Rachel Levy remembers the moment as vividly as if it were yesterday, taking deep breaths as she prepares to relive her harrowing escape.
At just 14 years old, she and her friend were selected for the gas chambers at the Auschwitz concentration camp by the infamous Angel of Death Josef Mengele and nurse Irma Grese, nicknamed the Auschwitz Hyena.
When there was a sudden commotion, with gunshots, the two terrified girls ran for their lives, hiding behind kitchen staff carrying large pots of soup until they could reach their barracks.
Rachel was unable to speak about the horrors of the Holocaust, which killed six million Jews, for decades, but now, at 91, she wants her story told.
“In Auschwitz there was selection for the gas chambers almost every morning,” says Rachel, originally from Bhutz in rural Czechoslovakia, who now lives in Golders Green, north London.
“One morning I was selected along with my girlfriend Zeldie whom I knew from home.
“We were in line together. Once you walked through that infamous door, you knew you weren’t coming back.
“Someone made a ruckus and we ran away. We hooked up with people carrying food. We didn’t discuss it, we didn’t know we were going to do it, it just happened so fast. The next morning we had a problem because there were too many in line, but there was confusion and we got away with it.”
Rachel’s unimaginable story is told as part of a BBC Two documentary for Holocaust Remembrance Day on Thursday, which follows a project spearheaded by Prince Charles to commission portraits of seven Holocaust survivors for display at Buckingham Palace. .
After the war began, Rachel’s father, Shlomo Slomovic, was taken from his home in the small town of Bhutz. Never heard of him. Her mother, Shlima, was forced to close her shop and the children were forbidden to go to school.
With the help of their non-Jewish neighbors, the family hid in the surrounding mountains and forests when the Nazis arrested them.
Rachel says, “The second time it was unsuccessful because they threatened our neighbors that they would be killed if they hid Jews.”
He was just 14 years old in 1944 when his entire family was forced onto cattle trucks destined for the hell of Auschwitz.
His mother, 10-year-old sister Rivka, eight-year-old sister Eta and three-year-old brother Ben-Zvi were gassed to death upon arrival.
Rachel says, “We were separated. My mother with the youngest children went to the right, and my older brother Chaskel and I to the left – to the Gestapo. They obviously saw that we were strong kids and that we could work.
“My mother encouraged us to go that way and they took her with the others. They were all crying.
“My brother was taken to the men’s camp and I went to the women’s camp. I only saw him through the fence once, then not until after the war.
“I was completely alone, with all the hundreds of people who were also alone. We were bewildered and scared because we didn’t know what it was.
“There was no time for mourning. We were led into a shower and our clothes were removed. They shaved our heads and put us in uniforms. It was like herding animals. We were hungry and cold.
“Eventually you have to accept it, you have no dignity, you’re just someone who is there.
“When Auschwitz was emptied they took us to another place where we were digging ditches. If you didn’t dig, the guards would shoot you and you would fall into the ditch. They didn’t care.
Rachel was then sent on an infamous Death March, marching for 21 days in freezing cold to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
She says: “Deaths happened all the time because there was no food, no water, no place to rest here. The hike was horrible.
“We were scavenging the fields for a raw potato or turnip when we could, but we weren’t allowed to run away and you were shot if you did.”
In Bergen-Belsen, Rachel discovered her aunt, also named Rachel and only 21 years old, who was sick and crying for water. Desperate to help her, Rachel fetched some water from a dirty puddle at the campsite, but died in the night, a week before her release.
Rachel recalls: “I slept with her on the floor while she was burning with fever. We were infested with lice. I crawled into the puddle because I couldn’t walk anymore. We had no energy to stand up.
“The next morning she was dead next to me and they dumped her in a heap.”
The British Army released the 60,000 inmates on April 15, 1945, and Rachel recalls soldiers throwing cans of corned beef at them and then becoming violently ill because their stomachs couldn’t take it.
She says: “We were in bad shape, but the British doctors and nurses cleaned us up and made us look human again.”
It was after the war that Rachel had another moment of extraordinary luck, with everyone desperately searching for missing relatives.
Rachel says: “Two sisters helped me and took me to their uncle, a farmer from Bratislava, who said I could work and live there.
“The first day he gave me food and let me rest. Then I heard footsteps. He was my brother. He had found me. That was the most miraculous thing.”
Without her family, they flew to Belfast and then to London, where Rachel eventually became a dressmaker.
She married Phineas, who died at age 75 in 2005, and has two children and two grandchildren. In 2019, she received a British Empire Medal for her services to Holocaust education.
Her portrait will hang in The Queen’s Gallery, which Rachel says is “incredible”.
Rachel, who suffered from night terrors for years, says reliving her ordeal is difficult.
“It shakes everything up,” she says. “But I am determined, hoping it will make a difference. It starts from childhood, teaching them to be kind to each other. We have to tolerate each other.
“These memories never go out of your mind, I stay up for hours, night after night, and it all comes back to life. But I try to think of my family in a good way, not in bad times.”
“I pretended to be a tailor to escape execution”
When the Nazis put him on a train for his first trip to a concentration camp, Arek Hersh was just 11 years old.
By the end of the war, he had been a prisoner in three more.
First they came for his father, who escaped, then for his older brother, who also escaped. The furious officers eventually demanded that Arek go instead.
He still remembers his mother sobbing when he was taken away to be used as slave labor.
Before the war, Arek had a happy childhood in Sieradz, Poland, skating and sledding with his four brothers.
But his mother Bluma, his father Szmuel, his sisters Itka and Dvora and his brother Tovia perished in the Chelmno extermination camp in 1942. Only his older sister Mania survived, who escaped to Russia. Arek was sent to a ghetto in the Polish city of Lodz. He says: “I only survived because I said I was a tailor. I thought they would need people to sew his uniforms. I couldn’t do anything, but they took me at my word.
“I was never asked to do tailoring, that was a very good thing.”
Arek was transferred to an orphanage and put to work in a textile factory.
He was then deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944, at the age of 16. Arek remembers: “I worked with the fishing commander, fishing. Once in a while I could steal a fish, hide it in my pants. Once a commander found me one.
“First he hit me with a belt and that wasn’t enough for him so he cut a branch off a tree and gave me a good hiding spot. Auschwitz was very, very bad.”
Nine days before the camp’s liberation, Arek was sent to Germany on a day-long death march. He says: “We hardly had any food. People were killed or shot every day.” After the war, Arek became one of the Windermere children and later became an electrician and mechanic. He says: “I left with no family except my sister who died a few years ago. I felt very alone. I tried to be positive, but many nights I cried.
Arek, who received an MBE for services to Holocaust education in 2009, lives with his wife Jean, 88, in Leeds.
Between them they have five children and seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
He says of the Holocaust: “Many times I look back and think: ‘How could that have happened?'”
Survivors: Portraits of the Holocaust, Thursday 27 January, BBC Two 9pm
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.