GLEN COVE, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — Seventy years ago Tuesday, Russian troops liberated the infamous Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Poland – giving the world its first glimpse of the atrocities committed against Jews and other minorities.
As CBS2’s Dick Brennan reported, hundreds of Holocaust survivors gathered on Tuesday to mark the moment they found freedom. It was a painful day for survivors around the world – including two women from Long Island who had just met.
Ruth Mermelstein, 85, and Annie Bleiberg, 94, considered themselves lucky to have grandchildren, and in Bleiberg’s case, great-grandchildren. Their gratitude is itself remarkable, especially considering the horrors they experienced firsthand as young girls.
Mermelstein, Bleiberg and their families were forced into the Nazi concentration camps simply because they were Jews. Hitler’s so-called “Final Solution” led to the slaughter of 6 million Jews during World War II – including Mermelstein’s own parents.
“We couldn’t even kiss them goodbye, because it was, ‘Do what we say or don’t talk or say anything,’” Mermelstein said. “We were torn away from our parents, and we never saw them again.”
The painful loss came back for Mermelstein while touring the exhibits inside the Nassau County Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center in Glen Cove. She recalled the Nazi guards’ chilling warning that she and her sister would be next to die in the crematorium ovens.
“(They said): ‘You’re going to go up in smoke. Don’t you see the smoke there? That’s where you are going to see the rest of your family,” Mermelstein said.
Instead, Mermelstein and her sister survived because the Nazis considered them fit enough to be sent into forced labor camps.
“I did not want to obey Hitler; Hitler’s orders, so I was running and hiding, and I was in jail in Auschwitz and another camp, and finally liberated,” Bleiberg said as she showed a faded concentration camp number tattooed on her wrist.
Bleiberg said she was jailed inside the prison camps because of her defiant resistance. She and her father managed to survive when they escaped from one of the cattle cars carrying them to the death camps.
“My father and I jumped from the train,” Bleiberg said. “We got hidden by a Polish family… and then we were told, ‘You have to leave,’ because there are rumors that they are hiding Jews.”
After their liberation, both Mermelstein and Bleiberg moved to America. They each married and raised large families.
Both women are proud of what they have achieved, but said they will never turn their backs on the brutality that took the lives of so many relatives.
“I love life, and I wanted to live, and I and cannot hate,” Mermelstein said. “But I cannot forget.”
The Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center in Glen Cove where the women met was planning a number of forums over the next several weeks. And Mermelstein and Bleiberg follow what goes on in the world, and said they fear what is happening with terrorism and anti-Semitism.