Tomy Shacham (formerly Schwarz), was born in Nitra, Slovakia on 1 July, 1933. His parents were Henrich and Alzbeta Schwarz, and he had two siblings. In 1941, the family tried to cross the border into Hungary, but were unsuccessful. In October 1944, they were taken to the Sered camp in Slovakia, and from there they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 2 November 1944. Tommy’s brother Juraj managed to escape to Hungary, but perished later on in the Budapest ghetto. The rest of the family were together in the “Family Camp” in Birkenau, but after two days, the men and the boys over age 10 were separated from the women and children. At that time Tomy was 11, but was told by his parents to say he was nine and a half. In this way, Tomy was able to spend 2 more days with his mother, after which she was also taken away from him, and he was left alone in the Children’s Block. On 22 January 1945, the Germans sent all the children who had survived on a march from Birkenau to an unknown destination. During the march, the Germans took flight, and the children continued alone until they arrived at Auschwitz, where they stayed until the liberation.
Tomy was liberated by the Red Army on 27 January, 1945.
In March 1945, he emigrated to Eretz Israel, where he grew up to become a teacher. Today Tomy lives in Herzliyya, a father of 3 and a grandfather of 4.
Interview with Tomy Shacham
Q: Mr. Shacham, tell me about the time you spent in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
A: I arrived in Auschwitz with my family on 3 November 1944 My parents knew where we were going, and they were sure we were going to die. But when we arrived they weren’t doing selections, and we were taken to the family camp. After two days, the children were separated from the parents, and the women from the men, and they took me to the children’s block. I was one of the oldest there – I was ten and a half years old. There were children there as young as one or two, as well as babies, most of whom died from malnutrition – from 300 people in the block, some 250 died from dysentery.
As I was older than the other children, I began to look after and help the younger ones. I looked after ten children, some of whom I knew, some not. To my great sadness, nine of them died from dysentery. Only one survived – a six-year-old boy, a neighbor of mine, from the village I was born in, in Slovakia. After the liberation I lost touch with him, but a year and a half ago I attended a survivors’ conference in the village of my birth and I found out his address in Australia. Since then, we have been corresponding and speaking on the telephone. I asked him if he remembered me, and he said yes – he still remembers that I hit him. The reason I hit him was because he wouldn’t eat. He was very sick with dysentery and I knew that if he didn’t eat anything he would die. He said he forgave me for hitting him…
Q: Did you have any contact at all with your family?
A: I had some contact with my father and brother through the fence. The meetings were very short because of the danger and the terrible cold. We almost never spoke. They would throw me cigarettes through the electric fence. They got the cigarettes from the Red Cross that visited the adults’ camp. It sounds really strange, but at this point in the war the Red Cross were allowed to enter parts of Auschwitz. I would exchange the cigarettes for the bread rations of the patients who had dysentery and typhus, and therefore were not eating. Then I would throw the bread back to my father and brother, or give it to the children I was looking after.
Q: How did you manage to survive?
A: A combination of mainly luck, and the fact that my spirit did not break. Most of the prisoners around me who were sick with typhus and dysentery died. I was in the hospital quite a lot of the time, and to luckily I did not get sick. Most of the people who died at this point didn’t die from hunger, but from the diseases that made them lose their will and ability to eat. The fact that my spirit didn’t break also helped me survive.
I was an optimistic person, and never lost hope, even at the most difficult moments. Many others lost hope, and lay in bed waiting to die. My hope was not based on any solid facts. At least in the first month I was in the camp, I didn’t know anything about the Germans being defeated in the war, and that the Russians were approaching. I just wanted to live, and I believed I would survive.
Q: Can you tell me about any help you received from strangers?
A: There were those who helped, and those who didn’t. It’s impossible to generalize. But normally the older ones tried to help the younger ones, as I helped the children younger than me. Of course, everyone worried first about his family or those he knew. I remember that in our block were some mothers that had just given birth. A large number of their babies died, so they helped the younger children in the block. In addition, the person in charge of the block was a kind woman who tried hard to help us. I remember once seeing her being beaten by the Kapo because she tried to increase our food rations.
Q: Tell me about the moment of liberation.
