“I really thought it would be my last journey … I weighed 32 kilos.”
Three quarters of a century have passed but all those years cannot dim the memories of Esther Senot as she recalls the horrors of Auschwitz.
As survivors of the Nazi death camp gather near the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” (work makes you free) inscription at the gate to what was once their living hell, Raphael Esrail also reflects.
“When I came, in February 1944, I thought I'd be killed that very day,” says Esrail, the 93-year-old president of France's Union of Auschwitz Deportees (UDA).
Visiting the site of the camp at Oswiecim, Poland, with fellow deportees Yvette Levy and Ginette Kolinka, Senot and Esrail are among just a few dozen still alive to pass on their experiences to younger generations.
“We came back — but it was an accident of history,” says Esrail, his gait unsteady but his voice still firm.
The Soviet Red Army liberated the emaciated inmates of the camp, where more than 1.1 million people perished, on January 27th, 1945.
Ever since, Esrail and his association have made it “our duty to bear witness, to pass on to the young what we can.”
The French quartet — all in their 90s — visited the camp Thursday as part of a French educational programme. Annually, some 2.2 million people file through the site that symbolises the horrors of the Holocaust.
Their testimony is intensely moving, as is their doggedness in keeping their experiences in the public mind.
Age cannot weary Levy in fulfilment of that goal — the 93-year-old is making her 230th, perhaps even her 250th — visit.
“I lost count ages ago,” she says.
“Today, it's adults but generally we accompany adolescents more or less the same age that we were when we disembarked from the wagons,” or crammed railway cattle cars in which they were taken to the camp.
There, everybody looked out for everyone else. “We tried to help those who were not ok — we made a promise never to leave anyone by the wayside.”
Senot, 91, made and has kept a promise of her own.
“First, I came on my own, then with my husband from 1985, then accompanied groups.
“My sister, who I met up with in the camp, made me promise just before she died that if I survived I would tell everyone what we went through. I have kept my promise,” she comments, surveying the remains of the gas chambers which the Nazis dynamited in a bid to erase all trace of their crimes.
Survivors have contributed to thousands of hours of first hand video historic testimony — but they know that the recordings will soon be all that remain.
“With the UDA, we have been struggling for years to get these videos broadcast at the entrance — but it's not easy (dealing with) with the Polish authorities,” explains Esther.
Kolinka, 94, says she has been guiding school groups “at least once a month from October to March for more than 20 years. And I shall keep coming as long as I can if they need me…”
“We had no underclothes, a little cotton pullover and a canvas skirt. We were always cold and clung to one another to keep warm.
“I still don't know how we survived.”