Speech of the Survivor Leon Horn at the presentation of the project “Traces to Remember” -Austin, Texas
Mr. Leon Horn
My name is Leon Horn and I am a survivor. I have lost 6 million of my Jewish brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, and compatriots who ended up in gas, flames, shootings, beatings, sickness and famine in the ghettos and concentration camps of the Nazi geography. I have lost a million and a half of Jewish children whose lives were shortened before they have a chance to blossom. I am a survivor and my duty is to bear witness.
May my testimony and the voices of others like me, in their years of decline, sound like a warning and a clarion; which may be a warning to erase apathy and indifference; to push towards vigilance to oppose discrimination and hatred, to spread goodwill and tolerance, and to take action against any incipient form of government that seeks to inflict suffering on some of its citizens.
I am Leon Horn and here with me is my family, three generations. Providence? Resilience? Luck? I do not know. But I thank God with all my heart of his existence. For the continuity and privilege of standing before you, people of good will, ambassadors of peace who have chosen me to be the first link in this country of an ineffable chain of remembrance.
In September 1939, without provocation, Germany invaded Poland. At that time we lived in Krakow. In 1940 the Germans ordered all Jews to leave Krakow with their possessions. My family and I returned to Rzeszow, our hometown, until 1941, where a ghettos was established. Superfluous to say, we lived constantly with fear and imminent danger. One day my older brother was arrested in the streets of the ghetto, interrogated and shot by the Germans. The pain and despair felt by my parents and me is utterly indescribable.
Then came the call “relocation.” People were sent to concentration camps in the East. At that time I was recruited to work for the railroad company “Ostbahn” and we were given working papers, so my family and I were exempt from being deported. Six weeks later we were sent to Szebnie concentration camp. My father and I were put in a group to dig trenches and other tasks. We were also in the same barracks, while my mother lived in the women’s barracks. One morning the camp commander called the whole group of prisoners and told us to take off all our personal belongings: watches, rings, earrings, everything valuable, everything we had… there was a woman who did not take off a ring. The commander told her to kneel, pulled out a pistol, and shot her right in front of me. I stopped caring if I lived or not. I was disgusted with that kind of life.
On my return, at dusk, to the work camp, I realized – to my horror and dismay – that during our absence the people who remained in the camp were transported in trucks to large fields that were nearby, where they were told to be to take off their clothes. Several thousand men, women and children were lined up and told to dig trenches. My mother was among them, ordered to line up in front of the newly excavated ditches. They were all shot by machine guns, falling into their graves.
For me, my mother was the most valuable thing in the entire world. She was always there to support us, morally and in every way. That night my father and the people in the barracks said the “Kaddish” the prayer for the dead. I remember that I said to them: “Even now you pray? Where is God now?” There was nothing left in me but emptiness. My heart and soul cried out for this injustice.
On November 29, 1943 they gathered all the people who remained in the camp, they put us on cattle trains and sent us to Auschwitz. We descended from the wagons and marched towards the Angel of Death” – Joseph Mengele, who with a movement of his hand sent people to the right or to the left. I was ordered to go left and for some unfathomable reason I went to the right. They ordered my father to go to the left and I never saw him again.
Those who went to the right were told to take off their clothes and to go to the showers. I thought that my end was near in the gas chambers where the showerheads were loaded with gas tanks; but to my surprise warm water fell on us, a real shower. Then they left us out without clothes, in the icy cold, for about 45 minutes, until we were sent to the barracks. Then I started my pilgrimage through the fields of… Birkenau, where they gave me a tattoo with the number 161217… my new name, my identity. This number is what I was.
At the end of 1944, the Russian army was approaching, so the Nazis chose to end the Auschwitz camp and send us on a “death march” to the railway connecting station. We marched for a few days without food in a violent blizzard. Nazi SS troops on both sides of us. People were shot instantly because they were not able to walk. Two days later they loaded us on trains of cattle that I will never forget, they put us like sardines. It was snowing and there was no food or water, or restrooms, or any hygiene, and people were dying of diarrhea and sanitation, it was Dante’s inferno. On the fifth day we arrived to the well-known camp of Buchenwald.
On the last day of April of 1945, on my last trip they sent us to a camp called Shpahingen. It was the worst camp I found during my imprisonment. My friend and I were planning an escape and on the next day our camp was dismantled and we were evacuated to a unknown place. It seemed like that march would not end well. So, without thinking about my consequences, my friend and I escaped from that march to the forest and escaped death once more. The next days we were able to get to the armed forces of France and we started our long and difficult journey that took us to Paris, France.
It could take hours for me to describe in details the journey and how we got to the United States in a boat to New York, where I met and got married with my wife Muriel in 1952. We have three children: Mónica, Richard and Jonathan; with four grandchildren: Lauren, Shelby, Benjamin and Jorden. And the rest brings me to my current days as a survivor that has to give testimony of the tortures, and violations, assassinations, and the atrocities committed by the German Nazis and their collaborators.
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, I was a witness of the persecution of the Jewish people. And I want you, illustrious guests, “be witnesses” of my testimony, and that you tell your friends and family members what you have presenced and heard today.