Elie Wiesel stated “To hear a witness is to be a witness.” I am a witness. On January 27th 2020, I traveled to Auschwitz for the 75th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz with 105 Auschwitz Survivors from around the world and 50 world leaders to commemorate the victims and honor the Survivors.
The memorial service took place on the grounds of the death camp where
1.1 million, mostly Jews, were murdered. We sat under a large heated tent that straddled the train tracks that had dragged prisoners into Birkenau, often to their death in the gas chambers. As Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, stated “I am here, simply, as a Jew. And, like all Jews everywhere, this place, this terrible place called Auschwitz has sadly become an inseparable part of us. Auschwitz is like a scar from a terrible trauma. It never goes away and the pain never stops.”
Walking into the camp I quietly reflected on my grandparents stories of survival. I took in the remains of the barracks, including the barrack where my grandfather spent his youth being tortured against his will. The weather was cold but I was well bundled and couldn’t help but think about my grandfather who was forced to spend his time in Auschwitz without a warm jacket or hat or gloves.
I listened to each Survivor as they shared intimate details about their own personal stories, details that humanized the unfathomable atrocities of Auschwitz. Details that I will shout out to the world and share with future generations so they know the Holocaust happened to men and women and children with personalities and stories, like all of us, not to abstract numbers.
The Survivors all related stories about how upon their arrival at Auschwitz over 75 years ago, they were stripped of their dignity, forced to strip down to nothing in front of all, have their heads shaved, their possessions stolen and arms permanently tattooed with a number. 94- year-old Auschwitz Survivor Batsheva Dagan spoke about her arrival and subsequent assignment of being forced to sort belongings of those sent to the gas chambers. She cried to the crowd, “Where was everybody? Where was the world who could see that, hear that and yet did nothing to save all those thousands?”
Turning A Blind Eye on the Jewish Refugee Crisis
In his speech Lauder explained “And when European Jews begged the world for a safe harbor, someplace to go, the entire world turned its back on them. Even my own country–the beacon of freedom–turned out its light on the Jewish people when they needed it most. The US organized a conference in Evian, France in July of 1938 to discuss the Jewish refugee crisis. There were a lot of lovely speeches but the US did not let any additional Jewish refugees in and every other country in attendance followed their lead. There were 32 countries and none of them, except for the tiny Dominican Republic wanted any more Jews. Hitler saw this. Four months later came Kristallnacht. And again, there was no world reaction. Hitler tested the world. And at every step he saw the truth–the world did not care. That’s when he knew he could build this factory of death. Evian led to Auschwitz. Kristallnacht led to Auschwitz. World anti-Semitism led to Auschwitz.”
Survivor Josef Kreitenberg commented “I don’t know how I survived but I just kept on believing because that’s all you could do.”
Survivors are Dwindling
As the years pass and the eye witnesses who can say “I was in Auschwitz” dwindle in numbers, these Survivors made it their duty to return to ensure the world does not forget! Polish President Andrzej Duda vocalized “We have with us the last living Survivors, the last among those who saw the Holocaust with their own eyes. The magnitude of the crime perpetrated in this place is terrifying, but we must not look away from it and we must never forget it.”
For some of the Survivors it was their first trip back since that day 75 years ago when they were finally free from their terror. However, for most it will be their last. But to all the Survivors who returned the memories of what occurred inside the infamous gate bearing the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (translation: work sets you free) are no less haunting today. Survivors continue to have nightmares as their memories are still fresh. However, Survivors feel the need to share these painful memories with future generations so the world will never forget, especially today when we witness the ominous growth of anti-Semitic attacks and hatred around the world.
No Graves to Visit
Some of the Survivors returned to Auschwitz to memorialize their family members murdered there. These Survivors whose family members went up in flames in the gas chambers and crematorium do not have a grave to visit. To them, Auschwitz is a cemetery. Survivor Tova Friedman said “My going back is my telling them, I remember you.”
Survivor Ben Lesser explained: “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. Unfortunately, we can’t live forever. What happens after we are gone, I don’t know.”
93-year-old Survivor Marian Turski declared “Auschwitz did not fall from the skies.” He urged the next generation to be vigilant. “Do not be indifferent when you hear lies, historical lies. Do not be indifferent when you see the past is stretched to fit the current political needs. Do not be indifferent when any minority is discriminated against.”
The 11th Commandment
He explained that the 11th commandment should be “Thou shall not be indifferent.” He warned that if you “don’t heed the 11th commandment you cannot be surprised when you see (another) Auschwitz fall from the sky.” He explained that if people are indifferent when incremental steps of discrimination are implemented, then another Holocaust could happen. Turksi reminded the room that what allowed the Holocaust to happen was not just the evil of the Nazi’s but also the indifference of the world.
Lauder emphasized “We will never eradicate Anti-Semitism. It’s a deadly virus that has been with us for over 2,000 years. But we cannot look the other way and pretend it isn’t happening. That’s what people did throughout the 1930’s and that is what led to Auschwitz.”
The Nazis tried to dehumanize and obliterate all Jews of Europe. But the 75th Commemoration attended by over 200 survivors proved that Nazi’s did not win. These Survivors signify that the Jewish people won. They survived and were resilient. “There is one more part of the Auschwitz story that no one ever talks about. When the Survivors were liberated from this Nazi nightmare, they never sought revenge. They lost their mothers and fathers. Sisters and brothers… After everything that happened to them, these Jewish Survivors just walked out of these gates and went on to build new lives, raise new families, work hard and create,” said Lauder.
After the long day of memorializing in Auschwitz, we arrived back at the hotel for a late dinner. By 11 p.m., Auschwitz Survivor David Wisnia asked for a microphone and explained that he wrote a song while in Auschwitz–a parody about life in the death camp. On January 27, 2020, 75 years after the liberation, David Wisnia, a man full of life, sang this song proudly from his wheelchair to a room full of witnesses who will NEVER FORGET.
All the Survivors agree that they do not want their past to be their grandchildren’s future. The Survivors on this journey did not talk about anger or revenge, but rather their love for their new life and family. I felt embraced by love on the trip by Survivors who ironically were treated with the worst type of hate, and whose lives were torn apart by hate. Through conversations with the Survivors on my journey and with my grandparents throughout my life, I have learned that the Holocaust is not just a story of hate. It is also a story of resilience, humanity, love and kindness. People who are taught to put others before themselves; people who are taught to love, those people do not hate–rather, they choose life.