It was silent in the auditorium at the North Salem Middle School / High School as Holocaust survivor Peter Somogyi told of his experience in Auschwitz as the subject of experiments by Dr. Josef Mengele.
Mengele is widely considered one of the worst Nazi doctors for his role in the killing of 6 million Jewish people.
Somogyi told his story as part of the Yom Hashoah Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony on April 30.
Showing photos from Auschwitz, Smogyi recounted being in a line with his mother when Mengele asked if he and his brother were twins. The boys, 11, were then separated from her and taken for experiments as she was marched toward the gas chamber.
“There was a big building, spewing flames 10, 15-feet high. I thought it was a factory. Turns out it wasn’t a factory, it was a factory of death,” Smogyi said.
He and his brother were given identifying numbers while elsewhere in Auschwitz, Smogyi said, hundreds were being locked in rooms they thought were showers and killed with cyanide and their bodies burned in a crematorium.
“I was traumatized. At 11-years-old they take you away from your family and they put you in big barracks and you don’t know what’s happened. I said, ‘Where can I see my mother?’ and he said, ‘See those flames over there? That’s where your mother is and you will never see her again’.”
Smogyi said Mengele measured the twins and took samples of their blood, which to this day he doesn’t know the purpose of. He considers himself one of the “lucky” ones; earlier in the war twins were subjected to much worse.
Each morning Smogyi and the other twins would line up outside to be counted and they could see the piles of dead bodies being put out on the side of the road. Anyone who couldn’t work was flagged for death, and anyone who appeared to be limping or unable to walk was shot on the spot, Smogyi said.
When Auschwitz was liberated on Jan. 27, 1945, Smogyi and his brother ran immediately from the concentration camp and headed in the “bitter cold” toward their hometown, knocking on doors along the way for food and shelter.
The boys’ father did not return immediately, thinking his whole family was dead, but later reunited when he got news that his boys had survived.
On a slide projector, Smogyi showed a family photo from before the war with about a dozen members and circled just the three that had made it through the Holocaust alive. The next slide showed his family present day. His father remarried, and he and his brother each with children and grandchildren of their own.
“This is my story. This is my new life. Really, I tried to forget Auschwitz, but I will never be able to do that,” Smogyi said.
Each year the North Salem and Somers school districts join together for the Yom Hashoah Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. The North Salem High School Madrigals performed the Star Spangled Banner and Hatikvah and an original song called “Go call the swallow” by Julianna Austin. The Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance put on a performance and students from each district received awards for projects about the Holocaust.
From North Salem, Lexi Staebler, Lauren Brown and Dagny Junghans received first, second and third place awards, respectively. From Somers, Nieve Mahood, Analaura Gregorio and Abigail Lopatka received first, second and third awards, respectively.
To end the event, Cantor Ruth Ossher from the Hebrew Congregation of Somers led a procession and candle lighting ceremony in memory of the 11 million victims of the Holocaust and Rev. Michael Watson of St. Lukes Episcopal Church gave a benediction.
Larry Kaufman, commander of the Jewish War Veterans Post 46 spoke along with North Salem Principal Vince DiGrandi and with Chris Regan, a board member of the Somers Holocaust Memeorial Commission (SHMC), who made a plea for more members.
Steve Waldinger, president of the SHMC, reminded the audience of the importance of teaching the students the atrocities of the Holocaust.
“This evening as you observe our students projects, as you listen to them sing and watch them dance and hear them speak, we ask that you reflect on the importance of continuing to educate our youth and confront the troubling issues of our time,” Waldinger said.