose” – Renee and her mother both went to the left.
“I remember everything. In my mind, I can see everything that happened,” she said. “We were taken to a hall, everyone was stripped and had their heads shaved. They took all our possessions, jewellery, watches, everything. We were all saying prayers, hugging and kissing one another as we thought this was our last hour.”
Instead they were given a piece of white linen with a number printed on it, which they had to pin to the clothing they had been allocated – in Renee’s case, an oversized skirt and a man’s pyjama jacket. No shoes or underwear were provided. For several weeks, the prisoners sat in rows on the stone floor of a hut, day and night.
“We were taken to the latrines once a day. Also once a day they brought soup in a pan, one for every five people. There were always arguments – ‘you’ve had three sips already’. Everyone wanted the soup from the bottom of the pot because it was a bit thicker. We were not allowed to talk. We had to sleep as we were sitting.
“Twice a day we had roll calls outside the hut. Very often people collapsed from weakness. Sometimes someone would die. We were treated just like animals.”
Now aged 90, Renee will soon again stand at the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Along with up to 200 other . .