PEACEFUL BEGINNINGS I was born in Brzesko, in Poland, in 1928. Eighty per cent of the town's people were Orthodox Jews. I was the oldest of four brothers. When war broke out, in 1939, I was 11 years old, Nissan was 10, Yosef was eight and Naftali, the youngest, was four. We attended a local school. The Jewish and Polish communities lived together peacefully, the children played together and there were no problems between us. In the afternoons, I went to a Jewish school, because my father wanted me to learn the language and the prayers.
THE NAZIS ARRIVE In 1941, a group of German soldiers arrived in Brzesko. They burned down the synagogue on the market square, right opposite our house. The Jews were extremely upset - they couldn't believe what was happening. The German leader walked around all day with a big dog, beating people. On occasions he would get annoyed with people who could not understand the orders he gave in German, and shoot them. When I was 13, I was sent to work in a camp outside the town, preparing straw for the German army's horses. Some of my friends lost hope but I tried to keep myself strong, so that I could keep living. I wanted to be a mensch (gentleman).
One day, in June 1942, the Germans went to all the Jewish homes and dragged everyone out. If a person was lying sick in bed, they shot them. I saw what was happening and ran away. So did my father. My parents had already sent my two youngest brothers to live with my grandparents in another town, thinking it would be safer. My mother and Nissan were at home and the soldiers took them. When my father and I returned home, we heard that 1,000 people had been taken away in trains. My father made inquiries and learned that they had gone to a concentration camp at Belzec. Nobody came out from there. They gassed everybody and burned the bodies.
LOST COINS My father and I moved to a Jewish ghetto in another town, Bochnia, and lived there until August 1943, when the Germans made the town Judenfrei (free of Jews). The Jews were gathered in the main square and the local army head made the selections - women and children to the left, men to the right. The people on the left went to Auschwitz. Me, my father and 1,500 other men went to a work camp called Szebnie. My job was to repair shoes for German soldiers. I stayed there until November 5, when they liquidated the camp and sent us to Auschwitz. Before departure, they ordered us to put our jewellery and money in wooden boxes. Anyone who kept something back would be hanged. My father had four gold coins. He asked me to keep them, in case we escaped and needed money for transport. He thought they would not search a young boy. I was very scared. I took them into work and hid a coin in the heel of each of my shoes. Later I hid the other two in my father's shoes. But, when we arrived at Auschwitz, they took all our clothes, including our shoes. We were given the uniform of blue-and-white striped pyjamas. So we lost the coins.
ANGEL OF DEATH When we arrived at Auschwitz we were met by Josef Mengele (the SS officer and doctor known as the Angel of Death). He made the selections: "right, left, right, left". My father and I were sent to the right. We were lucky. I visited Auschwitz after the war and was given a copy of the report Mengele wrote on the day I arrived: "A transport of 4,237 Jewish men, women and children arrived from Szebnie camp. After selection I took out 952 men to work and gave them numbers 160897 to 161830. I took out 396 women and girls and put them into barracks. The remaining people were sent to the gas chambers." The numbers were tattooed on our arms. My number is 161400. It's unbelievable. Mengele was an educated man - he studied at university. How did he become a murderer like this?
HELL ON EARTH At Auschwitz, I was scared, all the time. There were no showers, no proper toilets, we worked and slept in the same clothes, lying like sardines on shelves. In the mornings we were given 200 grams of bread with some cheese. Later we got a little bit of soup, but it was so disgusting it was hard to eat it. Most people had dysentery. After a month we were skin and bones.
Then, my father and I were sent to Jawiszowice, to work in a coal mine. We went down in elevators, 300 metres under the earth. I was only 15 - I don't know how I did it. We worked with professional Polish miners. The wife of the man I worked with made extra sandwiches, of rye bread and sausage, so he could give one to me. This gave me the strength to keep working. Many others got sick. When they did, they were taken back to Auschwitz and a replacement was brought. One day my father said, "My legs are swollen and I can't work any more." Before they took him to Auschwitz he put his hands on my head and blessed me. He said, "I believe you will survive this mess. I want you to stay a Jew, like you were taught." So I resolved to stay proud and to keep my belief. I never saw my father again.
KINDNESS OF STRANGERS On January 17, 1945, I was sent with 2,000 other people on a death march to the German border. We walked for four days and three nights, without food, in sub-zero temperatures. Polish people came out of their houses and threw bread to us. From the border we were taken by train to Buchenwald camp. The train wagons were open and many froze to death on the way.
In Buchenwald I shared a barrack with 300 other children and worked in a stone mill, turning large rocks into gravel. In April 1945 we were liberated by the Americans. When I saw their jeep at the gate, I ran to it. The soldiers lifted me up and looked in their pockets for sweets. Later, Red Cross officials gave me the choice to go home, or go to Israel. I chose Israel. I knew my whole family were gone.
A LIFE RECLAIMED I've been happy in Israel. I married a girl called Shoshana and her parents came to treat me as their own son. We have three children, 15 grandchildren and 40 great-grandchildren. We built a new family. For a long time I didn't think about what happened. I wanted to build myself up, to become a mensch. Later I started talking about my experiences. It's not enough for young people to study the Holocaust in history books. My testimony makes a much stronger impression. They can imagine me, around the same age they are now, in a concentration camp. Then they understand.
Dov Landau was in Hong Kong for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, on January 27, with the Hong Kong Holocaust & Tolerance Centre.