The memory of Auschwitz-Birkenau camp still vivid for Holocaust survivor Sonia Warshawski

Sonia Warshawski with an aerial photo of the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau taken by allied planes.
Sonia Warshawski with an aerial photo of the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau taken by allied planes. She told of her experience during a presentation at the Sylvester Powell Community Center in Mission.

Sonia Warshawski is a survivor. She survived the ghetto. She survived the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. She survived the death march out of Auschwitz as Soviet troops were advancing toward it. She survived being beaten and shot. She survived three face-to-face encounters with Josef Mengele as he selected prisoners for medical experiments and the gas chamber.

“I wanted to survive. The power to survive was so great in me. Maybe I was a coward,” Warshawski said, because so many others committed suicide in the camp.

She survived the Holocaust, but her mother, father and brother did not. A younger sister escaped to the forests of Poland and survived with the partisan fighters. She now lives in Israel. As a teenager, confined to a Jewish ghetto by the German occupation of her hometown in eastern Poland, Warshawski and her mother were put in cattle car and shipped by train to the concentration camp at Majdanek in May of 1943 and later that year moved to Auschwitz. Like her sister, her father and brother also escaped from the roundup in the town square later to be betrayed in their hiding place and shot by the Nazis.

Warshawski, a northeast Johnson County resident who has operated a tailor shop for a number of years, told her story of terror and survival to the Shawnee Mission Rotary Club Wednesday. At the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, she is one of a dwindling number of survivors and one of the few who actively talk about their experience.

“In Auschwitz-Birkenau, you were really in hell,” Warshawski said. That’s where she was separated from her 42-year-old mother in one of the selections: “Mom when to the left and me to the right.” It was also where she watched through a peephole in a barracks wall as her mother was marched to the gas chamber. “I saw my mom for the last time, walking to the gas chamber.”

Of the horrors she witnessed during those years, Warshawski recalls being forced to watch the hangings of young girls who tried to escape. “Their last shriek stays with me all of my life.” One of the girls cried out “never forget and take revenge” as the stool was kicked out from under her feet.

After being liberated by the British, Warshawski was in a displaced persons camp where she met her husband. She did make one return to her hometown, but decided she could not stay there. Of a Jewish population of approximately 18,000 before the war, only 200 of those sent to the camps survived.