AREK Hersh survived a chapter in history most of us have only read about or seen in TV documentaries.
Sixty-six years after the true depths of Nazi brutality were exposed to the world, the 82-year-old Holocaust survivor can still recall every detail of his six-year ordeal.
He said: “I shouldn’t be here today. Six million Jews died during the Holocaust, my entire family among them.”
Arek has told his story at the Winter Garden in Sheffield and will be speaking again at the Baptist Church on Sheffield Road in Barnsley on Sunday to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.
In 1940, 4,000 Jews from Arek’s Polish community were taken to an extermination camp.
Only 150, including Arek, were saved for work.
“I escaped so narrowly, everyone else perished, all my family - gone,” he said.
Eleven-year-old Arek was sent to a concentration camp.
“I saw people brutalised every day,” he recalled.
“We were fenced in with barbed wire and guarded by SS men.
“There was little food and people were dying like flies. One year, 2,500 of us were sent to build a railway line. Eleven survived.”
In 1944, Arek arrived at Auschwitz.
“I’d never heard of the place,” he said.
“There were 185 children in our group, only myself and another boy were chosen to live.
“They cut off our hair and tattooed numbers on our arms.” Arek rolls up his sleeve to reveal a faded blue ‘B7608’ on his left forearm.
“Every day people arrived and most were taken straight to the gas chambers.”
More than a million Jews died at Auschwitz.
On January 18 1945, Arek left Auschwitz, away from the approaching Russian army.
“We moved around a lot, on open-top wagons in minus 25 temperatures,” he says.
Arek was finally liberated in Czechoslovakia on May 8 1945. After the war he recuperated in England where he met and married Jean.
They have three children and seven grandchildren.
In recent years he has been back to Auschwitz and has even visited the mass graves where his family are buried.
“When I was on that wagon the last month, I looked up into the sky and said ‘If there is a God, why do we suffer so much?’
“After the war, a Rabbi told me it was not God who had killed all these people, it was man.”