JERUSALEM - As a slave laborer in Auschwitz, Meyer Hack was forced to sort through the tattered clothing stripped off inmates before they were sent to the gas chambers. He gathered valuable belongings hidden inside the clothes, stuffed them in a sock, hid them and later spirited them to freedom.
On Monday, the 95-year-old survivor now living in Boston donated eight pieces of gold, silver and diamond-studded jewelry to Israel's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, as a tribute to the original owners, who perished.
Dressed in a white suit with a pink tie and collar, Hack recalled his journey with the jewelry, from Auschwitz to other death camps and ultimately to freedom in America, recalling the harrowing sights he witnessed along the way.
"I was not human. I was a piece of meat, a robot," he said, his accented voice cracking as he rubbed tears from his eyes. "But I said 'I want to survive' ... my heart told me 'I will survive.' I kept telling myself: 'Don't die, don't die, don't give up.'"
Hack was born in Ciechanow, Poland, in 1914. In 1942, he was deported to Auschwitz with his mother, brother and two sisters.
The women were murdered upon arrival. His brother survived the selection but wore down quickly. Assigned to pull laundry carts, his strength was sapped. Hack saw a Nazi guard strike his brother repeatedly on the head with a wooden plank, killing him.
The Nazis and their collaborators murdered 6 million Jews during World War II. Few from Hack's hometown, near Warsaw, survived.
Hack lied to his Auschwitz captors and told them he was a tailor, which earned him a transfer to the "clothing chamber." There he discovered the exquisite items - rings, wristwatches, bracelets and pendents - amid piles of clothes, and was never able to determine who their owners were. He safeguarded the jewelry, hiding the items in a hole he dug in the ground.
In 1945, he took the jewelry with him on death marches to the Dachau camp and later to Munich, from where he escaped to the forests until liberation.
Many pieces were lost or stolen along the way. Three others who also collected jewelry were captured, and Hack witnessed their hangings.
"Anne Frank wrote a diary that is famous all over the world. My diary is right here," Hack said, pointing to his heart. "What I went through for six years - my eyes photographed everything."
Dean Solomon, Hack's friend of 30 years, said only in recent years did Hack confide in others about his story and his rare mementos. He said he still does not know why Hack collected the items and secured them at great personal risk.
"I don't think I can tell you, I don't think he can tell you. All I can know is what they came to mean afterward," Solomon said. "They came to mean his identity, his survival, his resistance, his ability to have something of his own person survive."
Hack went on to work in a clothing store in Boston, where he lived with his wife, whom he met in the camps, and their two sons.
He placed the wartime jewels in a metal box in his attic and left them there for more than six decades.
"I tried to build a new life, so I put them in a box and I said, 'I'm not going to touch it until the right time comes,'" he said.
So why now?
"I'm 95," he said with a smile. "It's time."
© 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.