He was prisoner No. 139755, barely 15 years old when he and his family were huddled into a boxcar and taken to the Auschwitz death camp in 1943.
By the time Phil Gans emerged nearly two years later, liberated by U.S. and Russian soldiers, he was the lone survivor among 21 members of his father's family. Those he arrived with — his father, mother, sister, brother and grandmother — all died at the camp.
"Because of those soldiers, I am alive today," he said.
Gans, who lives in Clearwater, was among 10 survivors honored Sunday during a ceremony to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Although started by the United Nations seven years ago, the commemoration was the first held in Tampa.
About 250 people, including dignitaries from 26 countries, gathered for the hour-and-a-half ceremony at the Italian Club.
The frail survivors, many with canes and walkers, sat up front flanked by sons and daughters and the consuls general of Italy, Germany, Canada, France, Greece and Mexico.
One by one, with help from the dignitaries, the survivors slowly stood to light six white candles to symbolize the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust.
Four singers from the Bay Area Cantorial Association sang Jewish songs, including the poignant Ani Ma'amin (I Believe), which pious Jews sang on their way to the gas chambers.
Poet Richard Ilnicki recited his poem Never Again, recalling horrors Jews suffered under the Nazis. The group recited prayers for those who died as well as for survivors and their liberators.
"It's important for us to remember," said Rabbi Barbara Aiello, who attended with a group of survivors from Kobernick-Anchin, a retirement community in Sarasota. "It's important to keep these stories in front of our eyes. We need to keep these stories alive for a new generation."
Aiello was among the speakers. She recalled how her father kept a small box on his nightstand. It contained two buttons, some string and a pocket knife. He never discussed their significance until shortly before his death. They were given to him by Holocaust survivors, he told his daughter. As a soldier he helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp. Survivors offered the items as tokens of thanks. He tried to refuse them, but relented after seeing in their eyes the significance of the tiny acts. The experience deepened his faith.
Gans, also among the speakers, recounted how he was stripped of everything on arrival to Auschwitz, separated from his mother, sister and grandmother and forced to work in a labor camp alongside his father and brother. His mother, sister and grandmother died in the gas chambers. His brother and father died in the labor camp. Now 85, Gans dedicates much of his life to retelling his experiences at Auschwitz in Poland and, before that, at a detention center in his native Holland. He urges people to never despair or be complacent amid extremism.
"I lost everything, but I'm alive today," he said.