Remembering the horrors of Auschwitz 75 years after the liberation

More than fifty world leaders will arrive in Israel’s capital to commemorate 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz.

YOUNG SURVIVORS of Auschwitz – how do you explain the inhumanity of the Nazis and their collaborators in the past, and the burning hate of antisemites in the present? (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
YOUNG SURVIVORS of Auschwitz – how do you explain the inhumanity of the Nazis and their collaborators in the past, and the burning hate of antisemites in the present?
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘Come, citizen of the free world! You, who human morality and the law protect your existence… Be brave and join me for a tour across Europe where Satan has come to power… Take leave of your friends, because once you have seen the sadistic atrocities of this so-called ‘cultured’ nation of devils, you will surely wish to expunge your name from humanity… seek consolation amongst the cruel beasts of the field.”
With these chilling words, written from the very heart of hell, Zalman Gradowski opens his terrifying first-person account of the gas chambers and crematoria in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Gradowski, a member of the Sonderkommando, was murdered while taking part in the October 1944 Sonderkommando revolt. His writings, hidden in the ashpits of crematorium III, were discovered soon after the liberation of the camp.
One wonders what Gradowski, a proud Jew and Zionist, would say upon seeing the historic gathering set to take place this week in Jerusalem. More than fifty world leaders will arrive in Israel’s capital to take part in the fifth World Holocaust Forum. The Forum, under the banner “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism,” will commemorate 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz.
What would he think upon seeing the leaders of the Allied and Axis countries sitting together at a state dinner hosted by the president of Israel, and at the commemoration ceremony at Yad Vashem?
The majority of my Holocaust education took place during the first eighteen years of my life. In school we heard from survivors and visited the US Holocaust Museum. During my gap year, I traveled to Auschwitz and Babi Yar.
At age 35, due to a professional project, I took a deep dive back into the Holocaust. The grandson of grandparents who just barely escaped the Nazis, while much of their families were murdered, and the father of three young children, I immersed myself in the facts and images of the Shoah.
The experience was not easy. It led to sleepless nights and spontaneous tears. I came away with several insights and many more questions.
My first realization was that despite having walked through Holocaust museums and the gates of Auschwitz, having read Holocaust-themed books and watched testimonies, and even having organized memorial ceremonies myself, my education had been ‘edited for explicit content.’ I still had not been exposed to the most terrifying depths of the Nazi’s unfathomable cruelty.
During my research I came across accounts of the massacres and torture, and footage taken by Red Army photographers in the camps, that were at times so disturbing as to be impossible to take in.
At the same time, through these horrifying accounts, I also learned details that were intriguing and inspiring. Details of the acute geopolitical awareness of at least some of the Jews sent to the gas chambers. Details of numerous small acts of resistance.
For example, Gradowski describes a Czechoslovakian Jewish woman, leading her child pass SS officers on their final walk. Suddenly, the woman turns to the officers and yells:
“You think, murderers, that with our blood you can hide your losses on the front… You know very well what beatings you take every day on the eastern front. Remember!... there will come a day of revenge. Russia will be the victor…”
SHE THEN SPAT in their faces and ran into the gas chamber with her child.
On the one hand, it is understandable why the most difficult details of Nazi atrocities are not part of school curricula. And why they are not part of the special media programming on Holocaust Day.
On the other hand, if these details are not taught, they will remain known only to a small group of Holocaust historians.
Ensuring that the lessons of the Holocaust are learned fully requires learning the full truth.
The question of the appropriate age for Holocaust education goes deeper than just the ability to handle gut-wrenching facts.
Both in Israel and abroad, Holocaust education takes place primarily in the teenage and young adult years. However, I discovered that my understanding of the Holocaust became qualitatively-deeper once I became a parent.
Only once you experience the unadulterated love for a child, and the overwhelming instinct to protect, can one perhaps get an inkling of the terror of parents whose children were torn from them, or who held their hands on the way to shared graves.
This of course does not mean that we should not teach children and teenagers about the Holocaust and antisemitism. The question is when, and how.
One night, my seven-year old daughter suddenly asked me, “why do so many countries hate us?”
My first answer, based on the instinct to reassure, was to describe to her the upcoming gathering of world leaders, and to remind her that we live in the strong State of Israel, defended by the IDF.
However, I also had to acknowledge that yes, there are a number of countries, and perhaps millions of people, who hate her simply for being a Jew.
This hatred did not disappear after the Holocaust. It still exists, and has taken on new forms.
How do you explain this to a child? How do you explain the inhumanity of the Nazis and their collaborators in the past, and the burning hate of antisemites in the present?
How do I avoid overburdening her on the one hand, while trying to ensure that the Holocaust becomes a part of her historical consciousness on the other?
This week’s World Holocaust Forum will be an impressive demonstration of international commitment to the goals of preserving the memory of the Holocaust and fighting antisemitism. Much credit should be given to the Forum’s organizers. At the same time, the question of how to transform this commitment into concrete steps, both in Israel and around the world, remains.
Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Gradowski’s words have reached the “citizens of the free world.” For the sake of our children, let us hope we have the vision and courage to turn these words into action.
The writer is an international affairs and communications consultant, who served as chief of staff to Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister, and is currently a fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum. Follow him on twitter @fredman_a