Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God
and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to
live as long as God Himself.
— From ‘Night’ by Elie Wiesel
On January 23, when world leaders gathered in Jerusalem to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, it was to remind the world to never forget the lessons from the Holocaust and the continuing need to combat modern-day anti-Semitism.
The World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem drew over 45 world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Prince Charles, US Vice-President Mike Pence and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Called ‘Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Antisemitism’, the event at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial intended to present a united front in remembering the genocide of European Jews, in the backdrop of a spiral in anti-Jewish violence across the world.
Nazi Germany had built a chain of concentration and extermination camps across Europe, and Auschwitz, in then occupied Poland, was the most notorious. Being very well connected to rail network meant that the Nazis could easily bring in Jews from across the continent. The old, who could not work were dragged to their death, most of the times through the iconic watchtower entrance to Birkenau. Those who were fit to contribute, were taken through the pathway where the cynical sign “Arbeit Macht Frei”, that promised “work sets you free” was kept.
But no amount of backbreaking slave labour helped. Tattooed, heads shaved off, and with little clothing and food, they were pushed into overcrowded barracks behind barbed wire fences. Most breathed their last by the time the allies liberated the camp on January 27, 1945. The day is now acknowledged by the UN as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
On Monday (January 27), hundreds of survivors and world leaders from across the world will travel to Auschwitz for official anniversary commemorations.
The Nazi German forces are believed to have killed 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, in Auschwitz, known as the “Final Solution”, to rid Europe of the Jews. The Holocaust claimed 6 million Jewish lives.
Journey into Hell
Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night,’ is based on his own experiences at the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Wiesel, who won the Nobel Prize in 1986, describes the colossal tragedy:
An SS officer had come in and, with him, the smell of the Angel of Death. We stared at his fleshy lips. He harangued us from the centre of the barrack: “You are in a concentration camp. In Auschwitz…” A pause…He looked at us as one would a pack of leprous dogs clinging to life.
“Remember,” he went on. “Remember it always, let it be graven in your memories. You are in Auschwitz. And Auschwitz is not a convalescent home. It is a concentration camp. Here, you 38 must work. If you don’t, you will go straight to the chimney. To the crematorium. Work or crematorium—the choice is yours.”
…Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing… we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished. Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows …”
That night, the soup tasted of corpses.
Mordechai Ciechanower, a 95-year-old Auschwitz survivor living in Ramat Gan, Israel, says he survived his nearly two years in the camp thanks to his roofing skills and the generous help of others. “I died hundreds of times, but kept getting up. I never thought I would get out of there, let alone live this long.”
Yevgeny Kovalev, a 92-year-old Russian who was imprisoned in Auschwitz from 1943-44 for helping Soviet partisans blow up railways and trains to sabotage the Nazi invaders, recalls whippings so brutal that his shirt became drenched in blood. “Remembering all that is always like torture for me, can you imagine that. I’m even wondering myself how I could survive those times,” Kovalev says.
At 98, Leon Schwarzbaum, a retired art dealer, lives on his own in his Berlin apartment, the walls covered with paintings and old back-and-white pictures of his 35 relatives who perished in the Holocaust. He says he is too frail to travel to Auschwitz but still goes to schools in Germany regularly to tell the children about the unbearable sufferings he lived through at the death camp.
“The number of survivors is shrinking daily, and sharing memories that will soon be lost. For in the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences,” Wiesel writes in his book asking “After all, it deals with an event that sprang from the darkest zone of man. Only those who experienced Auschwitz know what it was. Others will never know. But would they at least understand?”
“Sometimes I am asked if I know “the response to Auschwitz”; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t even know if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response. What I do know is that there is “response” in responsibility. When we speak of this era of evil and darkness, so close and yet so distant, “responsibility” is the key word,” he points out.
Rearing Head Again
The World Holocaust Forum, an umbrella group representing Jewish communities across Europe, recently reported that 80% of European Jews feel unsafe in the continent. Last year, Tel Aviv University researchers, recorded 400 cases, stating that violent attacks against Jews grew significantly in 2018, the highest being in western Europe. There was a 70% increase in anti-Semitic violence in Germany. Apart from assaults, shootings and vandalism, the research noted a significant spike in anti-Semitic content online and in newspapers.
In an effort to quell a climate many claim was similar to that before World War II, prior to the World Holocaust Forum meet, key world leaders issued statements. “I express my fervent hope that by continued vigilance and positive education, the inequities perpetrated during one of the darkest periods in our history will be eliminated from the face of the earth,” said Pope Francis in his statement.
How will remembering Auschwitz help? Simon Schama, Financial Times contributing Editor says: In the age of disinformation when Holocaust denial has become commonplace, and at the moment when those who went through the tormenting fires themselves leaving us, it is essential that the cautionary history be imprinted in the minds of the future. But this should not be done just to vindicate the survivors and the millions whose bodies were turned to smoke, or whose bones still lie in the mass pits of eastern Europe. It should also be done, especially in this wretched time of tribal shrieking, for the common humanity.
And as Wiesel said: Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices… And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
— With inputs from AP
- Auschwitz camp was established by Germansin 1940, in the suburbs of Oswiecim, a Polish city
- In 1942, it became the largest of the extermination centres where the ‘Endlösung der Judenfrage’, the final solution to the Jewish question – the Nazi plan to murder European Jews, was carried out
- In the first and oldest ‘main camp,’ also known as ‘Auschwitz I’, the number of prisoners fluctuated from 15,000 to 20,000. The second part, the Birkenau camp, also known as ‘Auschwitz II’, had over 90,000 prisoners in 1944
- Germans isolated all camps from the outside world with barbed wire fencing. All contact with the outside world was forbidden