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Fri, Feb. 21

Auschwitz survivor tells middle school students that freedom has price

PRESCOTT -- Against a backdrop of a 1945 photograph showing a young Stephen Nasser buried under a pile of dead bodies in a rail boxcar, Nasser reminded Prescott Mile High Middle School students Wednesday that freedom isn't free.

"It is my privilege to be here," the concentration camp survivor told them. "The alternatives wouldn't have been too good."

In 1943 when Nasser, a Hungarian Jew, was 12 years old, Nazis came to his town and sent him and 20 members of his family to concentration camps.

"I lost my freedom as a citizen," the Las Vegas resident said.

"Always remember that freedom doesn't grow on trees. It's not a fruit."

Nasser and his brother, three years his senior, spent a short time at Auschwitz before the Nazis shipped them to Mildorff, which didn't have crematoriums or gas chambers.

"People still died," he said, "of beatings or starvation or malnutrition."

The young prisoners marched four or five miles through the Bavarian forest to work each day. If a person couldn't walk the whole way and fell down, a guard would shoot him and other Nazis would later come and get the body, Nasser said.

While many of the Nazis he came into contact with were cruel, Nasser said, "if you dig deep enough, there's humanity deep down."

For example, during one workday, Nasser and his brother were to repair an elevated train track. One Nazi guard kept an eye on them while Nasser's brother used a large crowbar-type tool to lift the track before Nasser piled crushed rock underneath it to hold it up.

At one point, the brother stepped on the crowbar to apply enough pressure to lift the track. The crowbar broke, rolling, with the brother, down the embankment.

The guard ran over to where the brother was lying and he picked up the metal end -- 25 or 30 pounds -- and hoisted it over his head in preparation to hit the brother.

Nasser said he'd seen a Nazi guard murder his cousin and aunt at the first concentration camp and couldn't watch his brother face a similar fate.

He ran up behind the guard and took the metal end out of his hand. He jumped on the guard's back and squeezed his Adam's apple until the guard began to choke and eventually fell.

The two brothers helped the guard up, afraid for their own lives. The guard, "with shaking hands" and "a killing eye," Nasser said, pulled his gun from the holster and pointed it at Nasser, asking why he attacked him.

"It is my brother," Nasser responded.

He said he could see the guard's eyes clear and the guard put the gun back in its holster.

After that, the Nazi brought lunch for the two boys every day until they'd completed that job.

During his presentation Wednesday, Nasser asked students whether they ever put off doing a favor for a family member.

"What do you think," he said, "how much I would give of my life to do something for my brother or my parents. I'm the only one who turned out alive out of a family of 21. You never know how long you have that chance."

During a lunch break a short time after Nasser attacked the guard, Nasser's brother sat him down and told him, "My little brat, I feel it in my bones. There's no way I'm going to survive. I'm going to die."

He told Nasser that the other family members who were in heaven would want to look down to earth and see Nasser happy.

"'Please keep that smile on your face,' he told me," Nasser remembered.

Remembering that conversation, Nasser titled his diary-based book, "My Brother's Voice."

A few days later, guards sent the brother to "death barracks," a place for interns who weren't dead but couldn't work.

Nasser saved up extra food throughout the week and went to the barracks to give food to his brother, hoping to nourish him back to health.

He found his brother, "a skeleton, just skin and bones," he said, and climbed into bed with him.

"But there was that beautiful smile, and he said, 'My little brat, I love you,'" Nasser said.

Nasser put his arm under his brother's head, preparing to feed him. His brother then showed him food he had kept under his blanket but was too weak to eat.

He began whispering words of encouragement to his older brother, hoping to convince him to try eating.

"You know, I was talking to a dead body," he said. On March 30, 1945, his brother died in his arms -- exactly one month before U.S. Army forces, under General Patton's command, liberated prisoners from that concentration camp.

April 30, 1945, American troops loaded concentration camp prisoners into rail boxcars -- the backdrop for Nas-ser's Wednesday presentation shows a photo of his boxcar.

"There are 62 people dead in this boxcar," he said. "I know we had the most dead people in our boxcar."

He was unconscious when American troops pulled him from the car, and hospital nurses weighed him in at 72 pounds (down from his previous 138).

At the end of his presentation, he thanked past, current and future soldiers for fighting for freedom.

Contact the reporter at heller@prescottaz.com

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