CHARLESTON AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. –
The crowd watched in silence as he made his way to the front of the church. Upon taking a seat, he pulled out his creased, worn notes to begin speaking. The stillness in the room was an implicit reminder that this could be the last time a personal account of surviving the Holocaust is shared.
Pincus Kolender, an Auschwitz survivor, began his personal narrative of the Holocaust at the base chapel in honor of the 2007 Holocaust Day of Remembrance.
Mr. Kolender was 16 when he was taken to Auschwitz. Standing in line before the gate, a Nazi officer was directing people to the left and right. It was then he realized where those being directed to the left, mostly children and elderly, were going. He was one of the fortunate waved to the right. He entered the camp, was undressed, shaved and showered. He was then stripped of all humanity and stamped with the universally recognized Holocaust inmate tracking number: 161253. He was no longer an individual but just a number and he'd unfortunately never be able to forget the digits. It was surreal to see the number tattooed into his arm as he pulled up his sleeve to show the audience.
Besides the harsh work he was forced to do, cold and hunger were his worst enemies.
"The first few months I thought I wouldn't make it," he said. "The suicide rate was very high and I contemplated it many times but I guess I didn't have the guts to do it."
He went on to say his wife would tell him he was destined to live and was like a cat with nine lives. A quiet laugh from the audience eased the mood, but his tragic story continued making it hard to pry your eyes and ears away from his recited memories.
When the Russian offensive started, Mr. Kolender marched with 104,000 other prisoners away from Auschwitz to escape the approaching army. If anyone didn't keep up, they were shot on the spot. His brother, who was with him the entire time at Auschwitz, pleaded him to make an escape, but he was reluctant. Moments later, his brother disappeared and that was the last time Mr. Kolender saw him.
"One morning at dawn, I gave up and fell to the ground," recounted Mr. Kolender. "Somebody picked me up by the collar and said, 'you're too young to die' and I got a second wind and continued on. Again, whether it has to do with fate, I was destined to live."
Once they reached Gleiwitz, Poland, he was packed into a cattle train with 150 others, and transported to Nordhausen, a large German concentration camp. Shortly after, he was transported to another camp called Dora where he did hard labor, digging tunnels into the mountains.
In April of 1945, he was again packed on a train to be moved away from the British approaching army. American Air Force fighter planes started firing at the trains and the opportunity came, perhaps by instinct, for Mr. Kolender to escape.
"The fighter planes strafed us," he said. "I could see the bullets flying practically right by my nose but I kept going. I kept thinking, this was my only chance."
Saved by a Czechoslovakian farmer, Mr. Kolender and two other escapees hid in a foxhole for 18 days, staying out of harm's way and holding onto optimistic thoughts. He was liberated by the American Fifth Army and came to America five years later.
"There is no explanation for how I survived. It was nothing supernatural, I was just an average youngster, but you had to be lucky," he said and then paused as if pondering a justification. "If you believe in miracles, then this was definitely a miracle. If you believe in God, then it's divine providence."
He then reiterated that the only explanation for surviving is to be able to tell the story and pass it on for future generations. Although it's not easy to speak of the atrocities and crimes against his family and people, its important it's talked about.
"It's very painful when people say it never happened," Mr. Kolender said. "I've been there, I've experienced it and I've survived it. Time is running out and when I'm gone, there will be no one left to tell the story."
His words and tone, firm yet poignant, left the audience in a state of empathetic admiration.
"It is my duty and moral obligation to tell my story because it's the people of the present and the future that can prevent another Holocaust from happening," said Mr. Kolender.
It took nearly 25 years for Mr. Kolender to speak openly about his experiences and the tragic events that took place but said now it's routine for him. Sometimes speaking three to four times a week, he travels to schools, churches and social functions to pass on his story. This is his third time speaking at Charleston AFB and he is an active and important contributor to the Remember program, affiliated with the Charleston Jewish Federation.
His narrative, delivered in such an in-depth way that puts you right in the moment, ends with simple advice, yet often not practiced.
"You have to learn to tolerate and respect other people. The Holocaust must never be duplicated," he said.
"Still to this day, I have nightmares ... and at night, I can still see everything right before my eyes," he said. "I'm constantly thinking about my family - it's always on my mind. I have a guilty conscience because I think, 'why was it I who survived and not the others who had to die?'"
Again, there is no answer for how or why he is alive to this day but he does know that no human being should ever have to go through what he experienced.