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Preserving a symbol of evil

Local Holocaust survivors are heartened by an international effort to restore Auschwitz and maintain it for future generations

Holocaust survivor Anna Arbeiter showed a photo her husband, Israel, took of her bunk at Auschwitz. Holocaust survivor Anna Arbeiter showed a photo her husband, Israel, took of her bunk at Auschwitz. (Suzanne Kreiter/ Globe Staff)
By Bill Porter
Globe Staff / January 30, 2011

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NEWTON — Israel Arbeiter doesn’t waste time wondering how he survived the Holocaust, which tore him away from family members he would never see again and swept him from one concentration camp to the next after the Nazis occupied his native Poland in 1939.

Rather than shrink from the memory of its horrors, Arbeiter embraces a chapter in world history that he and others insist must never be allowed to fade.

Now, the 85-year-old Newton resident and other local survivors of Auschwitz are voicing support for international efforts to preserve crumbling barracks, gas chambers, crematoriums, and other evidence of atrocities at the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp where more than 1.1 million people, including at least 960,000 Jews, were murdered between 1940 and 1945.

“It’s important that Auschwitz be preserved the way it was so that future generations will go and see what human beings are capable of,’’ said Arbeiter, president of the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Greater Boston, who was sent to Auschwitz in 1944.

Germany recently pledged $80 million over the next five years — by far the most of any country — for preservation work at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. The United States has pledged $15 million. Several other countries have also pitched in.

The fund drive has strengthened confidence among local survivors that the camp, which was liberated 66 years ago, will remain a worldwide symbol and its lessons will continue to be taught.

“I feel that what Germany is doing now is the right thing to do,’’ said Rena Finder of Framingham, who along with her mother survived the Holocaust after they were sent to work for industrialist Oskar Schindler. “We don’t blame the children and grandchildren for the parents’ and grandparents’ sins.’’

For Finder, who lost many relatives in the Holocaust, the three and a half weeks she spent at Auschwitz “seemed like an eternity.’’

She recalls seeing Nazi doctor Josef Mengele — known as the Angel of Death — immaculately dressed with shiny boots, gloves, and a whip.

“With a flick of the wrist he would decide life or death,’’ said Finder, 81, a native of Krakow, Poland.

Genocide survivors, including those in countries such as Armenia, Cambodia, and Rwanda, often face excruciating decisions in determining how to document the horrors. For the dwindling firsthand witnesses to the Holocaust, Auschwitz is a powerful and enduring symbol.

The 60-year-old memorial, consisting of two parts of the former concentration camp established in and around the Polish city of Oswiecim, has been worn down by decades of weather and visitors whose numbers are swelling each year. Last year there were 1.4 million visitors, about three times as many as in 2001, according to Jacek Kastelaniec, general director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.

Kastelaniec said conservation work is urgently needed to fix 155 deteriorating buildings and ruins and to preserve more than 100,000 personal items of victims.

“For the first time, we are collectively taking care of this place,’’ Kastelaniec said.

A native of Plock, Poland, Arbeiter was sent with his family to a ghetto in Starachowice in February 1941. In October 1942, when Arbeiter was 17, the Nazis assembled the entire Jewish population in the city marketplace. Those deemed not fit for slave labor, including Arbeiter’s parents and 7-year-old brother, were sent to a death camp at Treblinka.

Two other brothers, now deceased, survived the Holocaust; and another vanished without a trace.

On a table at his Newton home recently, Arbeiter displayed pictures he took during trips back to Auschwitz that illustrate its deterioration. He was part of a work detail that cleaned latrines. During his first trip back in 1986, along with his son, Jack, pictures showed the walls still standing; on another trip back with his son and grandson David in 2007, the walls had disappeared.

Arbeiter was among those who were marched out of Auschwitz before Soviet forces entered the camp on Jan. 27, 1945. Among his final stops was a camp at Tailfingen, Germany, where he worked in a quarry. He recalls a strike by US planes on an airfield there.

“The planes were so low that you could read the numbers on them,’’ he said. He and other prisoners were liberated by French troops near Sigmaringen, Germany, on his 20th birthday — April 25, 1945.

His wife, Anna, born in Lodz, Poland, was also at Auschwitz. She has not been back. “I get very emotional,’’ said Anna, who was liberated at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945 and recalls British soldiers weeping as they entered the camp in Germany where Anne Frank perished.

Arbeiter has spent the past decades speaking to students in Greater Boston about his experiences and was invited to Germany to speak to high school students there twice, most recently last year. The Germans awarded him the Order of Merit in June 2008 for fostering German-Jewish understanding and for his efforts on behalf of Holocaust survivors.

Professor Sol Gittleman of Tufts University, a specialist in German language, literature, and history, said Germany has taken steps to acknowledge its part in the Holocaust and to move on.

“They had to face what they did,’’ Gittleman said. “People like [Chancellor Angela] Merkel and the whole generation now . . . they still have a sense of history and have conquered their past. They know how to deal with it and accept the role that they played.’’

Still, another local Auschwitz survivor said Germany could do more.

“They have plenty of money, and their guilt will never go away from them,’’ said Morris Kesselman of Sharon, who was born in Lodz and spent nearly two years in the camp. “I’m not blaming the present generation.’’

Kesselman believes it is important to preserve the camp, though he has never been back and has no intention of going. “At this stage of the game, no,’’ he said. “I’m 84 years old.’’

Finder has returned to Auschwitz twice, but it has taken a toll on her. “It’s very difficult,’’ she said. “I feel like I’m walking through a cemetery where my family is buried.’’

Bill Porter can be reached at wporter@globe.com.