On April 1, a lecture was held in Gibble Auditorium by Holocaust survivor Philip L. Gans who presented his experience as a survivor of Auschwitz, one of the most well-known concentration camps during World War II.
Gans began his presentation with a retelling of the time he and his family were discovered by Nazis in 1943 and put into boxcars for transportation to labor camps. He remembered how cramped they were and how dehumanizing the experience was as they traveled to Birkenau, a part of Auschwitz that served as a combination concentration and extermination camp.
“They put 50 to 60 people in a car. It was crowded. They put a pail in the corner for us. If you had to use the bathroom, you used the pail. It was very embarrassing,” Gans said.
When Gans and his family arrived in Birkenau, they were split into two groups: men and women. The men were then broken into two more groups. If the officer at the front of the line pointed left, they went with the group of women. If the officer pointed right, they went to a new group of those seen fit to work. Gans remembered the officer hesitating when it was his turn. The cut off age was 15 years old for labor camps, which was Gans’s age at the time, but ultimately, the officer sent him to the right.
Those not chosen for labor were told they were going to shower and get clean clothes. But these showers were actually gas chambers, and it was there many of Gans’ family died, including his mother and sister.
“I never got to say goodbye to them because I didn’t know where they were going,” Gans said.
From there, Gans was taken to get his hair cut and a number tattooed on his arm that read 139755 in black ink. He was then shown the barracks he would be living in, bunks that were three high and pushed so close together there was no room to move.
“When we showered, it was quick. We never got soap and towels. All the time I’d been there, I’d never had toothpaste or a toothbrush,” Gans said.
Gans began factory work not soon after. He explained how many people pushed themselves past their limit because if you were seen as too weak to work they would send you back to the gas chambers in Birkenau. Gans remembered being sent to the hospital, but he was deemed OK to go back to work. His brother, however, was sent to the hospital with a severe case of food poisoning and ultimately sent to Birkenau to be gassed.
Working in the camp was laborious, and Auschwitz III, the part of Auschwitz that Gans was sent to, was the worst of the three sections. Prisoners had to work 10 hours a day, six days a week. Their meals during this time consisted of soup and a piece of hard bread, which they would sharpen their spoons to cut.
“While working in the camp, most people lost six and a half to nine pounds a week. After three months, most people were too weak to work and sent to the gas chambers. I worked for 18 months,” Gans said.
As the war came to an end, death marches were a common occurrence. Only less than a month before the American liberation arrived, Gans’s father died on a death march. On January 18, 1945, Gans was put into a death march, which would lead him deeper into Germany as Allied troops had begun to close in on the German borders. He arrived at a concentration camp in Flossenburg, Germany soon after.
That winter, Gans was placed into a boxcar with other people, but aircraft fire from Allied troops halted the cars departure, and it never left. Its occupants walked the rest of their journey. Eventually, Gans found himself and many others walking from town to town before finding American troops that were willing to take them in. They feed them and treated them kindly enough. From there, Gans began his journey back to his homeland, Holland, where he received an unexpected telegram from his aunt, who was inquiring about her family. As Gans would soon realize, he was the only one of 21 members on his father’s side to survive the war.
In 1950, Gans came to America. In 1951, Gans was drafted for the Korean War and served 21 years in the army, although he never left the country. Now, Gans lives in Florida and travels, sharing his story as a survivor. He currently runs a campaign to erase the hate and urges students and others to be aware and never be a silent bystander.
At the end of the presentation, Gans allowed for a few questions. A student asked Gans what had given him hope throughout his experience.
“When a teenager asked me that at a high school, I said ‘do you want to die?’ I was 17. I didn’t want to die. I would ask my dad so many questions, and he would always say, ‘We’ll talk about it when we get home.’ We never gave up hope,” Gans said.