WASHINGTON -- After nine days of heavy fighting near the camp, an unusual silence permeated the section of Auschwitz where Eva Mozes Kor, then 10 years old, hunkered down with her twin sister, Miriam. The relative tranquility was broken in the late afternoon.
"A woman ran into our barrack yelling at the top of her voice: 'We are free! We are free! We are free!' Well that was wonderful. It sounded great," says Kor.
But it wasn't until a half-hour later that the reality of deliverance settled in for Kor on January 27, 1945: In the distance, though the snow, she could see "lots of people, and they were all wrapped in white, camouflage raincoats."
"They were smiling from ear to ear," she says. "And the most important part for me was that they did not look like the Nazis. We ran up to them. They gave us chocolates, cookies, and hugs. And this was my first taste of freedom."
Kor, now 80, and her sister were among some 7,000 prisoners liberated from the notorious Nazi concentration and extermination camp by the Soviet Army 70 years ago next week.
She is also among the few child prisoners to have survived Auschwitz after being subjected to disturbing medical experiments by one of the most infamous Nazi criminals, Josef Mengele.
Later that evening, Kor recalls, the Soviet soldiers of the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front came to the barrack where she and her sister were living. "They drank some vodka, they danced a lot of Russian dances, and we stood in a circle applauding," she told RFE/RL.
The soldiers returned two or three days later bearing massive cameras and a peculiar request: They asked the children to put their striped Auschwitz uniforms back on and recreate a march through the camp.
The reenactment yielded the only images known to exist of the two girls during their time in Auschwitz, showing them walking at the front of a group of children and next to a mother carrying a child cloaked in the prison uniform.
Not everyone agreed to put the stripes back on, but Kor said there was a January logic to her and her twin's decision to do so.
"I told my sister, 'It's cold outside, let's have another layer of clothing,'" she said. "And so we did. And then they filmed us marching between the two rows of barbed-wire fences."
'We Were All Alone'
Eva and Miriam had arrived at Auschwitz with their mother, father, and two older sisters in May 1944 after spending four days packed in a cattle car with thousands of other Jews being transported to the camp from the Simleu Silvaniei ghetto in the Transylvania region of Romania.
It was on the so-called "separation platform" at Auschwitz that the twins last saw their family. Their father and sisters disappeared into the crowd, while their mother held firm to their arms.
Amid the sound of human cries and barking dogs, a uniformed German rushed up to the girls' mother and asked if they were twins. Her mother asked if that would be a good thing. The German said it would be.
Her mother informed him that Eva and Miriam were indeed twins, after which they were pried from her embrace.
"All I really remember is seeing my mother's arms stretched out in despair as she was pulled away," Kor said. "I never even got to say goodbye to her. But I didn't really understand that this would be the last time we would see her."
The twins never learned the fate of their parents and sisters.
"Miriam and I no longer had a family," Kor said in a recent interview. "We were all alone, and we had no idea what would become of us."
'I Refused To Die'
The girls joined the estimated 1,500 sets of twins subjected to medical experiments at Auschwitz under the guidance of Mengele, whose grisly practices earned him the nickname "Angel of Death."
The sisters, like many of these twins, were subjected to torturous examinations, injections, and other genetic experiments. Unlike most, however, Eva and Miriam did not die after being treated like human guinea pigs.
Kor recalls being separated from her sister and being injected with an unknown substance that likely caused her temperature to spike.
Years later, Kor says, Miriam told her that during this time the Auschwitz doctors were observing her closely, as if they were waiting for something to happen. Kor has concluded that if she would have died from the injection, the doctors would have killed Miriam to conduct a comparative autopsy.
She also recalls Mengele's words after the fever hit her.
"Laughing sarcastically, he said, 'Too bad she's so young. She has only two weeks to live,'" she recalls. "I knew he was right. But I refused to die. So I made a silent pledge that I will prove Dr. Mengele wrong. I will survive, and I will be reunited with my twin sister Miriam."
'My Childhood Was Lost'
Eva and Miriam managed to survive the medical experiments and the last-ditch efforts by the Nazis to exterminate the prisoners of Auschwitz before it was liberated by Allied forces.
Kor says she miraculously survived an attack by four Nazi guards who sprayed the prisoners with machine gun fire a week before the Soviet soldiers arrived.
After the camp was liberated, the sisters were initially placed in the care of local nuns, who gave the girls "lots of toys."
That to me was in a strange way insulting, because they did not understand that I was no longer a child and I was no longer playing with toys," Kor said. "I'm sure they tried their best, but they really did not understand, at age 11, what we survived. I never played with toys again. My childhood was lost in Auschwitz forever."
After a subsequent sojourn at a refugee camp, the girls managed to make it back to their home in the Romanian village of Portz, where their family had owned land and farmed until they were transported to a ghetto by Nazi-allied Hungarian forces in 1944.
Kor had thought that, if she and Miriam survived, someone else must have survived as well. But they found their family home empty and ransacked. "I can tell you that probably this was the saddest day in my life. Because I so desperately hoped that somebody else survived," she said.
'Free Of Auschwitz'
The sisters immigrated to Israel in 1950. It was there, Kor says, that she was able to sleep peacefully for the first time since the Hungarians occupied their village nine years earlier.
"I finally slept without the fear of being killed because I was Jewish," she said.
Both she and Miriam built careers, married, and had children, and Kor moved to the United States with her American husband -- also a Holocaust survivor -- in the 1960s.
Until her death in 1993, Miriam suffered kidney problems that Kor believes were caused by Mengele's experiments. To this day, however, she does not know what she and her sister were injected with.
It was in the years following her sister's death that Kor embarked on what she describes as another form of liberation: forgiving her Nazi torturers.
In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Kor read a witness statement signed by a Nazi doctor named Hans Muench, whom she had asked to confirm details of the horrors committed at Auschwitz.
"It was important for me that it was a Nazi doctor, not a Jewish survivor or a liberator," Kor recalls. "Because the revisionists always said that this was a story invented by the Jews, and if I ever met one of those revisionists, I could shove that document in their face. That was my idea."
After reading the statement, Kor announced that she was forgiving the Nazis, a declaration that sparked controversy given the scale of the crimes committed during the Holocaust. She says, however, that her decision was not about the perpetrators.
"What I discovered for myself was life-changing," she says. "I discovered that I had the power to forgive. No one could give me that power, and no one could take it away. It was all mine to use it in any way I wished."
Kor, who has resided in the Midwestern state of Indiana since 1960, says she even chose to forgive Mengele, whom both she and her sister outlived. The notorious SS doctor died in 1979 in South America after evading arrest and prosecution for decades.
"And if I forgive Mengele, the worst of them, I might as well forgive everybody who has ever hurt me," she said.
Forgiveness, Kor added, liberated her from her "tragic past."
"I was free of Auschwitz, and I was free of Mengele."