“For my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers. My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food. In my distress I groan aloud and am reduced to skin and bones.” (Psalm 102:3–5)
Tomorrow is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and even now Holocaust survivors and heads of state are gathering in Poland to remember this important day.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous concentration and extermination camp where more than a million Jews, Gypsies, Soviets, and Poles were murdered.
In fact, in 2010, the Federal Security Service of Russia declassified information that revealed more than four million inmates were killed here. (CNN)
This year, in light of Soviet aggression in the Ukraine and rising anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz seems especially relevant to people everywhere.
“Auschwitz is important because it was ground zero of what the Nazis did,” said Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and a major contributor to the preservation of the museum complex. “And it is important because anti-Semitism is like a virus. You think it goes away but then it’s coming back. Right now, it is coming back very strongly.” (NYT)
The WJC president also said that anti-Semitism today is at its highest since World War II, driven by Islamist extremists and far-right nationalists.
“Last year we witnessed an increase in anti-Semitic incidents and a wave of anti-Semitism that is flooding parts of the world, especially Europe. Against these phenomena the governments of the world need to act with greater vigor,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized at his weekly cabinet meeting Sunday.
“History has already shown us that violence that begins against the Jews does not stop with the Jews. It is like a brushfire that spreads very rapidly to all societies and all citizens.”
Although Europe has been a relatively safe place to live since the Holocaust, the recent murders at the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the kosher supermarket in France, and the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, as well as many other incidents, Jewish communities question the safety of Europe’s Jews today.
“Today we are witnessing the absolute democratization of anti-Semitism,” said Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress (EJC).
During last year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Kantor rejected the “anti-Semitism as free speech” argument, stating that anti-Semitism is criminal. (Reuters)
Kantor called the “quenelle,” a reverse Nazi salute that has been popularized, “a symbol invented by a so-called comedian [Dieudonne Mbala Mbala] that allows young people out for a drink, soldiers having a laugh and even a footballer scoring a goal, to have their own unique opportunity for Jew hatred.” (New York Daily News)
“European Jews are under threat like never before. And there is the very real possibility that another Jewish accident in Europe could happen,” Kantor said. (FT)
The Sight of Freedom
“We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” (Romans 15:1–2)
On January 27, 1945, the tired eyes of 7,000 dying Auschwitz inmates witnessed the soldiers of the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front appear, first at the Monowitz sub-camp (Auschwitz III), then on to liberate the Auschwitz Main Camp and finally Birkenau (Auschwitz II) mid-afternoon.
General-Lieutenant Vasily Petrenko, who was in charge of the 107th infantry division said when he saw Auschwitz, a horrifying, ghastly sight greeted him.
“I saw no normal people. Germans made leave everyone who could walk, only disabled inmates were left,” he said. “I saw children… what a terrible view! Swollen abdomen, wandering eyes, hands waving uselessly in the air, thin legs, huge heads—other parts of the body did not look real—they appeared to be sown to bodies. Children never produced a sound as they were showing individual inmate identification numbers tattooed on their hands.”
“Over 230 Soviet soldiers, including the commander of the 472nd Infantry Regiment, Semen Lvovich Bezprozvanny, died fighting to liberate Monowitz; the Main Camp, Birkenau; and the city of Oświęcim; 66 of them fell during fighting in the camp buffer zone,” writes the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.
“The prisoners welcomed the Soviet soldiers as true liberators; the soldiers, for their part, passed through the camp gates in full awareness of the historical significance of their mission,” the account continues. “The paradox is that soldiers who were the formal representatives of Stalinist totalitarianism were bringing freedom to the prisoners of Nazi totalitarianism.”
“Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. ‘Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; Your walls are continually before Me.’” (Isaiah 49:15–16)
About 300 survivors are gathering at Auschwitz, accompanied by royalty and heads of state, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of their liberation from Auschwitz.
Their numbers are dwindling. At the 60th anniversary, 1,500 survivors attended.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the International Auschwitz Council are joint organizers of the event, supported by the World Jewish Congress and the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation’s Institute for Visual History and Education, which has recorded nearly 52,000 firsthand accounts of the Holocaust available to watch on its website.
As time passes, firsthand testimony of the horrors of the Holocaust perishes with the survivors.
Piotr Cywiński, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum said that this year’s anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation will be the last big commemoration that will be possible to observe for and with a “significant group of survivors.” (Ynet)
“Until now, it has been them who taught us how to look at the tragedy of the victims of the Third Reich and the total destruction of the world of European Jews. Their voices became the most important warning against the human capacity for extreme humiliation, contempt and genocide,” Cywiński said.
While tens of thousands of eyewitness accounts have been recorded from adult victims of the Nazis, the majority of today’s living witnesses to the Holocaust were children during the war.
