Jan. 27 marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day
By Deborah Fineblum
(JNS) “To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” — Elie Wiesel, “Night”
Seventy-five: It’s the average life span of an American male and, as of this month, also the number of years that have passed since soldiers from the 100th Infantry Division of the Russian army marched through Auschwitz’s now-infamous Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work Sets You Free”) gates to behold a sight few of them would ever forget.
Meeting them on the morning of Jan. 27, 1945, were 7,000 prisoners, barely alive, and hundreds of corpses spread out as far as the eye could see.
Among the evidence the Russians found were 837,000 women’s garments, 370,000 men’s suits, 44,000 pairs of shoes and 15,432 pounds of human hair, bearing evidence of the poison gas Zyklon B.
In the words of survivor and author Primo Levi, as the first soldiers approached Auschwitz III, they “shot strangely embarrassed glances at the sprawling bodies, at the battered huts and at us few still alive.”
Lidia Maksymowicz also vividly recalls the moment of liberation. Though only 4 years old at the time, during her months in Auschwitz, she’d been tattooed with the number 70072 (her mother Anna was marked as 70071), was a victim of medical experiments and had been left completely alone after her mother was sent on a death march.
“I remember soldiers entering in completely different uniforms,” she said through a translator. “I remember sitting at this large stove in a wooden barracks and getting a cup of coffee with milk and a slice of bread with margarine. And I heard this language — Russian.” Assuming her family was gone (in 1962, she was actually reunited with her mother, who had survived the death march), Maksymowicz was adopted by a local Christian family and is now a great-grandmother living in Krakow, Poland. “I admire them to this day that they took this small skeleton (me), full of lice, dirty with frostbitten legs. I looked scary. After three years, they adopted me and gave me their name.”
Agi Geva was 13 when, after the degradation of Auschwitz, she and her mother and sister were liberated on a death march from a work camp near Stuttgart, Germany. “Our strength had been spent. … I knew that if I would have had to march for one more day, I would not have remained alive,” says Geva, who spent more than a half-century in Israel before joining her daughter in the United States. She now lives in the Washington, D.C. area and speaks regularly to groups at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) there. “We knew we had made it in spite of all that we had gone through, in spite of the Nazis’ intentions and efforts,” she recalls. And when they encountered a group of American soldiers, “they told us that they were astonished since they had never before seen such a group of weird-looking, emaciated, ugly, bald women.”
Geva and Maksymowicz are among the very few alive today who can remember Jan. 27, 1945. Seventy-five later, nearly all of them — the skeletal prisoners on one side of the barbed wire and their liberators on the other — are gone. The world remembers the date thanks to the United Nations, which designated it as International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005.
On Jan. 23 in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem‒The World Holocaust Remembrance Center is hosting “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism,” the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, along with co-sponsors the World Holocaust Forum Foundation and the president of the State of Israel. Among the 42 heads of state and other governmental leaders expected at the program are Russian President Vladimir Putin and the presidents of France, Germany, Italy and Austria, not to mention Great Britain’s Prince Charles. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has also confirmed his scheduled attendance.
“Holding this high-level event in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, as we mark 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, has great historical and personal significance,” says Israel’s Foreign Affairs Minister Israel Katz, whose mother survived both Auschwitz and the death march from the concentration camp at war’s end.
And in the face of current pressures, the event’s timing is key, says Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev. “We must all be alert to anti-Semitism’s current manifestations and remain resolute in combating it where it appears,” he says. “It is the responsibility of all humanity, and especially the leaders that will gather here at Yad Vashem, to work to fight anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia.”
In Poland, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum will mark the liberation anniversary Jan. 27 with its own share of some 50 international leaders. Included are the presidents of Austria, Australia, Finland, Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine; several prime ministers and royalty from various countries; leadership from the Vatican; and U.S. Secretary of Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin.
“But Auschwitz survivors will be the most important guests of the event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz,” says spokesman Pawel Sawicki, who expects some 200 of them from the United States, Canada, Poland, Israel, Australia and several European countries to take part in the commemoration.
