Auschwitz survivors and their relatives, and even two survivors of the first-ever German convoy to the dreaded concentration camp, re-enacted the route of that first transport of prisoners on Tuesday, its 70th anniversary.
The ceremony was organized by a non-Jewish Polish survivors' organization. Hundreds of people, including students from local schools, took part in the anniversary ceremony, which featured a train taking the same 87-mile (140 kilometer) eastern-bound route from Tarnow, Poland that the first transport took. On June 14, 1940, the Nazi Germans packed hundreds of Jews and other Poles into cattle cars and sent them off to Auschwitz, where between 1.1 - 1.3 million people were murdered in the ensuing years, among them 1 - 1.1.million Jews.
Before boarding the train, the participants held a ceremony at a monument unveiled on Tarnow's train station platform. The names of the 728 prisoners aboard the first transport are listed there. Only 300 ultimately survived – a much higher proportion than those who survived most of the following transports to Auschwitz.
“They told us we were being sent to a concentration camp,” Kazimierz Zajac, an 86-year-old survivor of the convoy, told AFP, “but none of us knew then what a concentration camp was.” The Nazis tattooed numbers onto the arms of the new arrivals; Zajac’s number, 261, is still visible. They were told that "Jews won't live for more than a month, priests for three months and for the others, the only way out is up the crematorium chimney,” Zajac recalled.
The anniversary train made a stop in Krakow, where the prisoners on that first convoy heard about the fall of Paris into Nazi hands, which in fact occurred on the same day – June 14, 1940.
Another survivor of that convoy, Jerzy Bielecki - prisoner number 243 - told AFP, "The moment when the transport entered the Krakow station is especially rooted in my mind. The station’s loudspeakers announced: Paris fell! We felt terrible, while the Germans cheered. "
Once in Auschwitz, the memorial journey ended at the Auschwitz museum with a religious service led by Bishop Tadeusz Rakoczy, and the unveiling of a sculpture by Polish artist Josef Szajna – a survivor of both Auschwitz and Buchenwald who died in 2008 in Warsaw.