They carry their parents’ memories—stories of the men and women they were, of their lives before the war and of their experiences during the Holocaust—yet through a mental aging of a childhood perspective.
With firsthand accounts, a significant source of evidence for the shocking actions of Nazi Europe, as well as for the precious lives of normal men, women and children, communicating the past will be a key challenge for groups like the USC Shoah Foundation and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York as volunteer survivors become fewer in number or too weak to continue the task.
Honoring Holocaust survivors with a platform to speak is important “not only for themselves, but for the millions whose voices were violently silenced,” adds USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith.
Passing the Baton of Remembrance
“Has anything like this ever happened in your days or in the days of your ancestors? Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.” (Joel 1:2–3)
Commenting on an online article, Magda Miriam Watts—a former Auschwitz prisoner from Birkenau C Lager Block 29—adds a reminder that “a few of us are still here, but we are forgotten.”
Still, 2014 saw a record-breaking 1.5 million visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau, with 70% falling under the age of 18, showing the fruit of continued efforts to educate about the Holocaust.
While the greatest number of last year’s visitors to Auschwitz came from within Poland (398,000), large numbers came from the United Kingdom (199,000), the U.S. (92,000) and Italy (84,000), followed by Germany (75,000), Israel (62,000), Spain (55,000), France (54,000), the Czech Republic (52,000) and South Korea (41,000).
Despite contributing the largest number of visitors to the site, Poland’s contribution does show a noticeable drop from its 610,000 visitors in 2011 to under 400,000 last year.
“The falling trend is attributed to recent changes in the school curriculum and the lack of a government programme of financing youth visits to remembrance sites,” states Radio Poland.
World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder told International Jewish News in December that his first visit to Auschwitz 25 years ago showed that “every part of the former camp was disintegrating.”
Within five years, Lauder, with Kalman Sultanik and Ernest Michel, had raised $40 million from 19 countries for the Auschwitz-Birkenau preservation.
Despite being promised five years ago, a $15 million donation from the United States government toward the camp’s preservation was only released by Congress in a December spending bill, making the U.S. the last international partner to meet its pledge, according to The Washington Times.
“After a monumental effort, it [the Auschwitz site] has been preserved for future generations, and that is important in an age of Holocaust deniers,” Lauder said.
“This will be the last decade anniversary with a very visible presence of survivors,” said Andrzej Kacorzyk, deputy director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. “We find this to be a moment of passage, a passing of the baton. It is younger generations publicly accepting the responsibility that they are ready to carry this history on behalf of the survivors, and to secure the physical survival of the place where they suffered.” (NYT)
Numerous other events have been planned worldwide to remember the Holocaust, such as a January 18 service at Middlesex University in Hendon, England, where Mayor Hugh Rayner of Barnet claimed, “It’s our job to remind people not to be afraid of remembering the horrors of the past.”
“It becomes difficult to retain the impact of the message, and the fear of it happening again diminishes,” Rayner said. “It’s a great challenge to make it meaningful to today’s generation, but we must succeed.” (Times Series)
“Auschwitz is a lesson for anyone willing to learn,” Cywiński said, describing what had become the largest Jewish graveyard in human history, seeing more prisoners die than the combined casualties of Britain and the United States during World War II.
“Man is capable of crossing almost every boundary. For those who crossed—most frequently in cattle wagons—the gate of Birkenau, there was no way back,” Cywiński added. “Nowadays, almost one and a half million people cross the same gate every year in an attempt to face the meaning of Auschwitz.”
Among those willing to learn is the 49-year-old grandson of Auschwitz chief commandant Rudolf Höss.
Rainer Höss did not ignore or hide the sins of his ancestor, but instead rejected them. He scrutinized and criticized his grandfather’s crimes and has taught children far and wide about the dangers of extremism.
Rainer Höss also asked Eva Mozes Kor, who survived the Nazis’ pseudoscience experimentation, to be his adoptive grandmother; they share a bond that expressly highlights love and forgiveness for a mountain of sins.
Höss will join millions in memory of the lost on tomorrow’s annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The Building of a Death Camp
“He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” (Isaiah 61:1–3)
More than a million Jews, as well as Poles, Roma and other nationals, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and opponents to Germany’s fascist regime were murdered at Auschwitz—most within the camp’s gas chambers.
Following the Nazis’ 1940 capture of Oswiecim, a transportation hub that served Germany’s strategy aims near Cracow, Poland, the Germans renamed the city “Auschwitz” and, in June, set up a labor camp for Polish prisoners half a mile beyond the edge of town.
Over the course of two years, Auschwitz grew into a complex comprising three main camps (Auschwitz, Birkenau and Monowitz) and more than 40 sub-camps, which caged pockets of Auschwitz slave laborers near coal mines, stone quarries, fisheries, factories and industrial plants.
