KRAKOW – Holocaust survivors from around the world concentrated in the Polish city of Krakow on Monday in anticipation of a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in nearby Oswiecim, in what will possibly be the last such gathering of the rapidly aging former prisoners.
Survivors, journalists and heads of state are slated to make their way to what survivor Mordechai Ronen called “one of the biggest cemeteries in the world.”
“I came to say a prayer for my father, mother and two sisters who went to the crematorium without being able to say good-bye,” he told The Jerusalem Post
, his shoulders heaving as he sobbed.
Ronen said he returned to Auschwitz to tell the world what happened here and that while he hopes that there will never be a recurrence, “today, unfortunately, there are those who denied it even happened.”
His ability to relate his story, however, makes him a victor, Ronen added.
The theme of remembrance and the responsibility to maintain a chain of memory was a major leitmotif Monday evening, as speaker after speaker addressed the gathered survivors at a hotel in downtown Krakow. The frailty of the returnees was underscored by the presence of medical teams circulating throughout the event.
“You are witnesses. You serve as our eyes and memory to what happened here,” said World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder.
The survivors, he asserted, represent the victory of light over darkness, and while those who were not part of the Holocaust cannot understand what its victims endured, “we do know [that] the way you lived your lives after you were liberated teaches us an important lesson in human dignity.”
Recalling having learned to count through reading the numbers tattooed on the arms of survivors, filmmaker Steven Spielberg, whose USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education has collected over 50,000 videotaped survivor testimonials, explained that their stories are key in fighting against resurgent hate.
“We are once again facing the perennial demons of intolerance” at the hands of “anti-Semites, extremists and religious fanatics” who want to strip you of your past story and identity again, he told the survivors.
The best way to combat “growing efforts to banish Jews from Europe” is to “call on each other to do what the survivors have already done [and] to remember and not forget.... Ours is a just cause and we will make sure lessons of the past will remain with us in the present, and we will find humanitarian ways to fight inhumanity.”
“It is painful to come back,” Israel Arbeiter told the Post
“It brings back bad memories.”
Having survived Auschwitz when his entire family had been wiped out, he said that his experiences are “impossible to tell and impossible to believe,” but that he felt that coming here now was still of great importance.
Bringing so many aging survivors to Auschwitz at the same time represents “the closing of the slaughterhouses of the Jewish people,” he said.
Baruch Gross, who was shipped to Auschwitz in 1944 as a 16-year-old, said that he felt that his presence at the camp would be “emotionally helpful,” but that coming here had brought up memories upon which he would normally not dwell.
“It’s like opening a wound,” he said.
Today there is a lack of knowledge and interest in what happened, he mourned.
“I’m very disturbed by the fact.
We should never forget what the Germans and other anti-Semites did to us. It is incumbent upon us to pass on the teachings and history of the Holocaust for later generations.”
Both Lauder and officials of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum stressed the importance of both preserving the survivors’ stories and the physical infrastructure of the camp itself.
In a prerecorded video, famed novelist and Holocaust chronicler Eli Wiesel told those gathered that while he has never found answers to the question of “what made human beings so cruel to other human beings,” he knows that to forget or to distort cannot possibly be the solution.
Speaking to reporters, Lauder questioned why the allied armies during the Second World War did not bomb the death camps and save countless lives. Keeping to the theme of indifference, Lauder asserted that the Nazis were emboldened in their treatment of the Jews by the silence with which the world greeted their actions on Kristallnacht.
“We must ask ourselves, did we learn a lesson?” Lauder said, adding that while millions marched in France after the slaughter of the staff of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the murder of four Jews at a kosher supermarket, “had there been just the four Jews killed, there would have been no march and no reaction.”
Lauder blasted the international community for standing by while Christians are being killed throughout the Middle East, comparing the situation to the 1940s.
“What happened in Nazi Germany is that the world did not react, and once again we see the world not reacting,” he said, imploring the press to speak to the survivors and see their tears and hear their voices. “Auschwitz is more than a place. It’s a symbol of people’s indifference to what’s happening.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations General Assembly to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day has been canceled, along with all other New York UN events on Tuesday, in anticipation of a major blizzard that is expected to hit New York and the east coast of the United States. President Reuven Rivlin is in New York and had planned to address the UNGA on Tuesday.