A: Before the liberation, there was a week when the Germans left and then returned. That was after they took out the prisoners on death marches, during which my father was murdered. Before they left, they attempted to burn the large storehouses in an effort to conceal evidence. There was a power outage, and I and some other children sneaked through the disconnected fences and wandered around looking for food and clothes. We walked around near the crematoria, and I will never forget the terrible sights we witnessed there. We managed to bring whatever clothes and sugar we could find back to the block. Then the Germans returned. On 22 January, if I am not mistaken, everyone above the age of 10 was marched to Auschwitz. We were very afraid. There were rumors that they had erected machine guns. We didn’t know if it was better to go or to stay. In any case, I was ten and a half, so I went. The walk was about a kilometer and a half in all, during which we heard and saw the Russian shelling. About half way, a truck suddenly appeared, loaded up the German soldiers and left. We continued towards Auschwitz.
The day of liberation was a Saturday afternoon. I remember that they prepared a stew but I couldn’t eat it because of a stomach upset. Suddenly I saw “white forms” between the buildings. They were the Russian doctors and soldiers. There was great happiness. The Russians distributed a lot of food, but people died from overeating. Fortunately, I couldn’t eat, and maybe that is again what saved my life. I immediately attached myself to the Russian soldiers. The Russian and Slovakian languages are pretty similar. They even took me as a quasi “guide” for a “tour” around Birkenau, and I explained what every building was used for. About two weeks after the liberation, the father of a friend of mine told me he saw my father being killed on the death march. I wouldn’t believe that my mother had survived until I knew it for certain.
I felt good with the Russian soldiers, and I stayed in the camp for a further three months after it was liberated. I became so close to one of the soldiers that he wanted to adopt me, but the camp commander refused his request. Only after three months did I travel to my uncle in Budapest, and then I was told that my mother had survived the war.
Q: Tell me about the famous photograph in which you appear.
A: The photograph was actually taken from a film made by the Russians. Some of the children were dressed in uniforms. Shmulik (Shmuel Schelach) and I had uniforms that we had taken while we had wandered around the storehouses the week the Germans were away. We put them on so we would be less cold. But the Russians wanted everyone to be in uniform to increase the impact. After all, it was propaganda. I was a friend of the Russian soldiers, so I was filmed.
Q: What does the Shoah mean to you, and is it possible to relate the story of the Holocaust to future generations?
A: Without doubt, what happened to me shaped my life. Perhaps because I helped younger children in the block, I became a teacher and an educator. I believe that it is possible, and important, to teach students and young people about the Shoah. There is no need to tell the most horrifying stories – that could make them recoil. But it is important to tell what happened, and also to emphasize how the survivors raised themselves from the ashes of the Holocaust and tried to overcome what had happened to them, build families, work, create… live. That is not to be taken for granted. My students made me a special album and called it: “I chose to live.” Today I lecture young people and students as a full-time volunteer. What drives me is the knowledge that soon no one will be around to tell what happened. That is the mission I took upon myself.
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: Look, it changes from place to place. In my opinion, the UN was greatly influenced by the big televised ceremony conducted in Auschwitz last year, marking 60 years since its liberation. Presidents and heads of state attended, and they couldn’t ignore it. But the UN has done this mainly as lip service, and in order to clear its conscience. There are certain countries that have chosen to deal with the subject in a serious and real manner; for example, in Slovakia, where there was, by the way, a fascist and anti-Semitic regime that cooperated with the Germans. Other countries have not dealt with the topic. But it is certainly important that we continue to fight against Holocaust denial, and a picture like this of survivors standing next to their original photographs in the camp is eternal proof against all those who deny the Holocaust took place.
I want to tell you about something that happened to me when I was with my family and other survivors at the Auschwitz ceremony. I walked around the camp with my children, and showed them the blocks. Suddenly, a young Scottish woman approached me. She asked me if I was Jewish and if I was a camp survivor, and I answered “yes.” She then asked me if I had a number on my arm. I showed her the number. The young woman burst into tears, and begged my forgiveness. I asked her what she was apologizing for, and she told me that she was studying about the camp, and that her university professor in Scotland had told her that the whole story of Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp was a fabrication...