From storing political prisoners in Auschwitz I, the Nazis quickly stepped up their atrocities, completing Birkenau (Auschwitz II) in October 1941. It had the capacity to hold 100,000 prisoners and gas chambers that could murder 2,000 people per day.
The Nazis had introduced Zyklon B gas into the concentration camp system that summer, discovering its capacity for mass murder in September 1941.
According to written records of Auschwitz chief commandant Rudolf Höss, Adolf Eichmann (one of the top organizers of the Holocaust) suggested using gas for killing the Nazis’ enemies.
This “solution” came after S.S. General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski shared with Heinrich Himmler (the leader of the Nazi party and second in command to Hitler) a concern about the terrible effect of close-range murder on the psyche of Nazi soldiers.
Gassing Jews instead of shooting them would help save the sanity of the Nazis since it was less up close and personal. They wanted to murder people without feeling personally responsible. (PBS)
By 1943, Birkenau’s four crematoria had eight gas chambers and 46 ovens that could dispose of 4,400 bodies each and every day.
By 1944, the Nazis were murdering about 6,000 people a day at Birkenau.
At the Auschwitz complex, Nazi scientist Josef Mengele and other personnel experimented on infants, dwarfs, and sets of twins, exposing them to chemical concoctions and callously murdering surviving twins of the recently deceased in order to conduct dual autopsies. (KTVQ: “Holocaust survivor tells Wyoming students ‘forgiveness is a thing of peace’”)
On January 6, Survivor Eva Mozes Kor in Casper, Wyoming, spoke to a Natrona County High School Auditorium about her childhood experiences under the hands of Mengele, hiding her sicknesses from the Nazis and fighting to stay alive with her twin, Miriam.
“Throughout the week, the doctors would be giving me a minimum of five injections into my arm. I became very ill, I had a very high fever and I desperately tried to hide it,” Kor told KTVQ. “He [the doctor] just looked at me and told the soldiers, ‘She is so young and only has two weeks to live.’ From that, I remember going back to the camp where I remember crawling and fading in and out of consciousness, crawling to get to a water fountain, telling myself, ‘I must survive, I must survive’.”
In 1984, Kor founded the organization “Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors” (CANDLES), and was able to find 122 surviving Mengele twins thereafter.
Evidence of the Holocaust
Of the million-plus prisoners that were held at Auschwitz, only about 7,000 prisoners remained by the time the Red Army set foot in the camp, most of them sick and dying.
The Soviets had captured Auschwitz just days following the Nazis’ westward evacuation of Auschwitz prisoners deeper into the Reich—with thousands of stragglers being shot en route and others dying of exposure and exhaustion.
By January 27, 1945, the Nazis also had murdered about 700 of those left behind at Auschwitz—those who were too weak to take the 100 km Death March—as the Nazis methodically destroyed the evidence of their war crimes.
The S.S. guards even attempted to destroy the crematoria that were used to burn the bodies of the prisoners, blowing up two or more before the Auschwitz liberation.
Although the Nazis were destroying the evidence, throughout the Nazi death camps in Poland and Germany, the “evidence lingered” in the form of “tens of thousands of bodies … stacked or spilling out into the cold winter snow.” (PBS)
In an attempt to liquidate witnesses, the Nazis also planned to wipe out death camp slave laborers comprised mostly of Jews called Sonderkommandos, who under threat of death worked to dispose of bodies at the four Auschwitz crematoria.
Records hold that the prisoners of Crematorium IV revolted against the guards upon hearing they were going to be killed. (Holocaust Encyclopedia)
Jewish women who were assigned to forced labor in an armaments factory smuggled explosives into the camp for the revolt, but the Germans crushed the attempt, killing almost all the prisoners involved and hanging the female smugglers publicly in the January of the Auschwitz liberation.
Piotr Cywiński, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum described in an interview one of the leaders of the revolt, Polish Jew Zalmen Gradowski.
“In his notes, which he hid in the ground near the building of the crematorium, he wrote: ‘We have a dark premonition, because we know’,” Cywiński conveyed. “At that time he meant the fate of his friends taken into an unknown direction. But I would not want to narrow down the meaning of these unsettling words just to that. We today also know, we know perfectly well. Nothing is given forever.”
“We must always be able to sense growing dangers and great challenges of the future,” Cywiński said. “And in place of inactivity and passivity, we must develop a sense of responsibility.”
“On this day, we must understand that the Survivors, the former prisoners, did everything they could to make us realize that the road to the most terrible tragedies is surprisingly simple. All you need is social frustration, a bit of demagoguery, an imaginary enemy, a moment of madness,” he said.
“The future of our civilization is in our own hands and we must take responsibility for the shape of that future. And a wise vision of future must be rooted in memory.”