Holocaust Survivor Returning To Auschwitz: 'It's Like Going To The Family Cemetery'

Jan 23, 2020
Originally published on January 24, 2020 9:24 am

Vladimir Munk remembers the day he walked free from Blechhammer, a sub-camp of Auschwitz in eastern Germany.

"I was happy," Munk says. He was sick and starving, but he had survived.

The Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945. The concentration camp in Poland is where more than a million people, mostly Jews, were murdered during the Holocaust. This Monday, on the 75th anniversary of the liberation, Munk is traveling back to Auschwitz for the first time since he was imprisoned there.

Munk's parents were killed in Auschwitz, as were most of his family members. "So, for me, it's like going to the family cemetery," Munk says.

The decision to go back, though, wasn't an easy one to make. When he walked free from Blechhammer, Munk decided not to let the experience define him. He says he's known survivors who never recovered from the Holocaust.

"They are a survivor, but they never got over it," Munk says. "Yes, I'm a survivor, but I've tried to live a normal life."

Munk was born in Pardubice, Czechoslovakia, in 1925, and was a teenager when Nazi Germany invaded the country. A few years into the occupation, Munk's family was forced onto a train and sent to a concentration camp called Terezin.

A photograph of Vladimir Munk, (center), taken in March 1938 before the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. After being imprisoned in concentration camps for years, Munk returned to his hometown of Pardubice, Czechoslovakia in May 1945 (right).
Emily Russell / NCPR

After living in a Nazi-occupied city, Munk says going to Terezin was an adventure.

"I was 18 years old and living in a normal city like Pardubice, for Jews and especially young Jews, it was really like being in a concentration camp because you were not permitted to attend theatres, movies, sporting events, nothing."

Terezin was not an extermination camp, though space was tight and food was scarce. More than 33,000 people died at Terezin during the Holocaust.

At the time, though, most Jews and much of the world didn't know what was coming, that the Nazis were building gas chambers capable of killing thousands of people at a time.

At Terezin, Munk had a job, he was able to see his mother and father, and he got a girlfriend. Then, after two years in Terezin, Munk and his father were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Munk knew the concentration camp had a bad reputation among prisoners, but hadn't heard about the gas chambers. When they arrived, Nazi soldiers ordered Munk one way and his father the other.

He later asked a neighbor in Auschwitz if he knew what had happened to his father. Munk says the man pointed to the smoke in the sky and told him his father had gone up the chimney.

"So that was it," says Munk. "You never died in Auschwitz. You went up the chimney."

Vladimir Munk has saved jewelry he had made inside Terezin, a concentration camp north of Prague. He says the most popular was item was Terezin's coat of arms, center, which he had made for a girl he met there named Kitty, who would later become his wife of 66 years.
Emily Russell / NCPR

His mother met the same fate, just months before the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. Munk spent his first months free begging for food in Poland. Eventually he made his way back to his hometown in Czechoslovakia.

By the end of 1945 Munk had re-enrolled in school. He went on to earn a master's degree and then a PhD in microbiology and biochemistry. In 1949 Munk married Kitty, the girlfriend he had when the two were prisoners in Terezin.

Munk and his wife left Czechoslovakia after the Soviets invaded in 1968. They moved to Plattsburgh, N.Y., where Munk took a job teaching microbiology at the local university, SUNY Plattsburgh.

Even when they had kids, Munk says they didn't talk to them about the Holocaust until they were teenagers. He says he didn't want the experience to define their family.

Munk is retired now and his wife of 66 years, Kitty, died in 2015. After a living a full life, Munk has starting thinking more about his time in the Nazi concentration camps and about the family he lost at Auschwitz.

"You are thinking of all your relatives from time to time,"Munk says. "I try not to think, but you think about it."

Munk is traveling back to Poland this weekend. While he's had time to pack and prepare for the experience, when he really pictures himself back at Auschwitz for the first time, Munk closes his eyes and shudders at the thought.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Next week marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The concentration camp is where more than a million people, mostly Jews, were murdered during World War II. A Holocaust survivor from upstate New York is going back to Auschwitz for the first time since he was imprisoned there. North Country Public Radio's Emily Russell has the story.

EMILY RUSSELL, BYLINE: When I pull up outside Vladimir Munk's apartment in Plattsburgh, he waves at me through his living room window.

Nice to meet you, too. Wow. It's a strong handshake (laughter).

Munk is a small guy. He's got a gray goatee. And when he smiles, you can see it in his eyes. We sit down at his kitchen table, and he starts his story from the beginning.

VLADIMIR MUNK: I was born in 1925, so I am now 94 years old. In one month, I will be 95 years old.

RUSSELL: Munk grew up in Pardubice. It's a small city east of Prague. He was a teenager when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. A few years into that occupation, Munk's family was forced onto a train and sent to a concentration camp called Terezin.

MUNK: Terezin was originally a military city, so it was just naturally closed. Once you are in, you couldn't get out.

RUSSELL: When you went there, what did you think was happening?

MUNK: For me, it was an adventure.

RUSSELL: Remember, for most of his teenage years, Munk lived under strict Nazi occupation. At the time, most Jews and much of the world didn't know what was coming, that the Nazis were building gas chambers that would eventually kill thousands of people at a time. After two years at Terezin, Munk and his father were put on another train. He says they didn't know where they were going until they got there.

MUNK: And I saw, through the window, Auschwitz-Birkenau.

RUSSELL: He got off the train and got in line. Nazi soldiers told Munk to go one way and his father the other. Later on, Munk asked his neighbor at Auschwitz about that moment.

MUNK: What happened to him? Do you know? You see the smoke over there? He went up the chimney. You never died in Auschwitz. You went up the chimney.

RUSSELL: His mother, Munk later learned, met the same fate. Just a few months later, the Soviets liberated Auschwitz. It was January 27, 1945. Munk says he tries not to think too much about that time.

MUNK: There are people, their life practically ended in the concentration camp. They are a survivor, but they never got over it. Yeah, I am a survivor, but I tried to live a normal life.

RUSSELL: Munk went back to school. He got a Ph.D., and he got married to a woman he met in the Terezin camp. They didn't talk to their kids about the Holocaust until they were older. He says he didn't want the experience to define their family. Munk is retired now. His wife died a few years ago. He says what convinced him to go back to our Auschwitz for the first time in 75 years is what he lost there.

MUNK: You are thinking of all your relatives from time to time. I try not to think, but you think about it.

RUSSELL: The Holocaust is a painful part of his family legacy. He didn't have any siblings, but Munk did have a lot of aunts and uncles and cousins.

MUNK: They all perished in the concentration camp. So for me, it's like going to the family cemetery.

RUSSELL: Still, when he really pictures himself there for the anniversary ceremony at Auschwitz on Monday, Munk closes his eyes and shudders at the thought.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Russell in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

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