In addition, the USHMM is holding an online ceremony in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Featuring a variety of speakers and governmental representatives, as well as survivors, the ceremony will be live-streamed Friday, Jan. 24. (For details, visit ushmm.org. Streaming of the anniversary events with simultaneous translation into Polish and English will also be available in HD quality, as well as on YouTube and social-media sites of the Auschwitz Memorial.)
A time for remembrance, learning lessons of the past
Indeed, as the world marks 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, it comes at a time of increasing anti-Semitic violence, and anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents on North American college campuses, giving a heightened and cautionary poignancy to the commemoration.
“We should look at how the world got to that stage, what led up to the evolution of a place like Auschwitz, to state-sponsored mass murder,” says Steven Luckert, author and senior program curator at the USHMM. “And particularly now, with the global rise of anti-Semitism and Holocaust distortion, as we recede further from the past and the survivor generation passes, it’s more important than ever before to learn these lessons.”
Auschwitz: International site for the mass murder of Jews
Of the six major Nazi mass-murder centers on occupied Polish soil, Auschwitz-Birkenau has the terrible distinction of being the largest and the place of the most killing: Of the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz (and the 1.1 million who died there, the vast majority upon arrival) between 1940 and 1945, 90%, or roughly 1 million, were Jews; 75,000 were Poles; 21,000 were Roma (gypsies); 15,000 were Soviet prisoners of war; and some 15,000 were other Europeans. These numbers mounted quickly beginning in the spring of 1942, when the adjacent and much larger Birkenau camp was built, expanding the killing operation many times over. For the vast majority, from arrival until death took under 30 minutes.
“Just walking through the site is powerful,” says Sawicki. “The ruins of the crematoria, all their possessions, all the testimonies and the books that have been written about this place, the number of survivors … Auschwitz has become a symbol of the worst of the Nazis.”
But it’s not just its size and the scope of the Nazis’ murderous activities there that makes the place an icon of evil, but also the fact that the Nazis began using Zyklon B there, a lethal gas previously used to kill lice on textiles. Unlike many other camps that focused on local Jewish populations, Auschwitz became “an international site for the mass murder of Jews from all over,” says Luckert. “It’s a place that, more than any other, captures the horror of the Holocaust, the enormity of the crime.”
And because the Nazis were so determined to document their crimes, even though they blew up the gas chambers when they realized their defeat was imminent, they could not erase the evidence, adds Luckert. “In their methodical way, they’d collected warehouses full of their murdered victims’ hair, teeth, clothes, suitcases and much more. For the Soviet troops who entered, it was horrifying.”
Today, much of this is on display for the 2.3 million visitors a year who tour the camp through the auspices of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.
Preparing to visit Auschwitz
One of the unprecedented cruelties during the years of the Holocaust was a simple sign with the German words Arbeit Macht Frei above a gate prisoners used to walk under and visitors do to this day, translated ironically and more than bitterly as: “Work Will Set You Free.”
Of the millions who visit annually, 80% take a guided tour in any one of 21 languages.
“The story we tell is a difficult one, a painful one. Statistics you can protect yourself from; photos and stories, hair and baby shoes you can’t,” says Sawicki, who, as part of his job as Auschwitz Museum press officer and educator, has led more than 30,000 visitors around the site in the last 12 years. “That’s why we shape each tour to the people who come and don’t do audio tours because the human story is the most important part of the visit, not the architecture.”
But how can one prepare for such a tour? Though school groups typically structure a curriculum to learn about the Holocaust in advance to ready the students, others may arrive at the sight unprepared for what they are to experience.
It’s good to begin by asking yourself a few questions, advises Sawicki. “Why am I going? What am I searching for? What is the meaning of Auschwitz?”
Then read, he adds. Books by Primo Levi, by Elie Wiesel, by the many other memoirists who’ve committed their Auschwitz waking nightmares to print. “Reading about the selection process, you can then see where it happened,” he says. “Then being here puts it all in proportion.”
Testimonies in word and video are also available on the Auschwitz museum website, as well as the USHMM and Yad Vashem ones. (Note: Caution in searching is advised, as the internet is replete with Holocaust deniers’ lies.)
It’s as important to debrief as it is to prepare — to make sure to share and try to understand what’s been experienced here, be it in class or among a group or a family. “I can see the difference in people when they start the tour and how they are three-and-a-half hours later,” says Sawicki. “They need a way to process this place.”
