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JERUSALEM – In an annual ritual, Israel will come to a standstill Monday morning for the country's official Holocaust remembrance day. Air raid sirens will wail across the country as pedestrians stop in their tracks and drivers exit their vehicles and bow their heads to honor the six million victims of the Nazi genocide of World War II that wiped out a third of world Jewry.
For Israelis of all walks of life, the two-minute tribute offers a moment to remember the victims and focus on an image that dreaded period represents to them. For Israel's dwindling population of elderly Holocaust survivors, however, the painful memories linger year-round.
Hundreds of thousands of survivors made their way to pre-state Israel after the war and helped build the new country. With less than 200,000 survivors remaining, Israel is still home to the largest such community in the world.
To capture the experience in a snapshot would be impossible. Still, The Associated Press asked a group of survivors who endured the worst horrors of the Holocaust to share their strongest singular memory. Without exception, each focused on those closest to them who did not survive.
— Asher Aud (Sieradski), 86 (Poland): Married, three children and ten grandchildren. Retired from Israel Military Industries, a state-owned weapons manufacturer.
Asher Aud's odyssey reads like a history of the Holocaust's horrors.
Over six years, he was separated from his parents and siblings in his native Polish town of Zdunska Wola and then scavenged for scraps of bread and staved off a debilitating illness alone in the Lodz ghetto before he was deported to the Auschwitz death camp.
There, he avoided the gas chambers and crematoria, and after a long incarceration, he weathered the notorious death march through the snow to Mauthausen, where those who fell behind were shot dead on the spot. After the war, he passed through a series of displaced person camps before he boarded a ship to the Holy Land where he did his best to forget the past for the next half century.
Aud will be one of the six survivors chosen to light a symbolic torch at Israel's official ceremony Sunday night marking the remembrance day.
Of all the atrocities he endured, Aud said the strongest memory is the one that was most traumatic — parting from his mother at the age of 14.
It was September 1942. The Nazis had rounded up the Jewish community inside the local cemetery and were preparing to deport them. His father and older brother had already been taken and he was left with his mother and younger brother, Gavriel.
"I remember looking down and I happened to be standing on my grandmother's tombstone," he recalled. "The Germans walked among us and anytime they saw a mother with a child, they tore the child from her arms and threw them into the back of trucks."
That's when he realized life as he knew it was over.
"I looked around and I just said 'mother, this is where we are going to be separated,'" he said.
Soon after they were marched through two lines of German soldiers. "I didn't even feel it when the Germans hit me but every time they struck my mother and brother it was like they were cutting my flesh," he said.
— Shmuel Bogler, 84 (Hungary): Married, two children, five grandchildren. Retired police officer.
Shmuel Bogler never had the opportunity to say goodbye to his family, rounded up from their home in Bodrogkeresztur and, like most of the Hungarian Jewish community, transported to Auschwitz. Of the family's 10 children, one had died young, three had fled before the war and three others had previously been taken to work camps. Bogler was left with his parents, one brother and one sister when they were crammed into a cattle car. After five suffocating days amid the stench of human excrement, they arrived exhausted at the infamous death camp.
"The first thing they did was beat us and separate the woman from the men. It happened so quickly, I couldn't even part from my mother and sister," he said.
Next to go was his father, who was told to go left at the notorious selection line of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, who was known as the "angel of death" for deciding who would live and who would die.
"I remember him begging: 'I am still young, I can run, I can work.' But it didn't help and I couldn't say farewell to him either," Bogler recalled.
At 14, he and his brother were left alone. They survived Auschwitz, where he vividly remembers the screaming of Jewish inmates who were burned alive and the smell of their charred flesh. "I don't know if mother and father were among them. I have no evidence of how they died," he said.
The brothers wandered together between work camps, where he remembers them being constantly hungry and infested with lice. Eventually they were liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp, and Bogler later made his way to Israel, where he fought in its 1948 war of independence.
