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A reason to live
By Waveney Ann Moore,
For days on end, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind provided a measure of escape for 12 young women imprisoned in the largest, most efficient death camp in Nazi Europe.
Huddled on a bare wooden bunk, starved, cold and bedraggled, they listened enraptured as Lilly Salcman retold the story of a petulant but invincible Scarlett.
"I had just read Gone With the Wind just before we were taken and I knew the whole book by heart, and every day I would tell them a chapter," said Mrs. Salcman, 75, wistfully referring to her once photographic memory.
In 1944 that gift served her well.
She loathed the gritty soup rations, but her daily installments of Mitchell's novel were currency for the potatoes that settled at the kettle's bottom.
"I think I still love potatoes today," the part-time St. Petersburg resident said.
That she refuses to dwell on Birkenau, the death camp built as part of Auschwitz, reflects a special optimism.
"Even when I was in Auschwitz I was really blessed with a good nature," Salcman said recently.
"There were people who were dwelling on it, but I always say tomorrow is another day."
In 1993, Salcman returned to Auschwitz with her husband, Arthur, and daughter Julie Salamon to watch the filming of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List.
"I always said I never wanted to go back to my hometown and I never wanted to go back to Auschwitz," said Mrs. Salcman, who was born in an area of Czechoslovakia that is now Ukraine.
Still, she could not resist returning to the place where she had refused to be defeated.
Mrs. Salcman will always remember May 21, 1944, the day she arrived at the camp. Flames rose in the distance and in the air was an indescribable smell. Years later she learned that both had come from piles of bodies set ablaze in pits.
She remembers also the infamous Nazi surgeon Josef Mengele, who sealed the newcomers' fate.
"He was there and he was pointing to the left and the right. To the right meant you went someplace and to the left meant that you would survive, which we didn't know," recalled Mrs. Salcman.
"All of a sudden, I see my mother is not there. She was 54 years old. She was sent to the other side. I turn back to go after my mother and Mengele said, "Where are you going? I told you to go to the left.' I said I want to go with my mother and he said you will see her tomorrow. You know, tomorrow never came."
Both her parents perished.
Arthur Salcman, 86, also experienced a measure of favor amid the terrors.
An engineer by profession, he had been forced to give up his job under Nazi occupation. While working at a railroad station, he saw fellow Jews being packed into boxcars. A non-Jewish friend warned it soon would be his turn.
"He came to me one day and said tomorrow you will go," recalled Salcman.
Supplied with false identification papers and food by his friend, he began one of the most frightening periods in his life. He used the forged documents to find work, but later he became a resistance fighter.
Salcman was the only member of his family who managed to avoid concentration camp. Of his five sisters and one brother, only one sister and his brother survived internment.
Later he came to the United States. So did Mrs. Salcman, who emigrated with her first husband, the late Alexander Salamon.
Her faith helped her to survive, said Mrs. Salcman.
"Sometimes I question God. How could he let things like that happen?" she said.
"I have to remember that you cannot question God. There was a purpose for my survival. I cannot find a purpose for killing my brother or my mother and my father and my aunts and uncles and my cousins."
But pointing to a family photograph, the grandmother of six said, "This is our reason for surviving. To have children and the grandchildren. To have continuity of the family. To not have Hitler be right that he would completely wipe out the Jewish people from the earth."
Arthur Salcman, 86, Lilly's husband, avoided incarceration by the Nazis and became a resistance fighter. He stands before photos of Jewish resistance fighters at the new Holocaust Center.
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