Jewish pride among the ashes
For the Jews who come, “it’s typically as a pilgrimage, whether or not they lost close family members here,” says Sawicki. “For them, it’s more like a cemetery visit.” This is often especially felt in the large quiet expanse of Birkenau rather than the bustling Auschwitz I with its exhibits, he adds. “Everyone feels the loss but for the Jewish groups, it comes down to Auschwitz being intimately important to their people and to them.”
Indeed, it’s long been a tradition to bring Israeli high-schoolers and members of the Israel Defense Forces to Auschwitz (in fact, Sawicki reports that it’s only these groups who are permitted to bring their own tour guides, who are also accompanied by museum ones; everyone else must use the ones on the museum staff).
That’s how Israeli Yochi Gabai went, as a chaperone with her teenage daughter’s class in 2007. Named after her grandmother Yocheved — her father’s mother from Pinsk who was killed by the Nazis along with most of the family — Gabai says the trip affected her deeply. “It’s so horrifying that you really need to go with a group of IDF soldiers or our schoolchildren to feel pride in being Jewish and strong. They sing ‘Am Yisroel Chai’ and proudly wave the Israeli flag, promising that we will never forget the souls buried here and what they went through.”
Says Luckert: “We are a people who remember — whether it’s what happened to us in Egypt or ancient Persia. And we need to remember what happened to us here.”
An indelible impression
on the young
“Auschwitz forever shaped my worldview,” says Annael Brown, who as a Miami high-school student was among the 360,000 Jewish teens who, since 1988, have visited Auschwitz as part of the March of the Living trip each spring. Thirteen years later, she says the tiny plant springing up between the Auschwitz train tracks remains for her a potent symbol of Jewish survival.
But most impactful, she notes, was something that didn’t even happen in the camp. “Each March of the Living bus has a survivor to share their stories which makes it all the more real,” she recalls. “I remember watching ours help himself to a bottle of water on the bus. As he drank, I realized all the years when he had no clean water to drink, no food to eat, and how he must appreciate these things in ways we never can.”
She learned then never to say “I’m starving” because “I really don’t know how that feels.”
Longtime March of the Living leader Joel Katz is taking his 23rd trip there soon. Having accompanied more than 1,200 Jewish teens, including his own five children, he comes by his devotion to telling this story naturally; his father was one of the American GIs who liberated Dachau.
“Each time we go, I see this place again through the eyes of these young people,” he says. “And I realize again and again that there is nothing more important than educating our children about our people’s story.”
One key lesson of the annual trip is ending it in Israel, he adds. “Going through these camps first and then arriving in Israel sends a powerful message that, even though our brothers and sisters had nowhere to run during the Holocaust — no one would let them in — now we have a safe haven, our own homeland.”
And the trip is becoming more urgent, maintains Katz. “With BDS spreading on campuses where these kids will soon be students, with [the] Poway, Jersey City and Monsey [attacks on Jews], it’s hitting home. They need to really see and understand Jewish history, and be proud that they are Jews. So when the deniers say it didn’t happen they can say, ‘I was there … I walked through the bunks. I saw the ashes. It happened.’”
Auschwitz: The tourist trap?
When a place becomes a symbol and attracts millions of people each year, the challenge, according to Auschwitz Museum’s Sawicki, is “not to oversimplify what happened here because it’s easy to forget how complicated it was.”
Indeed, Auschwitz is easily Poland’s largest tourist draw. And on a recent visit, one grinning man posed on the running board of an old train for his wife to snap his photo. Until a tour guide shooed him off.
Another indication of this uncomfortable phenomenon: Following a howl of protest (including from the Auschwitz Museum), Christmas ornaments, mouse pads and bottle openers featuring Auschwitz scenes were pulled off Amazon this past holiday season.
“Has Auschwitz become Poland’s Disneyland?” asks Dr. Matthew Zizmor of Boston, a dentist who visited the camp with his two sons last year. His chief concern: Jewish history is being objectified and interpreted by non-Jews. “Who is telling our story? No matter how well-meaning, they can’t tell Jewish history without Jews; they can’t see it through our eyes,” he says.
