Werner Reich was a teenager when he heard talk among desperate fellow prisoners that the Russians were not far away. There was smoke in the eastern sky and the steady rumble of cannon fire and he and the thousands of other prisoners hoped that their hell on earth would soon be liberated.
Instead, their German captors gathered up prisoners at the Auschwitz death camp complex, where 1.1 million people had been systematically murdered, and marched them west on foot.
To young Werner and the others, it was a death march. They had no food, no water, no warm clothes, and that winter of 1945 was among the coldest on record. They had been starved, beaten and brutalized in every way conceivable and seen the unthinkable as thousands upon thousands of their fellow Jews — men, women, children and babies — were marched into gas chambers and murdered en masse.
“Those who could not walk or get up were shot,” Mr. Reich said of the death march. “At night we slept in stables. On the third day we arrived at a railroad. Thousands in the march had already died. The rest of us were loaded into open rail cars and were shipped to Austria. It was minus 10 degrees.”
Mr. Reich, 92, who was born into a Jewish family in Berlin in 1927, spoke Sunday during International Holocaust Remembrance Day at Cutchogue Presbyterian Church, sponsored by the Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force. He spoke for more than an hour to a rapt audience that filled the pews, listening to his calm voice and looking at often horrific photographs he displayed on a television screen.
Monday marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz camp complex, which was spread over hundreds of acres of Polish countryside, by Russian forces. The ceremony in Cutchogue was one of hundreds nationwide, in Europe and at the camp itself.
In the U.S., Mr. Reich, who lives in Smithtown, is part of a dwindling population of elderly Holocaust survivors who can tell their stories and pass on what happens when hate goes unchallenged in a modern society and no one speaks up to stop injustice.
The arc of his story went from his childhood in Berlin to Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and the passage of anti-Jewish laws; to the burning of synagogues and the establishment of death camps by the German government; his three days packed into a cattle car en route from a camp in Czechoslovakia to Poland; the murders of 400,000 Hungarian Jews in the summer of 1944; and his own death march, which he somehow, miraculously, survived.
“In Austria we were taken to the Mauthausen camp,” he said. “The American army was close and the SS guarding us left. There were bodies all over the place. Then the Americans liberated the camp. I was 17 years old that day. I weighed 64 pounds. The local population was brought in to bury the dead in mass graves.”
There were references Sunday to the murders at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018, when a raving anti-Semite armed with an AR-15 slaughtered 11 worshippers; and to the torch-carrying neo-Nazis strutting around Charlottesville, Va., calling out “The Jews will not replace us” — as if any of them were in danger of losing their livelihoods to Jewish men or women.
What can Mr. Reich’s experience tell us about today? What are the lessons to be learned? Those questions hung in the air at the 18th-century church as the audience struggled to comprehend the full scope of his horrific story.
As he described “screaming and crying as people were led off to the gas chambers — men, women, little children,” he looked out at the audience.
“How could this have happened?” he asked.
He answered his own question. “Because the majority were silent,” he said, adding, “We cannot remain silent.”