"I still have nightmares to this day," he said. "Just two weeks ago I had a dream in which I was taken to a death camp."
Though he is no longer an observant Jew, Bogler said he still goes to synagogue to honor his father who was religious and whose beard and sidelocks were sheared by the Nazis in humiliating fashion.
"The hardest part is not having a Jewish grave for my parents in which to honor them," he said.
— Jacob Philipson Armon, 76 (The Netherlands): Married, two children, one grandchild. Retired from Israeli defense contractor Rafael.
For Jacob Philipson Armon, memories are hard to come by. He was only two when his native Holland was captured by the Nazis, and three years later he went into hiding just like his more famous compatriot Anne Frank. The family's five children were dispersed among various non-Jews who risked their lives to protect them.
His story has mostly been recreated by documents, the testimony of others and the smidgen of images seared into his mind. "I remember the scary things. I remember crying and being so hungry that I couldn't fall asleep," he said.
The most traumatic thing he recalls was when German troops kicked down the door of the family home of his protector, Kit Winkel, and searched for Jews.
"They burst into the house and started to search for documents, turning over furniture and tearing down wallpaper. One soldier stood and stared at me. I sat frozen, not daring to move. I was so frightened I almost couldn't breathe," he said. "Then came a Dutch policeman who was accompanying the German soldiers and he told the soldier that he saw something in another room. By luring the soldier away, he probably saved my life."
Other details were filled in by others. His mother, who was also hidden and survived the war, later told him that the last thing she told him before she handed him over to his protector was: "Remember you are a Jewish boy, be proud of it." His protector said he was, boasting to non-Jewish children that he was a Jew being hidden. She quickly quieted him before the news spread, which would have put both in danger.
Only 13 of 100 family members survived. His father, who was hidden in an attic, was informed upon and later died at the Sobibor death camp.
Armon credits his own life to his savior, Winkel, who hid him for three years.
"I call her my angel. She would pet me on the head, calm me and help me sleep. That's how I recovered," he said.
After the war, when his mother came to reclaim him, he initially refused.
"I stared at her and said 'you are not my mother. My mother is dead,'" he recalled. It was Winkel who convinced the seven-year-old to rejoin his family, who later moved to Israel.
— Ester Koffler Paul, 82 (Galicia, today Ukraine): Married, three children, nine grandchildren, three great-grandchildren. Retired homemaker.
When Ester Koffler Paul thinks back on her Holocaust ordeal, she mostly remembers her sister. Paul was 8, and her sister Nunia was 10 in 1941, when the Nazis invaded their hometown of Buchach in what is now Ukraine. Their mother died before the war and their father was taken by the Nazis and murdered along with 700 other Jewish men.
The girls were put under the care of their grandparents, who had returned from pre-state Israel because they missed the family. An uncle, who was an engineer, built an underground bunker below their home with a tunnel that led to a public garden.
When the Nazis came knocking on the door, her grandparents stayed behind so they could cover up and seal the escape hatch as the girls crawled away. "They sacrificed themselves," she said. "The Germans captured them and stopped looking."
For the next few years they were on the run together, sleeping in fields, subsisting on scraps of food non-Jews gave them from time to time. When the Russians took over their town they returned home, but it was soon recaptured by the Germans and once again they faced Nazi troops. This time they were caught on the street and handed over to the Gestapo.
"They asked me what my name was and I said 'Romka Vochick.' I had never heard that name before and where I came up with it I don't know. It was as if someone just landed on me and put the name in my head," she said, of the non-Jewish sounding name. "That is the name that saved me."
Her sister couldn't bring herself to lying, fearing that she would be found out and beaten. "She had an accent and was afraid," Paul said.
That decision cost her her life.
"I believe in fate," Paul said. "There was some kind of higher power that was at work. I don't know how to explain it. It happened, but it is hard to explain it all."
Follow Aron Heller on Twitter at www.twitter.com/aronhellerap.