Polish guides try to universalize the Nazis’ damage, says Zizmor. “But they lost 75,000 Christian Poles here; we lost over a million Jews the Nazis brought in from all over the world. So when it comes to telling our story in the future, when all the survivors are gone, who will do it — the Poles? We have to be part of that conversation.”
Who is recommended to go?
An Auschwitz visit is also not for everyone, insist observers. Many survivors, in fact, have no desire to return.
“I know I can’t go back, although my daughter recently did,” says Geva who looks forward to turning 90 this June. “It all depends on the circumstances of the person. For me, it’s enough to be able to remember it, and that I’m still here to tell it.”
But for those who do opt to go, what is the recommended age for visiting? The emotional force of the experience is why the museum restricts group tours to those 14 and over, says Sawicki, although parents, of course, can bring their children whenever they deem it appropriate.
There are advantages of having this powerful, formative experience during the years of adolescence, believes Brown, though “being there at 18 was perfect for what we needed to learn. We were still teenagers and open to new ideas, but also mature enough to have some context for what we were seeing.”
March of the Living also made a powerful impact on Joe Basrawi, a teen from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who made the trip in 2017. “When we made that turn in Birkenau and I saw the line of brick building after brick building, I broke down, knowing this is where my family perished,” says Basrawi, now 21, and a pro-Israel advocate who speaks on North American campuses and hosts a radio show to promote Jewish pride and Zionism among college students. “It’s something I will never forget.”
But there are also advantages to making this trip later.
“March of the Living is very important, but when you bring some life experience, you appreciate it from the depths of the crematoria — from knowing what this place means to our people’s story,” says Zizmor, who was 69 when he traveled there last year for the first time. “The shoes, the hair, the suitcases make it real in another dimension. When I was younger I wouldn’t have looked at them with the same eyes, but being with a group of proud Jews and my sons, I was able to confront things I wasn’t sure I would otherwise be able to handle.”
Something Zizmor says was especially moving: saying the Kaddish prayer there on Tisha B’Av, the traditional day of mourning. “I strongly believe it was healing for the souls of the departed and for us.”
What can be learned from stepping foot on its soil?
The U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Luckert believes that it’s impossible to leave Auschwitz unchanged. “When you see the enormity at Birkenau and you realize how many people were murdered there, when you see where they did the medical experiments and the torture, it stays ingrained in you forever,” he adds. “And you then share the important job of making sure other people don’t forget what happened there.”
Another lesson of a visit to the place is gained by understanding how easily prejudice and hate can manifest as mass murder.
At the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, says Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, “we have to ask ourselves what we need to do to ensure that we never forget, that the world never forgets what happened to us, the Jewish people. Perhaps only then can we help ensure that genocide will never happen to us again or to anyone else.”
Zizmor puts it this way: “Yom HaShoah is not enough. As hard as it was to see this, to be there, I think I am a better Jew for it, to be able to process this high dose of evil and be able to speak to other Jews about what I saw there.”
And Brown maintains that this experience is even more crucial for teens today. “This generation of young Jews absolutely needs to go, to have their eyes opened,” adds Brown, who now lives in Israel with her husband and children. “As hard as it is, hard isn’t always bad, and learning how important it is to live a Jewish life is the best thing we can do for the Jewish souls who died there.”
Israeli Minister Katz believes that Israel itself is the answer to the Jewish people’s prayers: “Since those dark days, we have defended and developed our homeland, ensuring that the Jewish people will never again stand defenseless against its enemies.”
In fact, Basrawi remembers crying on the Birkenau train tracks when he looked up and “noticed a bunch of kids carrying an Israeli flag and singing ‘Am Yisroel Chai.’ I thought of the millions of Jews buried there, how tiny we are in numbers, especially when you realize how many people my age are disappearing from the Jewish people and how we’re the No. 1 victim of hate crimes. But also how we’re still alive and strong. And I made myself a promise to marry Jewish and have Jewish kids.”
Indeed, Polish survivor Maksymowicz has a message for the young: “The future of this world is in your hands,” she says, “so that you don’t let what happened here in Auschwitz and other German camps ever happen again. You can study, travel, make your dreams come true. This was all taken away from the entire generation living in Europe during the wartime. This message is for everyone, but especially for young people.”