On day of remembrance, a Holocaust story impossible to forget

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CHICAGO -- In 2005, the United Nations selected this date to commemorate victims of the Holocaust, 6 million Jews and 5 million others murdered by the Nazi regime. On this date in 1945, the Russian army liberated the Auschwitz death camp. That was 71 years ago, and today, we heard from a survivor not that much older.

Aaron Elster is 82 or 83, he's not quite certain. In the Holocaust he lost records, his family, a childhood, his town, but remarkably never his incredible will to survive.

When Elster was seven years old, the Germans invaded his town in eastern Poland. His family, along with 5,000 other Jewish residents, were ghettoized to a four-block area surrounded by barbed wire.

On Yom Kippur,1942, his mother told him to hide upstairs. 40 people crowded in one bedroom and tried to stay silent. But a baby began to cry. Elster watched as a mother covered the infant’s face so others wouldn’t be found out.

They were discovered anyway, but Elster’s own mother and father would give all they had so he could survive. He followed advice from his dad, and ran to a forest by way of an open sewer. He lived on his own in fields for two months, and when he realized his mother was alive, he went back. She was hiding with a farmer, and she gave up her jewelry so Elster could offer it to a neighbor in exchange for a place to stay.

He spent two years alone in an attic, surviving 100-degree heat and freezing temperatures. He never saw the light of day.

In that time, his father was killed in Treblinka. His six-year-old sister Sara was taken there too. He’s not sure how she died, but he has always been haunted by how he imagines her final minutes.

His mother had been shot in the town cemetery three months before liberation. Elster was then free to leave the attic, but had no where to go. He couldn’t read or write, and his entire family, except for an uncle was gone. That uncle got him to Germany, and eventually to the U.S. where he remained an orphan in foster care.

At 18, he was drafted to Korea, but first he married his wife Jackie of 63 years. Elster says she was the first person to have loved him since he was a little boy.

He’s now vice president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum, where he spends time in its room of remembrance, talking to Sara, his mom and his dad. He also talks to kids and audiences across the country, a living history lesson in strength and survival.