OSWIECIM – They came from all over the world. The survivors, hunched over and old, walking with the aid of children and grandchildren; the politicians, representing their nations in an event that has become de rigueur; and the reporters, hundreds of them, converging on the death factory of Auschwitz-Birkenau for the 70th anniversary of its liberation by the Red Army.
The survivors, many of them wearing kerchiefs with the colors of their camp uniforms, sit alongside world leaders on row upon row of plastic chairs under a great tent – its white immensity squatting astride the wide gatehouse under whose forbidding tower trains carrying those condemned to death at the hands of the Nazis passed during the dark days of the Holocaust.
The contrast between the tent, its sides luminescent from the floodlights, and the gate itself reduced the once intimidating structure into something of a parody of itself.
“It doesn’t look real,” people commented as they gazed upon the antique pile of brick on Tuesday.
Even if the building doesn’t look real, however, the crimes that were committed here certainly were, speaker after speaker affirmed, each issuing a call for remembrance as a bulwark against a repetition of the horrors the survivors witnessed.
“We survivors cannot dare to forget the millions who were murdered for, if we were to forget, the conscience of mankind would be buried alongside the victims,” cried Roman Kent, the president of the International Auschwitz Committee.
Speaking to the heads of state in attendance, Kent issued a call for remembrance and the teaching of the lessons of what occurred here. Only when world leaders act in such a way will events such as the Holocaust, the Darfur genocide and anti-Semitic incidents like the recent attack on a kosher grocery in Paris “have no place on the face of the earth,” he asserted.
“But to remember is not enough. Deeds, as well as thoughts, are crucial,” he said.
“It is our mutual obligation, that of survivors and national leaders, to instill in current and future generations the understanding of what happens when virulent prejudice and hatred are allowed to flourish.”
As darkness fell over the camp and snow began to fall more and more heavily, Kent directly addressed the media in a scathing critique.
“Unfortunately, the passage of time makes it more and more apparent that there is an effort by the ideological successors of the perpetrators, as well [by] as the deniers and the ignorant abetted by much of the media, to sanitize the Holocaust,” he opined.
The media, he explained, employ language to describe the Holocaust so that “it appears less wicked and brutal,” such as using the word “lost” instead of “murdered.”
“It does not accurately describe what happened,” he cried.
World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder called on international leaders present to stand up to the new wave of hatred and to “make hate a crime.”
Lauder insisted that while many had thought Jew-hatred eradicated, it has undergone a resurgence and “Europe suddenly awoke to find itself surrounded by anti-Semitism again and it looks more like 1933 than 2015.
“Once again, Jewish businesses are targeted. And once again, Jewish families are fleeing Europe,” he mourned.
Directly addressing the survivors, Polish President Bronisław Komorowski said anti-Semitism and xenophobia led to the “collapse of our civilization” during the course of the Second World War.
“The memory of Auschwitz is a memory of the need to defend our values” and it is the duty of both Europe and the world to “remember for those who suffered here,” for the survivors, “for ourselves and for the future,” he said.
“For over 70 years we have been trying to convey to the world the truth of the whole evil inflicted in this and other German death factories. In the name of truth, we try to fight the relativization of the Holocaust today,” he said. “It is us Poles who guard this tragic memory.”
Tuesday’s commemoration was not free of political considerations, however.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was not present, having declined to come to an event for which Warsaw made him feel unwelcome over his policy in Ukraine. That decision elicited opposition even among regular critics of the Russian leader, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
In a recent interview with Polskie Radio, Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna claimed that Auschwitz had been liberated by Ukrainians rather than Russians. While the camp was indeed captured by the First Ukrainian Front of the Red Army, it was not a Ukrainian unit but rather was so named for having fought through Ukraine.
“It was the Soviet Red Army that saved from extermination not only the Jewish, but also other nations in Europe and the world, putting an end to these outrages and merciless barbarism,” Putin said in Moscow on Monday.
“We should understand clearly that any attempts to rewrite history, review a contribution our country has made to the Great Victory, actually means justification of Nazi crimes, paving the way for a revival of this deadly ideology,” he said.
Holocaust memory is still a contentious issue in many nations.
In Hungary this week, President Viktor Orban, who has been engaged in a public conflict with his country’s Jewish community over the past year, held a memorial for Jewish soldiers who died fighting in World War I.
“Without the sacrifices that Hungarian Jews made during the First World War, it would have been impossible to defend our homeland,” he said. “The road from comradeship with the heroic Jews of the First World War to the concentration camps of the Second World War is incomprehensible... We were without compassion and indifferent when we should have helped; and there were many Hungarians – very many – who chose evil instead of good, shame instead of honor.”
The Jewish community of Hungary led a boycott of all government-sponsored memorials during the course of Budapest’s official 2014 Holocaust Memorial Year, alleging that Orban’s administration had engaged in efforts to minimize Hungarian complicity in the killing.
In recent years, efforts have been made to equate the crimes of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, especially in the Baltic states, leading to condemnations by Jewish leaders worldwide.
This has happened in the Baltic states, and Ukraine also has been critiqued for such tendencies, with government-sponsored efforts to rehabilitate Nazi collaborators such as ultra-Nationalist Stepan Bendera following the 2004 Orange Revolution having drawn particular ire.
Survivors on Tuesday spoke of the pain of returning to the camp, but also of the hope the commemorations generated.
Former Auschwitz inmate Rose Schindler, 85, from Czechoslovakia, said her “body is shaking” in anticipation of coming back. Accompanied by her husband, also a survivor, her three sons and a granddaughter, it was her second time back since the end of the war.
“It’s very hard on me,” she said. “In one way it’s exciting to be back 70 years later, on the other hand it’s very sad. You remember all the horrible things that happened.”
Henri Kichksa has been back 43 times and frequently leads groups to the camps.
“It’s my job. I have to do it, because the world is in big danger with terrorism and I have to tell all the youth what war and persecution and Holocaust mean,” he said.
Polish Jews live under the shadow of Auschwitz, the country’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich told The Jerusalem Post.
“Here we are just a few miles from Auschwitz in Krakow and we are rebuilding Jewish life,” he said before the commemoration.
“To have the chance to work with people who have discovered their Jewish roots coming back – perhaps this is the ultimate statement of rebirth.”
Sorrow and hope vied over the course of the day and while the Jews have survived and thrived, the memory of those left behind will be forever with them, said Menachem Rosensaft, the founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Survivors.
Seventy years ago, with the war still ongoing when Auschwitz was liberated, his parents would not have been able to imagine Tuesday’s event, with the survivors coming back here with their families “to make a symbolic declaration that the Germans, the Nazis, may have murdered 6 million Jews, but they did not prevail, they did not succeed in destroying the Jewish people,” Rosensaft said.
“And so, today’s return really is a symbolic victory, however bitter it is, because when one sings Am Yisrael Chai [the Nation of Israel lives] the reality is that it does not include the third of our people which is not alive and [who] never had the opportunity to ever again sing Am Yisrael Chai.”