Holocaust survivor Justin Sonder dies at 95

Sonder was one of the last remaining Auschwitz survivors. He spent decades retelling his experience.

"Ambassador of tolerance" Justin Sonder in 2015.
"Ambassador of tolerance" Justin Sonder in 2015.Bernd Thissen/dpa

Chemnitz-He survived potential selection for the gas chambers 17 times, the Nazi death trains and two death marches. But on Tuesday, Justin Sonder, one of the last remaining Auschwitz survivors, passed away a few days after his 95th birthday. According to his family, the Chemnitz native died peacefully in his sleep. "With Justin Sonder, we are losing one of the last survivors of the Holocaust and an important historical witness," Chemnitz mayor Miko Runkel was quoted by press agency dpa. 

The International Auschwitz Committee said Sonder was an "ambassador of tolerance" who had encouraged others to embrace democracy. "Justin Sonder will be sorely missed as a witness, as a brother and as a friend, especially in these days of growing populist hatred and rightwing extremist attacks," executive vice president Christoph Heubner was quoted by dpa.

Justin Sonder was born in Chemnitz in 1925. Due to his Jewish origins, he was deported to Auschwitz in 1943 after a period of forced labour in an arms factory. He was assigned the prisoner number 105027. While imprisoned in the camp, he survived being selected for execution 17 times, and was sent on two death marches.

With the exception of his father Leo, who died in Chemnitz in 1949, all 22 of his imprisoned family members were murdered, including his mother Zita, who was killed in the gas chambers.

Sonder returned home in July 1945 and eventually started a family and became a detective. He was recognised as an honoured citizen of his home town in 2017. He spent decades recounting his experiences at the hands of the Nazi regime for thousands of pupils and was still visiting schools at 90.

In 2016, Sonder testified as a witness in the trial of former Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning in Detmold, North Rhine-Westphalia. During the trial, he spoke of the agonising fear of death he repeatedly endured when weak and sick prisoners were picked out and sent to the gas chambers. He also reportedly described the despotism of the SS guards: "I saw prisoners get shot just because they ran out of line."

Justin Sonder is survived by his three children as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.