When will we ever learn?

The most heartless racist episodes in history have taught us little, says a survivor.

The most heartless racist episodes in history have taught us little, says a survivor.

Marta Wise was 10 when sent to the Nazi death factory of Auschwitz with her older sister Eva, 13.

Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor dubbed the Angel of Death, met the transport at the gate. He sent young Marta to the right with those assigned to the gas chambers. Eva he sent left, held aside for his perverse medical experiments meant to prove Aryan superiority over all other races.

But as Marta was marching to her death Russian bombers flew overhead. The Germans panicked and directed that whole consignment of Jews to the barracks.

"They didn't want the Russians to see the smoke from the crematoria," says Wise.

The Auschwitz death camp was normally covered by smoke billowing from the crematoria where tens of thousands of Jews were burnt every day except Sunday.

More than million perished at this one death factory in southern Poland between 1942 and 1945 in Hitler's "final solution" to his Jewish problem.

Altogether six million of Europe's Jews were rounded up in the Second World War, dispossessed of all their belongings except what they could carry in an overnight bag, and shipped off to death factories.

There they were systematically liquidated. But before they stepped to their deaths the victims were stripped of their overnight bags and clothing, which were distributed as gifts to Hitler's pure German citizens.

Auschwitz was the most effective factory in this grisly task of liquidation. At least 1,1million Jews, 15000 Poles, 1000 Gypsies, homosexuals and others the Nazis found undesirable were poisoned in gas chambers and then burnt.

Nothing was wasted by the ever-sopractical master race. Before the dead were burnt gold fillings were stripped from their victims' mouths and their hair was shorn to be used in the German war effort.

"Your South African [apartheid] authorities were admirers of the Nazis," Wise notes quietly at our interview.

She recounts matter-of-factly how her father split up his nine children among relatives and non-Jewish acquaintances in other European countries after Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. As a wealthy textile merchant he had the means to pay gentiles to look after his children and save them from the coming holocaust.

First the Jews were obliged to wear the Star of David sewn on their clothes, then their businesses were confiscated, then they were kicked out of their homes, then they were rounded up and put in ghettoes. Then they were shipped to the death camps.

So in 1942 her father started smuggling his children one by one to friends and relatives in Hungary. But in March 1944 the Nazis invaded Hungary. The 9-year-old, wise beyond her years, slipped away with her sister in the care of a smuggler who delivered them back to Czechoslovakia.

A six-year-old sister staying with an aunt was less fortunate. They were soon rounded up and sent to a death camp.

Marta and Eva went to live with a Christian woman in the nearby city of Nitra, where they lived as young Catholics. They befriended the daughter of the local SS commander. Hitler's shock troops, sporting the death's head emblem, were in charge of ensuring their areas were free of all Jews.

The commander unwittingly started visiting the girls to play chess with the bright Eva. But the girls were different from their friends. They still observed their religion in secret and kept the Jewish sabbath.

That meant they did not collect their rations on Saturdays and did their cleaning on Fridays. Neighbours reported their suspicions and on October 8 1944 a truck with 22 heavily armed soldiers picked up the 10-year-old Marta and 13-year-old Eva. They were beaten but would not confess they were Jews. The Nazis eventually hauled in their caregiver, who conceded she was looking after the Jewish "orphans" so as not to betray their parents.

On November 3 1944 the two sisters were shipped to Auschwitz. They were met at the gate by Mengele.

She slips in endless details of how the sisters were saved from one life-threatening experience after another by the kindness of their fellow inmates.

"You could not survive without help," she says and describes an ubuntu-like system.

Within days of their arrival the children of the saved transport were assembled and sent to Mengele for his experiments. He was fascinated by twins and dwarves: twins to work out methods to increase the population of pure Aryans; dwarves to work out the physiology of growth.

The sisters were housed with a group of Hungarian dwarves and to this day don't know what experiments were conducted on them. Mengele drew copious quantities of blood from his victims, bleeding many to death. Eva almost died.

Auschwitz was liberated by Russian soldiers on January 27 1945. Both sisters defied the odds to survive, but all 180 of their relatives in the camps perished among the six million other victims murdered because they were Jewish.

Marta Wise went on to become a history professor in Australia before emigrating to Israel in 1998.

"We've learnt nothing since then," she says "Look what's happening in Darfur."

So is there any lesson from their tragedy?

She pauses. Then this deeply religious Jew quotes the Christian theologian Pastor Martin Niemoller:

"When the Nazis came for the communists,

I remained silent;

I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,

I remained silent;

I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,

I did not speak out;

I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,

I remained silent;

I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,

there was no one left to speak out."

We are all in this life together and cannot survive in isolation, says the historian Wise.

l Wise is in South Africa to speak at the commemoration of the Holocaust on the Day of Remembrance tomorrow.