AMHERST — Almost 70 years ago, Erwin Froman was a teenager, clutching tightly to his father’s hand as he stepped off of a train into a new, chaotic world.
Minutes later, he felt a firm grasp on his shoulder as a German soldier pulled him away from his family and into Auschwitz.
That was the last time he held his father’s hand.
“It’s engraved in my brain,” Froman, now 85, said from his Amherst home, remembering the feeling of being alone in a concentration camp he, at 15 years old, knew nothing about.
What followed was a year of work and the constant fear of death as Froman and the other prisoners in Auschwitz were slowly dehumanized until, Froman said, they were made into animals.
He escaped with his life and moved to Lorain after the war, but decades later, the memory of the pain he endured in the Holocaust still follows him.
Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, which marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, and Froman, recognizing that he is one of few survivors left, said he plans to try to keep the story of the Holocaust alive.
“If we don’t tell the story, who is going to?”
On his first day in Auschwitz. Froman stood in empty wooden barracks, the walls of which were lined with beds that fit six people to a bunk without mattresses.
It was a confusing moment for the teenager, who believed that he and his father were being sent to work in a field. He knew nothing about where he was — the camp that would become the most notorious labor and extermination camp of the Holocaust.
“I asked where my parents were,” Froman said of one of the first encounters he had with another boy who had been in the camp longer than he. The boy led him to the front of the room, opened a door and asked “What do you smell?”
“I smelled flesh,” Froman said. “That’s when he explained what Auschwitz was.”
For the entire year Froman spent in concentration camps, he was never given a number tattoo. Shortly after he arrived in Auschwitz, he was taken to Birkenau, a sub-camp in Auschwitz. Between January 1942 and March 1943, 175,000 Jews were killed in the gas chambers at Birkenau, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.
Froman said that explained why he was never given the tattoo.
“They thought, ‘We’d get rid of them,’” he said, adding that no one expected him to live through Birkenau.
It was through a twist of fate that a train arrived to Birkenau one day, needing 37 prisoners to labor in another concentration camp.
Froman was one of the few chosen and though he remembers horrible working conditions as he and other prisoners were forced to produce war supplies in an Austrian concentration camp, he counts himself lucky.
“The danger of being exterminated was not there,” Froman said, adding that had he been left behind at Birkenau, he would not be alive today.
In that camp, Froman quickly began to realize how the Holocaust changed people, especially those he might otherwise have called allies.
“They were worse than the Germans,” Froman said of the Capo; prisoners who were appointed leaders of labor squads and who regularly beat and dehumanized Froman and other prisoners.
“People became animalistic,” he said.
Supplies like food and water quickly ran out after repeated bombings from American and English soldiers destroyed railroad tracks leading into the camps. It was then that Froman and other prisoners, already weak and malnourished, went on an 48-mile “death march” in search of food.
“I didn’t call it a death march,” Froman said. Though he remembers how many prisoners fell down from exhaustion and were left to die.
When they finally arrived at another labor camp, Froman said he was put to work and stationed in “barrack 10,” where a member of the Capo told him, “None of you will get out alive.”
Sick and malnourished, they went back to work.
“People were skeletons,” Froman said.
In 1944, he was 75 pounds and still 15 when a United States Jeep pulled up to the camp three days later and announced that they were liberated.
But after years of torture and suffering, the words seemed empty.
“We were animals. What does it mean, ‘free?’” Froman said.
Four sisters out of his 10 siblings survived. Soon after the war, Froman found them in Germany. While he describes the moment as a “big reunion,” Froman said the horror of what they had endured had not yet sunk in.
It was only years later, when Froman moved to the United States on a small herring boat that he began to realize what he and his family members had been through.
Froman immediately moved to Lorain, where he met his brother, who had come to the States before the war.
As he learned the language and began to make friends, including meeting his wife in New York, Froman said he fell in love with the country that for him, signified a new life.
“I said, ‘Erwin, where are you? You’re in the United States … realize where you live.”
Even now, Froman has to hold back tears as he talks about how grateful he is. “You don’t realize how lucky you are,” he said.
After he and other Holocaust survivors began establishing themselves in their new lives, Froman said they began to talk about their experiences to keep the memory of what happened in World War II alive.
“Fifty years ago, I didn’t think I would reach the age I reached now,” he said. “Someone, somewhere, someplace, wants me here.”
With the help of his son, Froman got his GED, an accomplishment he describes as one of the proudest moments of his life. He opened up a butcher shop in Amherst and remains the last living Holocaust survivor in Lorain County.
“Life must go on. You can accomplish more,” Froman said of how he continues on after the suffering he saw in the Holocaust.
Yet, Froman adds, certain memories will never leave him, especially the moment he stepped off the train into Auschwitz.
“I’m still holding my father’s hand.”