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Bergen-Belsen survivor learns of sisters' fate 64 years on
Until two weeks ago, British holocaust survivor Eugene Black assumed his sisters had died in Auschwitz.
By Harry de Quetteville in Bad Arolsen
Last Updated: 2:50PM BST 23 Aug 2008
Then he visited Germany's biggest wartime archive, where a major new effort has just begun to make its unparalleled records more widely available, and discovered they had been spared.
"When we arrived at Auschwitz I was immediately separated from my mother and two sisters," he said yesterday, from his home near Leeds. "Five minutes later I was separated from my father. I never saw any of them again." After accessing the files at Bad Arolsen in central Germany however, Mr Black, a Czech Jew deported to the Nazi's most notorious camp in May 1944, discovered that his sisters like him had been selected not for death but for slave labour teams.
"After 64 years believing they had perished in the gas chambers with my mother the documents came as such a shock," he said.
Mr Black endured a horrific 12-month ordeal that saw him transferred through a series of camps until he was eventually liberated by British troops at Bergen-Belsen.
At Bad Arolsen he learned that his sisters had also avoided the gas chambers.
But to his horror, Mr Black, who anglicised his Czech name Jeno Schwarcz, found the archive revealed that they had been killed instead in an Allied bombing attack on the factory where they had been forced to work near Buchenwald.
"It's unbelievable. It still has to sink in," he said. "I've had to think things through again. But at least they died together and weren't gassed.
"It must have been a terrible death in the chambers," he added.
Mr Black's visit to Bad Arolsen two weeks ago came as the archive launched a new programme to digitise a wealth of documents from millions of 'displaced persons' - DPs - after the war.
Tales from concentration camp survivors, refugees, exiles, and even Nazis trying to secure anonymity by submerging themselves in the human flood, are testament to a shattered continent.
"This part of the archive has never been studied by historians," said spokeswoman Kathrin Flor. "It gives a fantastic portrait of Europe after the war: who was where, who survived the camps, where they were all going." Bad Arolsen has spent almost 150,000 pounds to acquire scanning equipment to digitise its post-war archive in more than 20 million images. The records being photographed include the 75,000 files of those 'DPs' who found their way to the UK after the end of the conflict.
Among the records being photographed is the CM1 - Care and Maintenance - card of Mr Black, then Eugene Schwarcz, made shortly before he emigrated to Britain in 1949 after working as a translator with the British army.
Above a boyish photograph it provides a grim record of his year-long odyssey as a 16 year-old through the network of camps built for genocide from Poland to the German border with France.
It shows how, after 10 days at Auschwitz he was selected for transfer to Buchenwald before being sent from there to Dora-Mittelbau camp in central Germany to work as a slave labourer on Hitler's "wonder weapon" programme of V-1 and V-2 rockets.
It was while clearing tunnels for 14 hours a day with little food that he caught pneumonia and was sent to the nearby Harzungen sub-camp, where he credits a German air force doctor with saving his life, by prescribing him light work duties. That crucial medical order is included in his Bad Arolsen file.
"The Germans were brilliant at keeping records," he said. "But I had no idea they went into such detail."
One file in the archive notes, for example, the number of lice found during an inspection of 667 prisoners in Block 6 of the Grossrosen camp, in today's Poland, on November 28th, 1944. Despite the imminent collapse of the Nazi war machine, camp guards meticulously counted 39 lice.
For Mr Black however, the efforts underway at Bad Arolsen are about more than just documenting the horrors of the war.
"It made such a big difference to me to see that what I have been living with is true. Because it's there in black and white. I can't explain what it meant to close at long last this terrible experience in my life. It's just unbelievable."
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