The poignancy of my trip to Auschwitz hit me before I even left for Poland when my stepmother Bernice asked: “Do you think you will be able to light five candles for my mother, my aunts and my grandparents?”
This was not just going to be a work trip to cover the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp where more than a million Jews were murdered.
I would also be following in the footsteps of my step-grandmother Ruth Kaufmann, Auschwitz II-Birkenau prison number 78391, who somehow survived one of the most indescribably evil chapters in modern history.
As I entered the original ‘Auschwitz I’ camp under its notorious metal banner ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (Work sets you free), it was impossible to even imagine how Ruth must have felt arriving here as a teenager - by now separated from her mother Bertha and her sisters Irene and Claire who had been transported to Sobibor further north.
Little did she know then that she was one of the ‘lucky’ ones, for few realised that Sobibor only existed for the sole purpose of exterminating Jews.
A map in Block 4 showed how prisoners were transported from as far and wide as Norway and Greece. I soon spotted Westerbork in the Netherlands where Ruth’s family were taken after initially being held at Vught, an SS “camp factory” 60 miles from Amsterdam.
Originally from Duisberg in west Germany, where Ruth’s father Max had fought for the Germans in the First World War, the Kaufmanns fled for Holland in 1933, eventually being reunited in Amsterdam where Ruth went to school with the teenage diarist Anne Frank.
Forced to wear the Star of David when Hitler invaded the Netherlands in 1940, when the family was sent to Vught, a then 14-year-old Ruth was assigned to make lamps for German aircraft.
Only inmates with strong eyes and hands were chosen and she would later recall how she was made to stand in one of two lines, unaware what she was being selected for life or death. It turned out those in the other queue went straight to the gas chambers.
Years later the Dutch Red Cross confirmed that Ruth’s mother and sisters had died the day they arrived at Sobibor on July 23, 1943.
The last time Ruth saw her father was when he briefly returned to Vught on his way to Auschwitz. Reduced to a human skeleton and with eyes like a frightened animal, she barely recognised him. As they said goodbye through the barbed wire fence she knew he had lost the will to live.
A cousin who survived Auschwitz by working as the Commandant's gardener later told Ruth that he had pulled Max out of the queue to the gas chambers several times but on the fourth attempt, her father begged to be allowed to die, believing none of his family had survived. He was killed on April 28, 1944. His Auschwitz prison number was 150709.
Ruth received another stay of execution in 1943 when she came face to face with Heinrich Himmler, the SS leader considered most directly responsible for the Holocaust.
Accompanied by the Commandant at Vught, the bespectacled Nazi started asking questions and because German was her native tongue, Ruth answered. Not expecting a Dutch Jew to speak German, Himmler was taken aback. He exclaimed: "Diese Juden sind gesperrt!" which meant that she was too skilled to be killed, for the time being.
Because she never really talked about her experience at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the second - much larger death camp on the site of the biggest mass grave in the world - we will never know how on earth Ruth survived freezing cold days fighting for food, naked inspections by SS men, the all-pervading smell of burning flesh, the slow dulling of the mind and the nightmare of waiting for her turn to die.
Confronted with rooms full of tonnes of victims’ hair, shoes piled hundreds high, including children’s sandals, the twisted mess of thousands of pairs of wired spectacles and mountains of abandoned suitcases - representing just a tiny proportion of the possessions taken from 6 million Jews murdered during the Second World War - I found it difficult to comprehend how anyone could have got out alive.
Tears filled my eyes as we were shown a wooden accommodation block where Ruth would have slept, five to a bunk with only straw to lie on and a thin dirty blanket to share.
She left the camp in winter 1944, just weeks before the liberation, on a death march to an unknown destination.
Again she somehow survived the bitter cold, managing to carry on while the weak were shot as they lay down in despair.
She ended up in another camp in Altona near Hamburg where, by some miracle, she and her fellow inmates were freed in exchange for German prisoners of war in Sweden.
They were put on a train and wept as they were greeted at the Danish border by Red Cross nurses. Mostly bald and dressed in grey striped prison clothes, they resembled a band of walking skeletons.
Ruth arrived in Stockholm on May 5, 1945, only three days before peace was declared - and four months after Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz.
She had just turned 19, her teenage years wiped out along with her family.
Hearing a doctor remark: "Don't worry about her, she will die," gave her the determination she needed - she was not going to survive the Final Solution only to die in a hospital bed.
A slow and painful recovery saw her spend two years in bed suffering with typhoid, jaundice and pleurisy.
Then, in 1948, Ruth was found by her mother's brother, who took her to Cape Town, South Africa, aged 22. There she met Charles Levin and had three children - my stepmother Bernice, her sister Diane and brother Martin.
Ruth found it difficult discussing the horrors of the Holocaust but her family later found her quoted in a 1985 newspaper article: "The scars are still with us and the memories we dare not forget. I was a witness to the greatest tragedy that ever befell mankind.
“The indescribable crimes committed by human beings against fellow human beings. Men, women and children of all ages being put to death in a manner to which we would not subject an animal."
Of the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, 1.1 million died. The death toll includes 960,000 Jews (865,000 of whom were gassed on arrival), 74,000 non-Jewish Poles, 21,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and up to 15,000 other Europeans. Those not sent to the gas chambers died of starvation, exhaustion, disease, individual executions, or beatings. Others were killed during medical experiments.
Ruth passed away on June 26, 1998, surrounded by her husband and children.