POLISH SURVIVOR REMEMBERS AUSCHWITZ
DEATH MARCH AND DAYS OF THE RED SNOW

Michael Preisler somehow survived more than three years as a prisoner in the dreaded Auschwitz concentration camp. Hitler's Gestapo sent him there in October, 1941 when most of the inmates there still were Polish Catholics like him. January, 1945 was a very important month in Preisler's life. That's when the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz and brought an end to his nightmare there. It was also a significant month for Poland.

Six million Polish citizens were killed in World War II. Three million Polish Jews and three million Polish Christians died together. So significant, in fact, that the present government of Poland has taken the lead in organizing special commemorative ceremonies January 26/27, 2005 to observe the 60th anniversary of the liberation. At first, Preisler thought about going there. Then he decided not to. Not because he felt his return there might be too traumatic for him. Preisler no longer suffers the kind of emotional upheavals and distress his memories created in the years that immediately followed his time in Auschwitz.

He can talk more easily about it now than when he first came out of there in 1945. As co-chair of the Holocaust Documentation Committee of the Polish American Congress, he devotes a lot of his time and energy speaking about his experiences as well as those of Polish Catholics in general. Even though his horrors at Auschwitz lasted several years, Preisler was already gone from there a week before the Soviet Army came in and liberated the camp. It was January 19th when the Germans and their SS guards ordered those prisoners still able to walk to begin the infamous Death March out of there.

It was the start of what Preisler called "the days of the red snow," -- snow that turned red from the blood of all the prisoners the Germans were shooting. News had reached the camp that the Soviets were closing in. The barbaric and evil record of German atrocities was about to be exposed. Preisler and the others were the living evidence of those atrocities and the Germans wanted to keep the evidence out of the hands of the Russians. "We were the evidence the Germans didn't have enough time to destroy," he said. There were also scores of documents the Germans wanted destroyed. And that nearly got Preisler killed. They ordered him and some of the other prisoners to carry out files from the administrative section and throw them on the bonfire outside. Preisler tried to hide one of the documents inside his prison garb to preserve some of the proof about the Nazi crimes.

Unfortunately, an SS man saw him do it. As Preisler looked up he saw the guard's rifle pointed at him. He thought this was the end and waited for a bullet in his head. "Open your coat," the guard shouted. The document fell to the ground. "Pick it up and put it on the fire," he said. Preisler did and closed his eyes expecting the worst. For some reason, the German never pulled the trigger. Then the prisoners began their march out of the camp. Mostly all Christians, the majority of them Polish. German guards walked alongside and in back of the line. Up front and leading the column was a group of Gestapo and SS in a horse-drawn sled. All with guns. The air was bitter cold; the snow was clean and white. "Then it began turning red," said Preisler. "Some of us got so weak from the way we had been starved that it was too hard for them to keep moving on. Some near me fell down. That's when the Germans shot them. The snow kept turning red from all the blood."

But, he was determined to live. Looking at all the corpses to his right and to his left, he knew he had to push on. He dragged his tired feet along the snow and ice no matter how it hurt. It went on for two whole days until they reached the railroad station at a Polish town. The train left there and took them to other camps in Austria. Preisler's saga came to an end on May 6, 1945 when the U.S. Army entered and liberated the Ebensee concentration camp where he had ended up. He was finally free from the clutches of Hitler's butchers.

He eventually emigrated to America and became a citizen of the United States. Preisler has lived in New York ever since he came to the U.S. He holds a deep sense of gratitude to the American people. "They saved my life over there and they gave me a new life over here," he always says. Maybe there's another reason Preisler chose not to take part in the official 60th anniversary liberation ceremonies. The liberation of Auschwitz by the Communists of the Soviet Union was not a genuine liberation, in his opinion. "The Germans were killing Polish people for six long years. Then the Communists came in and took over and began their own methods of terror and murder. Instead of a German bullet, many of us got a Russian one," he said.

Even though time has eased some of the pain of his tragic memories, the memories still are there. "Whenever I see snow falling in January, I often think about the way the snow was turning red in Poland," he said.

 
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