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January 20th, 2011 | Article in "Neues Deutschland"

Brothers and Sisters in Auschwitz

By Ingrid Heinisch

A new exhibition in Berlin remembers the fate of whole families in Nazi concentration camps

Shortly before the international Holocaust Remembrance Day an exhibition addresses a grim reality of the Nazi era: the persecution, imprisonment and elimination of whole families.
Kazimierz Albin doesn't like talking about his experiences in Auschwitz concentration camp. He was one of the first prisoners to be taken there. He was 17 years old. It was in fact the very first transport to Auschwitz – all of the prisoners were young Polish people, mostly school children and students, arrested either trying to escape across the border or as resistance fighters against the German occupation. Kazimierz Albin was given number 118; later the numbers of prisoners would mount to over a million. Number 116 was given to his brother Mitek who was with him in their attempt to flee the country. In the line of prisoners Mitek stood in front of him, a friend stood between the two of them. Kazimierz Albin experienced the beginnings of Auschwitz, but when asked about it he usually replies: 'Read my book'.

Nevertheless, he came to the opening of the exhibition opening '... my brother, my sister ...' at the German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin. The exhibition, organised by the International Auschwitz Committee (IAC) with the support of the memorial centre and the help of the museum and the International Youth Meeting Centre at Auschwitz, is showing the memories of survivors: memories of their families, and especially their brothers and sisters. As with Albin, they are very painful memories.

It soon became clear why he doesn't like telling his story, why he would prefer people to read his book: it's because his memories are so incredibly harrowing. Above all when they concern the most precious thing in life that can be lost: your parents, your brother, your sister.

'All of the individual interviews were like this', says Christoph Heubner, Vice President of the IAC, in his introduction speech. He conducted some of the interviews himself. 'They were very fragile, hesitant conversations, filled with enormous tenderness, mixed with grief and smiles' – the memories of life's richness the survivors once shared with their families, the richness that was taken from them.

But despite the horrors, Kazimierz Albin was lucky. His family survived, but at what price? All except his youngest brother were in German concentration camps. He himself survived in Auschwitz for almost three years, together with his brother Mitek, although in different work detachments. Albin was able to help him survive, because he worked in the SS kitchen where he could smuggle out food for Mitek and other prisoners. But after three years he had had enough: 'I had spent my 18th, 19th and 20th birthdays in Auschwitz. That was enough'. He had the courage to escape and joined the Polish Home Army. He was trained as an officer in the Polish underground. He procured weapons, took part in the liquidation of traitors. His escape, which he has discussed with his brother, had terrible consequences: Albin's sister Stefania and their mother were imprisoned by the Gestapo. Stefania was released after several months, his mother survived Ravensbrück, seriously ill.

In contrast to Kazimierz Albin, many Jews who arrive later in Auschwitz had no chance of surviving for any length of time, let alone of escaping. Many of the panels at the exhibition relate the fates of families who were torn apart, with only one survivor: the one who can now tell about their brothers and sisters. Often there is not even a photo.

The display panels also show the reactions of young people who have been to the Auschwitz Memorial and have experienced the images of those times. They were represented by Ilona Hefft, a trainee from VW Wolfsburg, who spoke on their behalf at the exhibition opening. She spoke about their reactions: 'I wanted to go there, because I believed it would help me to understand more. But in Auschwitz I realised that it is utterly incomprehensible'.

Even the survivors often felt that what they had experienced was incomprehensible. After the war Kazimierz Albin managed to find his family again. But they rarely spoke about what they had been through. They wanted to study, work and lead normal lives. It was only with the advancing years that he felt he wanted to bear witness to the crimes of the National Socialists. He decided to write his book 'Warrant of Arrest'. It took him seven years to complete. At the end of the opening event in Berlin he read a passage from his book in German. It was about his reunion with his family. Everyone in the audience sensed his intense emotions. The final shower of spontaneous applause almost moved the aging author to tears.