As the speaker wrapped up his talk, Land O’ Lakes High School students streamed down to the front of the auditorium to shake his hand and pose with him for photos.
They wanted a personal encounter with Philip Gans, a man who survived the horrors of the Holocaust during World War II. Gans was at the high school to share his story, so others won’t forget the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
“Your children will never have a chance to see a concentration camp survivor,” Gans said, speaking to teachers and students from U.S. history, world history and several other classes.
Social studies teacher Whitney Miller arranged the visit, saying it’s important for students to use the most primary source of information they can receive.
Gans, now 86, said his life in Amsterdam began as a happy one.
“We had a good life,” he said. “Dad had his own business. We had people working for us. We had domestic help. We even had a car.”
But Gans and his family were Jewish, so when the Nazis invaded they went into hiding beginning in August 1942, moving from place to place for nearly a year to avoid detection. On July 24, 1943 — the evening of his father’s birthday — they were arrested. Gans was 15 at the time.
The family was taken to a detention camp, where they remained a month before being sent to Auschwitz III, a slave labor camp. They loaded more than 1,000 people into cattle cars and carted them to the concentration camp, jamming 50 to 60 people in each car, Gans recalled.
There were no bathrooms. Those who needed to relieve themselves were forced to do so in a pail, in full view of others, Gans said.
“They had no respect for humanity. As a matter of fact, they were savages. They were brutal,” he said.
When they arrived at the camp, they separated the men and older boys from the women and children.
He never saw his mom, sister or grandmother again.
Once Gans he arrived at the camp, he was known as No. 139755. It’s tattooed on his arm and on a replica of the shirt he wore at the concentration camp.
“The conditions were unbelievable,” Gans said.
During his time of confinement he never saw a toothbrush or toothpaste. He showered about once every 10 days, he said.
Besides the physical hardships, prisoners endured mental abuse, he said.
“They did everything to make life miserable for you,” Gans said. “They were brutal.”
Workers kept trying to work, even when they were deathly ill, he said. They knew the consequences if they didn’t.
“Everybody knows if you’re too weak to work, you’d wind up in the gas chamber,” Gans said.
Despite the hardships, Gans considers himself one of the lucky ones.
“I survived,” he said. “There were many people who did not survive. My dad, for instance, he was the only (one) of the 21 members of his family that did not die in the gas chambers. He died in a death march April 1945, a month before the liberation.”
Gans said he, too, walked in the death march — long brutal hikes used by the Nazis when moving prisoners from one concentration camp to another — before being liberated by the American Army on April 23, 1945. He was 17.
Besides using his message to remind people of the atrocities of the Holocaust, Gans also spreads another message. “Erase hate,” he urged the audience.
“When you go home tonight, take out your dictionary and cross out the word ‘hate.’ Hate is corrosive,” Gans said.
He also encouraged students to never give up hope and to take action when they witness something wrong going on.
“Don’t hate and don’t be a bystander, especially in this day and age when so many kids are being bullied and then the next day in the newspaper (you read) that kid committed suicide,” Gans said.
Those who stand by idly and let the bullying happen, he said, “are partly to blame.”
“If you see something that’s being done wrong, even if you have no interest, speak up,” Gans said.
Published April 9, 2014
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