Gabi Neumann was born in Obyce, Czechoslovakia, on 25 February, 1937. His parents were Jozef and Regina Neumann, and he had two siblings. In August 1944, the Sered camp in Slovakia was opened, and his family found work and a place to stay in the neighboring village of Zamianska Kert. Josef worked as a framer, and Regina was in the tobacco factory. When the Germans came, Gabi, his mother and siblings escaped to the nearby fields, while Jozef hid elsewhere. At the end of October, 1944, they were betrayed, and sent back to Sered. From there they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 3 November 1944. They were informed that Jozef had been caught and sent to Auschwitz a week earlier.
For a week, the family were together in the “Family Camp” in Birkenau, but then the men and boys over age 10 were separated from the women and children. Gabi was separated from his family and left by himself in the children’s block. His sister became ill, but joined him in the children’s block after her release from the camp hospital. The two children were marched from Birkenau to Auschwitz, where they stayed until the liberation.
Gabi and his sister were liberated by the Red Army on 27 January 1945. (His sister is not in the picture).
In 1949, Gabi emigrated to Israel, and eventually became a graphic artist and a teacher. A widow, and father of one, today Gabi lives in Herzliyya.
Interview with Gabi Neumann
Q: Mr. Neumann, as someone who has dedicated many years to researching the photograph and restoring the story behind it, what actually drove you all these years?
A: The main thing that drove me was the fight against Holocaust denial. I have witnessed with great concern how Holocaust denial and antisemitism has raised its head in Europe and the world. Over the years, I weighed up whether I should tell my story. People told me: “Gabi, you are putting yourself into a bottomless pit. Do you know how many people have claimed that they are the boy who raised his hands in the famous photo from the Warsaw ghetto?” In 2004, the French government decided to ban the wearing of religious effects (like a kippa) in schools and universities. Although I am not religious, this bothered me greatly, and was a kind of ‘trigger’ that caused me to act.
Q: Tell me about the time you spent in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
A: I arrived at the camp on 3 November 1944 with my family, after a terrible train journey from the Sered camp in Slovakia. We reached the platform at Birkenau and were held in the cattle cars for another few hours. There were rumors in our car that twins were kept alive. There was a complete lack of certainty. Afterwards we went down onto the platform and were taken to the family camp. There was no selection. It was one of the very last deportations to the camp. We remained in the family camp for one week, during which we got the numbers on our arms. After that they separated us. First, they separated the women from the men, and then the adults from the children. My older brother was twelve, and went to the adult camp. I was left completely alone, and was put into the children’s block. I was on a bunk far from the entrance. It’s possible that that’s why I was saved – from time to time they would come into the barrack and take children for medical experiments. These were generally the children who slept near the entrance.
The daily schedule was fixed: get up early in the morning to the sound of German shouts. Make the bed, clean the barrack a little and got to the showers. Leave the showers, without drying, for the snow outside. Then came the line-up where we were counted, and then we returned to the barrack. Except for one meal a day we didn’t do anything. We just huddled in the barrack and tried to get warm from the oven. There was a rumor that anyone hospitalized didn’t have to attend the daily line-up. So I pretended to be sick, and spent a while in the hospital. Only by a miracle did I not get sick. People died around me all the time.
Q: Did you have any contact at all with your family?
A: At first, only with my older brother. He passed me cubes of sugar through the electric fence – he was in a barrack close to mine. At night we would sneak out to the fence where the guards could have shot us. Later on my sister became sick, and after she was released from hospital she joined my barrack, although she was relatively old. After that I was never alone.
Q: How did you survive?
A: Mostly, I was lucky. Many people got sick with dysentery and typhus, and died. There was no fear in the camp. You constantly lived for the moment. It was a battle for survival at every given instant… constantly making decisions… when you got a piece of bread – should you eat all of it so that you can forget the hunger? But you know that you will be hungry again, because the next time you eat will be only 24 hours later. If you decide to divide the piece of bread, you have to choose where to hide the piece you aren’t eating. Food was stolen all the time. As a six-year-old boy, I had to make critical decisions. There were people in the block who tried to help from time to time, but generally I was alone all the time until my sister joined me, and from then on we were together, and took care of each other.
Q: Despite this, can you tell me about any help you received from strangers?
A: Yes, once when we arrived at Auschwitz a few days before the liberation. We went into one of the buildings, my sister and I, and a hand suddenly appeared above me with a piece of bread and some canned meat. I never saw the face of whoever stretched out his hand. I remember the salty taste of the meat to this day. It is a moment etched in my memory.
Q: Tell me about the moment of liberation.
A: A few days before the liberation, the Germans took a death march out of Birkenau to Auschwitz, a few kilometers away. We heard the Russian shelling in the background. All those above the age of 10 had to go on the march, and those younger were to stay. My sister and I didn’t want to part. We ran together into the center of the column. Those who walked at the back were shot. Sometime along the way the Germans suddenly disappeared. We continued walking until Auschwitz, where we went into some buildings and waited until they came to liberate us. I remember people constantly talking about what they would eat after the liberation. I heard people saying they would eat bread with butter and sausage. I came from a religious family, and couldn’t believe my ears. After a few days they said the Russians had come. Some people rejoiced, but most were busy wandering about the camp looking for scraps of food. I didn’t rejoice, and I wasn’t sad. I was still living for the moment. I was a little apprehensive of the Russians at first, but they behaved well with us, and gave us food.
Q: Tell me about the famous photograph in which you appear.
A: The picture was taken a few days after liberation. I don’t remember exactly how many. It is a completely staged photograph. The Russians walked around the blocks calling on us to be photographed. My sister didn’t want to be photographed, so she isn’t in the picture. I was curious, and allowed my picture to be taken. You can see that they dressed us in prisoner uniforms that were a few sizes too big for us. Underneath the prisoner uniforms we wore the rags that we had. But because of this picture, I found my family. The Russians took my details and that’s how my mother found my sister and me later on.
Q: What does the Shoah mean to you, and is it possible to relate the story of the Holocaust to future generations?
A: Personally, I think that it is impossible to impart what the Shoah was to someone who didn’t experience it. It is something that can’t be grasped by someone who wasn’t there. But while the Holocaust is incomprehensible, it is also not impossible. What do I mean? The Holocaust could happen in any place, tomorrow. People are always going to behave in the same way. They will always inform on their neighbor for a day of freedom or a portion of food. They will always hate the stranger among them. The world has absolutely not learned.
What was the Shoah for me? During the war, my grandmother hid in a Slovakian village, but one day she was informed upon. The next day a policeman came to take her away. I will never forget how they took my grandmother, and my father and mother stood at the side and didn’t open their mouths. My father was a boxer, a bigger, stronger man than anyone around him, but he simply stood and didn’t do a thing. That is the Holocaust for me. The Holocaust is an incomprehensible powerlessness.
Q: The UN has marked 27 January (the day of the liberation of Auschwitz) as the International Day of Commemoration of the Victims of the Holocaust. What is your opinion on this development?
A: I am in favor of ceremonies because they focus the spotlight on a particular subject that is brought everywhere by the media. But ceremonies have no end. Words not backed up by actions are never enough. Not enough is being done in education. In Europe, the topic of the Holocaust is skipped over in history classes. In other places, the lessons of the event are distorted. For example, in North Korea, The Diary of Anne Frank is an obligatory reading book at school, but the main message given is that what happened to the Jews mustn’t happen to us (the North Koreans). They use it as propaganda against their enemies. The world needs to travel a long distance yet.