Eugene Zinn was about an hour into a PBS Holocaust documentary in January when he heard a familiar voice speaking his native Slovak tongue.
Eighty years old with his eyesight nearly gone, Zinn pressed his face closer to the television screen in his West Hills den.
There, clad in an argyle sweater and walking around the restored Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, was Otto Pressburger, a man for whom Zinn had been searching for much of his life.
Zinn knew he needed to find Pressburger. He knew he wouldn't rest until he did.
For decades, Zinn didn't speak about the horror of the Holocaust. His three years in the death camp seemed so distant. So at odds with a happy and fruitful half-century in Los Angeles. The 45-year marriage. The fulfilling career designing wheelchairs. The two "extraordinarily wonderful" children he had raised, sent to college and on to successful careers. The perennial kvetching about the Dodgers.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 06, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 News Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
Holocaust survivor -- An article in Wednesday's Section A about Auschwitz survivor Eugene Zinn misspelled the name of the concentration camp on the outskirts of Lublin, Poland, where most of Zinn's family members were murdered. It is Majdanek, not Madjanek. (An alternate spelling of the camp is Maidanek.) In addition, the article described Zinn as having returned to Palestine after the war. Palestine had become the state of Israel shortly before Zinn arrived.
The nightmares, however, never let up. He would conjure up images of his mother, Helen, then 46, and his father, Heinrich, 58, lined up outside the gas chamber with his little sisters Maedy, 13, and Erika, 12. Screaming for help once inside. Finally passing out. No one to help them.
"There's no way you can block it out," Zinn says.
Zinn knew of no one in L.A. who could relate. Even he couldn't quite fathom the enormity of it. "Sometimes I'd think, did it really happen to me?" If people inquired about the striking blue "30113" tattooed across three inches of his outer left forearm, he would reply, "I was at Auschwitz." Few pressed further.
Zinn says he didn't want to trouble his children with the evils he had endured. Instead, he did his best to try to enjoy life. He took his kids to baseball games. He sent flowers to his wife, Sarah, each Valentine's Day. He flew the family to Europe or the Caribbean on annual vacations. "And thank God, we had beautiful times," Zinn says. "I wanted to raise my children to be happy."
Son Harry, now 44, recalls reading "Night," Elie Wiesel's famous Holocaust account, in junior high school and realizing for the first time what his father must have endured.
But it would be like asking someone whether he had cancer, the younger Zinn recalls. "You don't want to know it's true, and if it is, you don't want to bring it up."
That Zinn -- or anyone -- could survive Auschwitz for three years is remarkable in itself. Wiesel spent less than a year there and in other camps. Most of the more than 1 million prisoners brought to the camp from 1940 to 1945 died or were executed within weeks of arrival.
Zinn's train arrived in April 1942, packed with 973 Slovakian Jews, including his four teenage male cousins. All but 88 were dead within 17 weeks. Zinn guesses maybe five of his trainload made it to the war's end.
Within three weeks, the first of his family members perished. His cousin, Zoltan, wracked by beatings and chronic diarrhea, died in Zinn's arms in the wooden, straw-strewn bunk they shared with three others. Within three months, the other three died, too.
"Every evening prayer, I would ask God to take my soul," Zinn recalls, so the Nazis "wouldn't have the satisfaction of killing me."
He worried about his parents and siblings. The last time he had seen them was at Passover, April 2, 1942, in their home in Huncovce, Czechoslovakia. As German soldiers rounded up the cousins, Zinn said his last words to his mother: "Don't cry, Mother. I'm not afraid of work. They won't kill me."
A few months after that last Seder together, Zinn saw the son of the cantor of his synagogue, who had just been transferred to Auschwitz from the Madjanek death camp, where most of the 100 other Jews in Huncovce had been taken. He relayed the devastating news: Zinn's parents and two sisters had been sent directly to the gas chamber at Madjanek. His elder brother, Alexander, 20, was brutally beaten not long after, and when he fell, SS guards stomped on a broomstick across his neck to finish the job.
The cantor's son told Zinn that his father had been singing on the train as they left home, thinking he would soon see his younger son, Gene, again.
Zinn had no one. Except for prisoner number 29045.
Also 17 and from Slovakia, Otto Pressburger had arrived three days before Zinn. Pressburger's parents and three brothers all perished within six weeks of arriving at Auschwitz. "From then on, it was just me," Pressburger recalled in a telephone interview. "Just me and Zinn."
Pressburger, strong and solid though just 5 foot 6, initially dug the ditches into which the dead bodies were dumped, then dug them up again when the camp filled with the unbearable stench of rotting flesh.