Leon Weintraub was born in 1926 to a Jewish family in Łódź, Poland. With the death of his father, the following year, his mother took care of raising him and four sisters, in conditions of extreme trouble. At age 13, he witnessed the occupation of the country by German National Socialist troops, and his family was forced to live in the local ghetto.
To survive, he had to work in a galvanizing plant owned by the Wehrmacht, the German Armed Forces. With the defeat of the invaders at the Battle of Stalingrad, liquidations and deportations of Jews and other unwanted groups began.
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In August 1944, the family was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where Weintraub’s mother and sisters were likely murdered in the gas chamber. In all, he lost 64 closest family members during World War II.
Leon document at the time of the Holocaust — Photo: Reproduction / Auschwitz Memorial Foundation
In the following months, it still survived the fields of Gross-Rosen and Flossenbürg. At the end of the war, he studied medicine in the German city of Göttingen. In 1950, he returned to Poland, but 19 years later, due to growing anti-Semitism in his native country, he emigrated with his children to Sweden, where he still lives.
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Leon Weintraub frequently gives talks about his experiences. In an interview with DW, he confirms that the fact of having survived the Holocaust is a source of joy for him to this day. He claims to have crossed out the word “complain” from his vocabulary – just like “revenge”. But also “forgive”.
“I could not forgive the SS man who turned on the gas and thus killed my mother and a large part of my family. […] But some words come close to ‘forgiveness’, like ‘reconciliation’. This is possible for me, and I try to live in that spirit.”
- DW: You are 96 years old. Does WWII and concentration camps sometimes appear in your dreams?
Leon Weintraub: It’s rare that I can remember my dreams. My wife does say sometimes that I was very agitated, or that I screamed, but I don’t remember anything myself. There is only one type of impression, positive or negative. During my medical study, a professor explained that people who had negative experiences dream about them less often than people who had a good life. At the time, I was not convinced.
- You were in some German concentration and extermination camps. The first was Auschwitz-Birkenau. How is the memory of your arrival there?
Dreadful dehumanization. The first shock when the train with cattle cars entered the station. We stand, pressed against each other: lie down or sit down, not even thinking about it. Nothing to drink, nothing to eat. And the silence: no crying, no screams of protest, no disappointment.
In the posters we had been promised that as the front was approaching we would be evacuated far into the Third Reich, where we could continue working for the Wehrmacht. And suddenly they transported us like this? We were stunned, and that deathly silence still rings in my ears.
The trip took two days and two nights. Upon arrival, we saw some strange figures in striped “pajamas”. I quickly jumped out, backpack on my back. A prisoner snatched my backpack from my hands. “But I have a lot of stamps in there!” I said. He replied, “You don’t come here to live, you don’t need any seals.”
- On the platform, you saw your mother for the last time.
Men had to go to the left, women to the right. My mother still looked young, though she was fifty years old, dressed in dark blue, white blouse, rouge on her face. I waved at her and yelled, “See you in there!”
But then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw barbed wire, white insulators, and more wires. Where had they taken us? Only after the war did I learn that this was Auschwitz.
Auschwitz concentration camp, in Poland, in a record made this Monday (27), the date on which the 75th anniversary of the release of its prisoners is remembered – Photo: Kacper Pempel / Reuters
- You were 18 years old, and you were selected for the group that, at first, could live. What did I have to do in the field?
We were reserve labor. When there was a shortage of men in a Nazi company, detainees from our group were sent there.
- How long were you in Auschwitz?
Six or eight weeks. One day I found a group of naked men between two blocks of tents and heard that they were waiting for their clothes to leave for work. This “leaving” was like a sign for me: I had blended in with the group. Then my good star was noticed: they took us to the dressing room, and a little later they put us on the train. The last image of Auschwitz-Birkenau was a woman nailed to barbed wire: she had chosen voluntary death.
- Then you came to Gross-Rosen and then to Flossenbürg. What helped you to endure it all?
Psychologically, my explanation is that I was in a constant state of shock. Today we have the concept of catatonia, a physical state in which higher brain functions are either disabled or severely limited. This limitation, accepting the negative things that came from outside, closing myself off, was perhaps an effect to survive, an instinct of self-preservation.
For my own body, just one little thing was enough to keep me alive: a piece of bread, a little soup that they gave us in the morning. That was all: enough to maintain the spark of life, so that it would not go out.
- Did you also later feed on this power of survival?
I am filled with joy that I survived. I always accentuate this optimism in my conversations with young people. A short time ago, a Dutch newspaper published an article about me. The headline read: “Dr. Weintraub doesn’t know the term ‘complain’ after Auschwitz.” I took the stance that everything that happened afterwards is incomparable to what I went through in the ghetto or in the camps. And that makes me happy with what I have.
- What other words did you cross out of your vocabulary?
Above all, the word “revenge”. If I paid in the same currency, I would be on the same level as the criminals. And I don’t want to be compared to criminals. That’s why I’m not in favor of “an eye for an eye”. I am in favor of punishing crimes according to current law.
Leon Weintraub in an undated photo — Photo: Reproduction / Auschwitz Memorial Foundation
No, I can neither forgive nor justify the acts to which the Nazi ideology led. I could not forgive the SS man who turned on the gas and thus killed my mother and a large part of my family. I said that after the war, of the 80 members of my closest family, there were only 16 left. But some words come close to “forgiveness,” like “reconciliation.” This is possible for me, and I try to live in that spirit.
- You meet many young people. What do they ask about?
They also ask if they are guilty. Then I explain that they, of course, are not directly to blame, as they were not in the world at that time. But if they discover that their grandfather or great-grandfather was an active Nazi criminal, then they have to face the fact. From this realization I have no way of freeing them. The only advice I can give you is that you should do everything you can to make sure that never happens again.
- What makes you most apprehensive these days?
It is incomprehensible to me that in our countries, in Europe, there are people who identify with the Nazis, with that ideology. This is more than a slap in the face to millions of victims, helpless victims whose lives were taken without any qualms. For us survivors, it is inconceivable to identify with this ideology.
Leon Weintraub and wife in an undated photo — Photo: Reproduction / Auschwitz Memorial Foundation
- What form can the memory of Nazi atrocities take in the future?
For starters, we have memorials in Europe. It is the duty of a country to preserve these memorials, as a reminder of what human beings are capable of doing to human beings. There are museums. This is the material part.
There we have the witnesses of the time. Our accounts also exist as brochures or films. It helps me to survive knowing that the young people who listened to me will not succumb to the AfD’s slogans [partido populista de direita Alternativa para a Alemanha] in Germany, or slogans in Poland. And after me, my grandchildren and other young people will pass on the unforgettable testimony. For forgetting would be the worst of all.
In the video below, see another DW interview with a Holocaust survivor who was saved by music at Auschwitz.
Holocaust Survivor Saved by Music at Auschwitz