SAO PAULO – A Polish survivor of five Nazi concentration camps has embarked on a mission in his adopted homeland of Brazil to perpetuate the memory of the 20th century’s deadliest genocide.
Born into a Jewish family, Julian Gartner, now 93, lost his parents at a concentration camp and emigrated in his 20s to Brazil, where he has assisted in a project by the Jewish Museum of Sao Paulo to open that metropolis’s first Holocaust memorial, which will open its doors on Sunday.
“The Holocaust was a tragedy. It was very painful to see the faces in the photos of innocent people who were imprisoned for years,” Gartner said in an interview with EFE, referring to some of the images on display at the memorial.
Those photos show the evident despair of prisoners at Ebensee, a sub-camp of the notorious Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.
Nevertheless, despite his tragic past, Gartner remembers World War II with a smile and believes his positive outlook on life allowed him to survive Nazism.
“My tears dried up a long time ago. I have all the normal feelings of a human being,” he said.
Gartner was 15 when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, a campaign that marked the beginning of World War II, and spent time in five concentration camps in different countries, where he observed first-hand the deaths of many other prisoners.
“I didn’t use to talk about it until I visited the Majdanek extermination camp (Poland) more than 70 years after the war. There are still mountains of ashes of people who were incinerated there, including my parents, and that affected me,” Gartner said.
“From that point on, I thought that couldn’t be silenced and I embraced that mission,” he said with emotion in his voice.
Gartner, who became a student of World War II as an elderly man, said he trusted the opening of the Holocaust Memorial in Sao Paulo would ensure that one of the darkest moments in world history is never forgotten.
Gartner recalled some fragments of his past while touring the memorial, noting that he remained in hiding for 10 months with no money or clothing and lived off portions of food that some neighbors discreetly placed at their front doors as if they were leaving scraps for dogs.
That was the only way people could help because the crime of giving food to Jews was punishable by death.
Gartner was imprisoned at one point in the Krakow Ghetto, depicted in the 1993 Steven Spielberg film “Schindler’s List.” The ghetto’s cramped conditions were extremely precarious, as is apparent in a replica of one room at the memorial.
Despite having just a few original pieces, the 160-square-meter (1,720-square-foot) memorial immerses visitors in the history of the Holocaust with information boards explaining the genocide, replicas of drawings made by prisoners, uniforms used by the Jews and a video showing the Nazi atrocities.