Martin Aaron and his family were one of only 100 Jewish families living in Sapinta, Romania, in 1940 as antisemitic Hungarians began to occupy the town of 2,500 families. After the occupation, conditions became harsh for the Jewish community. Jews were not allowed to attend school, and Jewish businesses were confiscated. Travel from town to town was prohibited without special permission.
“I grew up in an Orthodox home. It was a good life with a large, loving family,” says Martin. “I attended regular school through seventh grade, but as restrictions grew, school subjects were taught at home. We were forced to worship and receive religious training there, also.
“Our rabbi was a great leader, and we missed attending synagogue. But we continued to worship because we drew strength from the older generations who impressed upon us the importance of our religious heritage.”
Strong or weak. Young or old. Right or left. Live or die.
The selection process began as soon as Martin Aaron and his family arrived at Auschwitz. Hungry and exhausted after a two-day train ride by cattle car, they were pushed and pulled from the train by Gypsies.
“We were confused, scared, and hungry. We were greeted by Kapos, trustee inmates who supervised the prisoners. They walked among us, pointing with wooden sticks, guiding people to a table where German officials made the ultimate decision.”
The selection process was the beginning of the mass extermination of the Jews. It was also where Dr. Joseph Mengele chose subjects for his infamous experiments. These included attempts to change eye color by injecting chemicals into children’s eyes, various amputations, and other brutal surgeries. Of particular interest to Mengele were twins, dwarves, and infants.
“With the wave of a stick, your fate was sealed,” recalls Martin. “My brother and I went to the right and my family to the left. I never saw them again. It was the saddest day of my life. There was so much confusion as families were ripped apart. My little brother was pulled from Mother’s tight grasp. Of all the horrors I was to endure, that day was the worst.
“I still ask myself today, ‘How could mankind do this to mankind?’ “
“On April 15, 1945, I stood behind the barbed-wire fence at Bergen-Belsen and saw what I thought were angels from heaven.
“The British Army circled our camp and finally came inside. Shock and disbelief filled their faces. People who lived in the surrounding area were brought in to see the horror of the camp.
“After hearing the bombs nearby, I had been anxiously awaiting this day, hoping I would still be alive to witness the liberation. I was weak and starving.
“I was 16 years old.”
Survivor Martin Aaron is willing to open the wounds of the past to help educate our youth. When Martin shared his story with students at Mortimer Jordan High School in Birmingham, Alabama, he spoke about his family, especially his younger sister whose face he can no longer remember. Martin and his brother were the only family members who did not perish at Auschwitz.
“I don’t want the Holocaust to be forgotten. We must teach children to accept and respect differences, to stand firm and say, ‘Never again.’ “
Martin Aaron has been a member of Knesseth Israel Congregation, Birmingham’s Orthodox synagogue, since 1953. Forty years ago, he began serving as a Gabbai, assisting in the worship services and meeting other needs of the synagogue. During that time he has assisted eight rabbis and today holds the title of Gabbai for Life. He is also a member of the Board of Directors.
“Our small congregation has a wonderful view of the future, and I’m enjoying our endeavor of building a new synagogue which will serve our members well into the 22nd century,” he says.
“As we reflect on what has happened in the past, we realize that we are made of what happened yesterday and the day before. I’ve tried to use all of those experiences to make positive things happen.”
Martin is pictured with Knesseth Israel’s Rabbi Avraham Shmidman.