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Toronto woman returns to Auschwitz to mark liberation 70 years later

WATCH: Hedy Bohm, a Toronto woman who survived Auschwitz, tells her story and why it is important to remember. Sean Mallen reports.

TORONTO – On a cold January day in 1945, nine-year-old Miriam Friedman Ziegler watched as Red Army soldiers approached Auschwitz. An army photographer captured the historic moment: 13 wide-eyed children – Friedman Ziegler among them -staring out through a barbed-wire fence.

The thought of freedom was a scary notion for the Jewish girl who’d spent a year in Auschwitz separated from the rest of her family.

“What’s going to happen to me now?” she recalls thinking at the time. “I have nobody.”

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She would later reunite with her mother, but her father never made it out of the infamous Nazi camp alive.

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Auschwitz has become a symbol of the horrors of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were systematically killed.

WATCH: An extended interview with Hedy Bohm.

Friedman Ziegler, who lives in Thornhill, Ont., is among about 100 survivors who are returning to Poland this week to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Going back is not easy for the 79-year-old.

“I swore I would never go back to Poland, but I feel it’s my duty now to do it,” Friedman Ziegler said during a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

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On Monday, she will reunite for the first time with four of the girls – now women in their 70s and 80s – featured in the iconic photo. A new photo will capture the moment. This time, however, it will be in the comfort of a hotel in Krakow – the emotions of having the photo taken at the nearby camp too overwhelming.

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Leafing through photographs at her apartment north of Toronto, Friedman Ziegler kept returning to the black-and-white photo, where she looks bewildered, her left sleeve pulled up revealing her prisoner identification number – A16891 – that the Nazis tattooed on her skin.

“How come I am the only one showing my number? I don’t know what made me do it,” she said, adding that at her age, one army looked like any other.

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Friedman Ziegler’s journey began in 1940 in Radom, Poland, where her father ran a couple of stores. Life was idyllic, she said, until one day the Nazi tanks rolled into town. Her mother took off with Friedman Ziegler toward her grandparents’ house in a nearby town via horse and buggy. But the man driving the buggy tossed them en route, fearing for his life.

They hid in the forest during the day and walked at night, eventually reaching her grandparents’ home. The Nazis had not arrived, but they were coming. So Friedman Ziegler’s grandfather paid a sympathetic farmer to hide her. The farmer would take her to town to beg for food and money, introducing her as his niece. She fit in because she looked like many other Polish girls with long, blond hair.

On her walks along the countryside, she says she saw death. Dogs tearing at bodies, a family hanged outside their house. Shortly after she reunited with her family – a pattern that continued for years, sometimes hiding with strangers, sometimes hiding with her family.

Every now and then the Nazis would pin them down for a “selection” – in which they picked out people to take them away or kill them on the spot. During one of those “selections,” she watched her family line up outside along with her aunt Bella, who was holding her newborn baby in her arms.

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“I could see what they were doing and I saw them shooting the baby,” said a teary Friedman Ziegler, her voice breaking with emotion.

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When she turned eight, the Nazis loaded her and her parents in cattle cars and shipped them to Auschwitz.

The children were taken to the adjacent Birkenau death camp, where Friedman Ziegler found a few of her cousins and met many other girls who would later become lifelong friends.

The Nazi “selections” continued inside the camp, she said, but they became more sinister.

“Everytime they took out a few of the children for experiments some came back, some didn’t,” she recalled.

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“All I remember is going to this big room with people in white uniforms and lots of tables with things on them,” she said. Later she couldn’t remember anything.

“I came back and had pain in my hips and legs and that’s all I know.”

Then one day the Nazis abandoned the camp temporarily and the children, including Friedman Ziegler, snuck off to Auschwitz where they raided the barracks for food and clothing and then returned to camp.

When the Nazis returned they asked anyone who wanted to walk to freedom to line up. They shot everyone in line.

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Auschwitz was liberated on Jan. 27, 1945.

Alexander Vorontsov, a Red Army combat photographer, filmed the camp shortly after liberation, according to Anne Marie Stein of the USC Shoah Foundation. The photograph Friedman Ziegler appears in is actually a still image from the film, part of which was shown at the Nuremberg trials.

After Auschwitz, Friedman Ziegler spent time in various hospitals and orphanages in eastern Europe. Eventually, she came to Canada as part of a group of 1,000 child refugees. She lived for a while in Hamilton with relatives – memories of death and suffering still fresh in her mind.

One time, when she was told she was going to summer camp, Friedman Ziegler said she broke down in tears.

“I said ‘I’m going to another camp?”‘ she recalled. “Then they explained to me ‘No no, this is a nice camp. You’re going to ride horses, learn English, you’re going to have the best time in your life’, which was true.”

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Two years later her mother came to Canada and the pair settled in Toronto. She eventually met her husband – also a Holocaust survivor – on a blind date. The couple has three children.

“I had a very, very good life,” she said. “I never dreamt that I would live in such a beautiful place.”

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She has rarely spoken about what happened during the Holocaust, even with her family.

“I’m hearing some of these horrible stories for the first time,” said her daughter, Adrienne Shulman, who is accompanying her mother to Poland.

The interviews and media attention has worn Friedman Ziegler down. She’s emotional and ready to move on, but believes it is her duty to talk.

“I was lucky enough to live,” she said. “I want the world to know.”