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Abe Katz is gregarious and resilient — attributes that no doubt helped him survive Auschwitz.

On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the infamous Nazi concentration camp, it remains difficult to imagine the horrors doled out by Hitler's SS troops there. But Katz remembers it all too well.

For five years, the Polish teenager witnessed it, day in and day out. He was surrounded by death and the dying. More than 1 million people perished at Auschwitz. More than 6 million Jews and millions of others were systematically put to death in the network of Nazi extermination camps across Poland and Germany.

"You think of one thing: survival, survival," the spry 91-year-old said Tuesday from his South Salt Lake home.

He understates the atrocities he's witnessed, but still chokes up when recalling his mother. He never saw her again after the Gestapo grabbed him off the streets of Lodz in the fall of 1939. He was 15.

"I don't know what happened to my mother or my father," he said. "I don't know what happened to them and I have to live with that."

Katz likes to stay busy and surround himself with people to keep his mind off Auschwitz.

"When I lay awake in bed, the most horrible thoughts go through my mind," he said. "But you try not to dwell on it, because if you do, you will have a miserable life."

Of course, Poles were aware of what was happening to German Jews. And as the Nazi Blitzkrieg rolled into Poland in 1939, Jews were fearful, he recalled. "But where do you go? Where do you hide? What do you do?"

The teenager soon found himself at Auschwitz and was tattooed with the number B6282, a mark he still bears on the inside of his forearm. "That was my name. There was no name. You are a number."

One of his jobs was to cut down trees that the Nazis used to build huge bonfires, Katz remembered. "And then they would throw Gypsies into the fire and watch them burn to death," he said. "The smell of burning flesh was awful."

Despite prison camp life, Katz remained strong enough to work. That, he said, is why he was allowed to live.

"I was young, and I was strong. But many were not," he said. "We never thought we would survive. My family was always on my mind."

He described the daily diet of two small pieces of bread for breakfast, thin soup for lunch and another small portion of soup for dinner. "We were nothing but flesh and bones," he said.

When the 21-year-old Katz was liberated, he stood 5-foot-9 and weighed 73 pounds.

The barracks where the prisoners slept were made up of three tiers of bunks in long rows. Six men slept on each of the hard, wood pallets. They were so tightly packed that they had to sleep on their sides. Every hour, a man would whistle, and they would all roll over for relief from the pain of their bones on the hard bed.

It was not unusual to wake up next to a dead man on your bunk, Katz recalled. "Every morning, the dead brigade would come with a wagon and pull the dead bodies from the bunks."

In late 1944, with the Soviet army closing in on Auschwitz, Katz and hundreds of prisoners were marched more than 350 miles through snow to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. They tore up their blankets along the way to wrap around their poorly made shoes, which were falling apart. Those who fell behind were shot and left in the snow, Katz said.

Several months later, as the Allies were closing in on Buchenwald, the prisoners were to be moved again. But Katz and two others hid in the muck of the sewer and stayed behind, fearing they would not survive another long march.

The Americans liberated Buchenwald on April 11, 1945. They rolled into camp with truckloads of bodies found along the road — some of them prisoners who were forced to march out of Buchenwald.

The Americans also brought a lot of food and, after a few days, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower came to camp. Katz remembered shaking his hand. When the general looked around at the stacks of bodies, tears rolled down his face.

After several months regaining his strength, Katz returned to Poland to find that nothing was left of his home but four walls. Neighbors said they knew nothing of his parents. After months of searching, he found his two sisters, who had miraculously survived in other camps. It was a joyful reunion that still brings a smile and a twinkle to the old man's eyes.

Nonetheless, life remained challenging. He lived in Germany because if he stayed in Poland, the Soviet army would draft him. "After what I had been through in the camps," he said, "I wasn't going into the army."

In 1950, the Jewish Federation of Salt Lake City helped him immigrate to Utah. The following year, he brought his German girlfriend, Charlotte, to Salt Lake City. The couple married and had two children. At the time of Charlotte's death, six years ago, they had been married 62 years.

"What I have been through in my life... ," he said and paused. "I have had a long life. I have a lot of good friends. But I miss my wife."

He still wonders how he survived the concentration camps and was able to have a family and a good life in a new country. After a moment of reflection, he said it's important not to forget the Holocaust.

Until a year ago, Katz would regularly visit area schools to tell his story, giving students a face and a voice to go along with one the most horrific periods of modern history.

"The reason I'm doing this interview is for one reason: This story should not be forgotten. It could happen again. There must be vigilance."

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