Coming full circle: On Tuesday, 61 years after they parted ways for the last time, Ladislav-Yehuda Reich and Robert-Yehoshua Bichler met their good friend Fritz Steiner.
The three men, who were born in Slovakia and survived one of the last selections conducted at the children's shed in Birkenau-Auschwitz, have three consecutive numbers tattooed on their arms: B14564, B14565, B14566.
Reich, Steiner and Bichler. 'Who would believe we'd survive?' (Photo: Hagai Aharon)
On Tuesday they were reunited once again, looked at the numbers on their arms, held each other's hands and said to one another in tears: Who would believe we would survive the horror, stay alive and meet here in Israel?
The meeting was held at the Moreshet Holocaust Study and Research Center in Givat Haviva.
Dr. Steiner, now a children's physician who resides in Bremen, Germany, did not know until very recently that his friends survived the Holocaust.
"My way to survive was to forget everything," Steiner said in the meeting choking back tears. "I never thought of anything or dealt with the question of who was dead and who was still alive."
But despite the attempt to repress the past, a story published in German newspaper Der Stern with a picture of his friend Robert took him back 60 years.
"I've never read this paper before, but when I saw the picture I immediately recognized my friend. I was very excited and sent a letter to the paper at once," Steiner said.
Almost a year after he first saw the article, Steiner arrived in Israel to meet his friends. Shortly after the hugs and great excitement subsided, the three engaged in a conversation in Slovakian. "They look exactly the same as the three teens who parted ways at the death camp 61 years ago," Gil, Reich's son, said.
Talks of goulash and cakes in Birkenau
In September 1944, a transport of 2,500 Jews arrived at Auschwitz, including the three teens. "Me and Fritz got there with our fathers, Reich arrived with his mother, and we all underwent a selection on the ramp. Miraculously, we were sent along with another 1,000 children to the gypsies' shed, which has already been emptied of its residents," Bichler said.
The three instantly became close friends.
"There were other Slovakian children in the shed, and just like kids, we didn't quite grasp the scope of the catastrophe. We continued to talk about our daily lives, and even spoke about the goulash and cakes we'll make after the war," Bichler said. "When we were told we'll be sent to the gas chambers I laughed. I was convinced they were just trying to scare us. This is how I became Fritzo's and Lazo's friend."
'I can't believe we are together' (Photo: Hagai Aharon)
About 10 days after going through the first selection, the three were faced with another selection. Bichler, who was 14-and-a-half years-old at the time, continued: "From a total of a thousand kids, 50 remained, including the three of us. I was one and-a-half years older than them, and felt responsible for their lives."
After the last selection, the children were moved to the D camp in Birkenau.
"When I saw they were going to tattoo the men, I took Fritzo and Lazo by the hand and put them behind me. I knew that whoever didn't have a number on his hand is destined for the death chambers, while those who have a tattoo will continue to live," he explained.
Unlike the rest of the children in Auschwitz, the three were tattooed and sent to work in the potato fields near the camp.
"We had to collect in a bucket the potatoes that fell from the stretchers carried by the women. These were horrible sights. The women who failed to keep up were severely beaten by the Nazis who stood nearby. We couldn't bear it," Yehuda recounted.
Every night the three friends would meet and speak amongst themselves in Slovakian.
"We talked about soccer and other things kids take interest in. None of us thought about what happened to our families, and maybe this was what helped us. We didn’t collapse mentally, only physically," Bichler said.
After Birkenau, Bichler, Steiner and Reich were transferred to the Auschwitz 1 camp, where they remained until the allies got there at the end of the war.
"This was practically like the Hilton," Steiner said. "We each received a bed and a sheet, while at the first shed we were in, 17 boys slept in one bed."
Reich and Steiner, who were sick, were evacuated to the hospital, and Bichler, who remained at the camp, survived the death march.
Surviving by forgetting
After the war ended, each of the three had to deal with the difficulties that were part of every survivor's life. Ladislav's parents were murdered by the Nazis, and he – an only child – arrived at his aunt's house in Slovakia. Fritz returned home to discover that his father was killed, but that his mother and sisters, including his twin sister, were still alive. Among Robert's family, none survived, and he immigrated to Israel with Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. A short while later, he met his friend Ladislav in Israel, and the two were among the founders of kibbutz Lehavot Haviva, where Bichler resides until today. In 1979, Reich emigrated to New Jersey.
Steiner, who was also planning to move to Israel, was prevented from doing so by his mother, who was very concerned for him. In 1968 he moved to Germany.
"My way of surviving was to forget," he explained. "The day I arrived at Auschwitz I stopped being a human being. I didn't think about anything, which is why even after the war it took me a long time to realize that I was a free man. I never thought about what has happened to my friends. As a matter of fact I thought they were dead."
About a year ago, Reich received a call at his home in the United States from a mutual friend who told him he must phone Bichler in Israel. When he called Bichler, the latter told him of the letter he received from Fritz Steiner, their long lost friend.
"I was shocked, I just couldn't speak," Reich said. "I couldn’t believe he was alive. I still can’t believe we're together," he added, hugging his friend tightly.