On 75th anniversary of liberation of Auschwitz, Holocaust survivors plead for world to 'never forget' atrocities

Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland: They wore scarves emblazoned with their prisoner numbers, the same ones tattooed on their arms. Many were frail, walking only with the support of friends or relatives.

And as they slowly made their way, one by one, to what had been the wall of death, where thousands of prisoners were lined up for summary execution, it was a vivid reminder that before long the last eyewitnesses to the crimes that took place in Auschwitz will be gone.

“What can I say? All I have are these tears to pour over the past,” Batsheva Dagan, 95, told the crowd that gathered Monday for a solemn ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration and death camp.

“I feel uplifted when I see so many of you here who will carry the memory of innocent people from all nations of the world who met their death here,” she said, her voice often cracking with emotion. “You will make sure that those horrors are never repeated. I’m sorry, I apologise for the emotions.”

The ceremony at Auschwitz culminated a week of events around the world, including a commemoration in Jerusalem attended by dozens of world leaders, who urged collective vigilance against a resurgence of anti-Semitism worldwide.

 On 75th anniversary of liberation of Auschwitz, Holocaust survivors plead for world to never forget atrocities

File image of visitors at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Oswiecim, Poland. By Maciek Nabrdalik © 2018 The New York Times

Fifteen years ago, some 1,500 survivors attended the anniversary event. This year, there were about 200, and, for many, it is likely to be their last visit.

As those who can testify to the monstrous crimes of the Holocaust dwindle in number, there is growing concern about the efforts by political leaders to bend the historical narrative of the Second World War to suit their own ends.

In the weeks leading up to the anniversary, President Vladimir Putin of Russia had repeatedly whitewashed the Soviet treaty with Nazi Germany before World War II and the subsequent subjugation of Poland by both countries at the outbreak of the war. At the same time, he accused Poles of collaborating with Germans and participating in the Holocaust.

As a result, Russia was not invited to the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, even though the Soviet army liberated the camp.

The President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, refused to attend the Jerusalem event because he was not asked to speak, though Putin was.

But the Polish government has tried to weaponise history for its own ends as well, passing a broadly-written law that would have made it a crime to accuse Poland of collaboration in the Holocaust. After an international uproar, with critics charging that the bill would stifle free speech and academic freedom, the government reversed course.

Organisers of Monday’s ceremony stressed the modern-day lessons of the history of Auschwitz.

“We see those old ghosts rear their heads everywhere today,” said Piotr Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

“Anti-Semitism, racism, demagogy, contempt and hatred,” he continued. “We are becoming more and more indifferent, introverted, apathetic and passive. Most were silent as the Syrians were drowning, we silently turned our backs on the Congolese people and the Rohingya people, and now the Uighurs. Our silence is our severe defeat.”

As he spoke — on the same ground where 1.1 million men, women and children, mostly Jews, were murdered — delegations from more than 50 countries looked on. The ceremony was designed to be as free from politics as possible, with the focus on fighting anti-Semitism and giving survivors one more chance to tell their stories.

Although the Holocaust remains a critical area of research for many historians and is a staple of school curriculums in many countries, there is fear that the memory of what happened at the camps is fading among younger generations.

Prominent Jewish organisations, including the European Jewish Association, urged parliamentarians from across the Continent to toughen anti-Semitism laws in their countries as well as promote Holocaust education.

That sentiment was echoed throughout the ceremony.

Ronald S Lauder, the cosmetics billionaire and president of the World Jewish Congress, said, “The attacks on Jews, the killings, the vicious slanders have only grown worse, and they have even spread to my country.”

“Words are not enough. Political speeches are not enough,” he said. “Laws must be passed. Severe, tough, real laws that will put these hatemongers away in prison for a long, long time. Children must be educated and know where the hatred of Jews leads.”

The former prisoners of Auschwitz, in a series of emotional speeches, drove that point home.

The town of Jawiszowice, which was annexed by Nazi Germany at the beginning of World War II and became the location of one of the Auschwitz sub-camps. By Maciek Nabrdalik © 2020 The New York Times

The town of Jawiszowice, which was annexed by Nazi Germany at the beginning of World War II and became the location of one of the Auschwitz sub-camps. By Maciek Nabrdalik © 2020 The New York Times

Most are over 90, with a few pushing 100. In the days before the ceremony, several were forced to cancel because of frail health. A team of at least 80 medical professionals, psychologists and volunteers was organised to assist the survivors, both physically and emotionally.

Their stories, even all these years later, remain shocking.

The day before the ceremony, Ben Lesser, 92, offered to share his experience.

A Polish-born Jew, he was just 15 when he, along with his parents and four siblings, were greeted at the Auschwitz concentration camp in May 1944 by Josef Mengele. The infamous doctor surveyed newcomers to determine who was fit for labour and who was to be immediately executed.

Two of his brothers and sisters were told to “go left,” referring to a line for the gas chambers. Lesser lied to Mengele, saying he was 18, healthy and fit to work.

“He asked me if I can run five kilometres,” he said. “I answered yes and was told to go right.”

Lesser may have been saved from death, but not from witnessing the horrors of a place that became known as the factory of death. He said he still remembered “screams of children thrown into fiery pits” and considered it his moral duty to speak of what he experienced for as long as he can.

“People would love to forget the hard truths and that’s why we need to keep coming back here to refresh our memories and keep the world from acquiring amnesia,” said Lesser, founder of Zachor, a foundation dedicated to ensuring the remembrance of the Holocaust. “Unfortunately, we can’t live forever. What happens after we are gone, I don’t know.”

Marian Turski, 93, a historian and Auschwitz survivor, said he attended the event as much for his daughter and grandchildren as for himself.

Speaking during the ceremony, he urged people to pay attention to what was happening in the world and to speak out.

“Don’t be indifferent,” he said. “That’s what I want to say today to my daughter, my grandchildren and their peers, wherever they are.”

“Don’t be indifferent when you witness historical lies,” he said. “Don’t be indifferent when the past is manipulated for the sake of current political interests. Don’t be indifferent when any minority is discriminated against.”

Joanna Berendt c.2020 The New York Times Company

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Updated Date: Jan 28, 2020 08:26:57 IST