Tomas Radil was thirteen and a half when he was sent to Auschwitz with his family, after they were deported from their home town of Parkany - now Sturovo in Slovakia - in the spring of 1944. Most of his relatives were murdered, only his father survived. He was one of several thousand inmates who witnessed the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army on January 27th, 1945. A retired psychologist and neurologist, Professor Radil shared with Rob Cameron some of his memories of Auschwitz and the camp's liberation.
"I'll just recall one occasion, there were [terrible] things happening all the time. This is just an illustration: There was a prisoner who somehow lost his nerves. The SS officer told him for reason 'take off your glasses'. And he refused. He refused to obey the authority of the SS, which had to be absolute. There was a gate, to some sort of store at the railroad station at Auschwitz. [The SS officer] pulled the prisoner behind that door, behind that big gate. We didn't see how he did it. I just saw that before doing it he simply drew his gun. We saw nothing, it was like in a movie. It's like when you watch a killing and they don't show you the brutality. So all I saw was how his blood was pouring out underneath the gate, and how an Alsatian - a German shepherd dog - went up to it, sniffing and licking the blood of the poor guy who had been killed. All the time something like that. I was listening all the time. You could hear the sound of the guns getting louder, you could hear the war coming closer. So I was judging, I remember that - even though I was a little boy - I could tell they were approaching extremely fast."
This was around January 27th, when Auschwitz was liberated.
"No, it was before, days before. The first wave of prisoners who were capable of working - so they could walk - they left about eight days before the Russians came in, I don't remember exactly when. After the Germans left, some sort of international organisation, a secret one, took over. So there was no chaos. They gave some tasks to some people, and because I was among the young ones who could move..."
Sorry - just to get this straight - there was a gap between when the Germans left and when the Russians arrived, and during that time the camp was run by someone else?
"Yes, it was some sort of organisation of the prisoners."
"Who knows? I did not know. I even don't know today. Those people did not ask for publicity."
What do you remember of January 27th, when the Russians arrived?
"The 27th was just a usual day. They sent me and another boy to the gate, to watch what was happening outside the camp. There was no information. And the instruction was - there are two of you. One should watch all the time, and if necessary the second will run as a messenger to some other place and tell people what's happening outside. And that was in the first building to the left past the main gate of Auschwitz main camp - Arbeit Macht Frei, you know. And on the left, the first building was the building of the orchestra. There used to be an orchestra of the camp, so camp music was playing as all those commanders were marching. It was part of the ritual. OK, so we were just playing like little boys with those instruments. And I'm watching from the window - snow everywhere, very flat - and I see a German soldier, running I would say metaphorically towards the West. He was pulling his rifle after him. Carrying a rifle is not easy, so he was pulling the rifle. And I even remember that the belt of that rifle was not made of leather, but some sort of textile imitation. I was even sorry for him in a sense. Not very deeply, but...that was like a symbol of the breakdown of the Third Reich."
So you knew then that the end was coming.
"That was the end. I saw he was running, only one guy. He wasn't part of any type of organised mass movement which is typical for an army: he was just running in order to save his bloody life. That was all. After an hour or so the Russians came in with tanks, you know very fast-moving troops, with some horses and some sort of carriages with horses, and the great majority very young boys. They came in and said, OK, here we are. And symbolically they ran their tanks through the fences, which was a manifestation - it is over now."
"I felt a very fast, very short lasting feeling of happiness. No-one knew at that time, but that is a consequence of endogenic opioids being liberated in your body. You are happy, very happy, but that lasts for a very short period only. You know, after a very short time everyone - almost everyone - had this strange, extremely sad feeling, very depressive, because the immediate goal broke down. The goal was to survive - OK, now we have survived, what next? We knew almost everyone had been killed. Now a new goal came, which was much more complicated to adapt to, and that was - what are we going to do?"
What did you do?
"Basically the choice was not so difficult for me, because I was just an adolescent child. I told myself - I'll go home. I thought my father could be alive, and will return from somewhere. I thought also - erroneously, unfortunately - that my mother could return. Maybe someone else will return. I knew that the great majority will not return. And as the whole war moved from the East to the West, I felt that I had to move from the West to the East."
How do you think Auschwitz changed you as a person?
"Certainly deeply. The famous money-maker and altruist [George] Soros said in a book that those who survived became in a way very strong people. They are tested. Somehow - at least me - I know in advance what I'm going to do. Nothing is really so serious. One damaging thing is that somehow I did forget, to a great extent, to be afraid. If you're afraid, it helps you, it holds you back and prevents you from getting into dangerous situations. I somehow forgot it. I'm not afraid of anything, which is bad. There's nothing left to be afraid of."
Now you've seen Auschwitz, there is nothing which could possibly frighten you anymore.
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