Seventy years ago Tuesday, Soviet soldiers came face-to-case with evil incarnate – Auschwitz-Birkeanau. On Jan. 27, 1945, the Soviet army liberated the most notorious of the Nazi extermination camps. Part of the network of concentration camps operated by Nazi Germany in the Holocaust, Auschwitz in Poland was the worst. Approximately 1.1 million people died at the camp, about 90 percent of which were of Jewish descent. (Others deemed to be outside the racial and ideological lines of the Nazis who died were homosexuals, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses and prisoners of war.) The 70th anniversary of the liberation activities planned at Auschwitz this week shines a light on the growing religious intolerance from anti-Semites and others around the world.
Survivors returned this week to mark the 70th anniversary of liberation on Tuesday. Those gathered survived Hitler and the Nazis, but they cannot survive the ravages of old age. There were 1,500 survivors who traveled to Auschwitz to mark the 60tth anniversary. This year, only 300 Auschwitz survivors, most in their 90s, are expected to make the journey, which for many was paid for by the World Jewish Congress and the USC Shoah Foundation. (Of the Jews who were in any of the concentration camps, the ghettos, or hiding during the Nazi occupation, only an estimated 100,555 remain alive today.)
Billionaire philanthropist Ronald Lauder, who is president of the World Jewish Congress, noted that “this is the last big one for many of the survivors.” He sadly pointed out, “By the time we reach the 75th anniversary, there may be almost no survivors left. But they are coming now, because they want to bear witness, to stand there and say, “we outlasted Hitler. We made it.’”
Despite the passage of time, returning brings back the horrors of their ordeal many survivors have preferred to repress. The ruins of the gas chambers, crematoria, prisoners’ barracks are still a shocking sight. But the survivors do not want the world to forget what happened there or family members who did not survive to be liberated.
For example, Marcel Tuchman, 93, a survivor who was originally from Heidelberg, Germany, and later became a doctor, said he traveled back because he owes a debt to those who were exterminated. “Their voices have been silenced by gas chambers and crematoria,” Tuchman told reporters. So, “the survivors have the duty to honor their memory and speak the best we can for them, and tell this unprecedented story of destruction of millions of people.” he added.
Film director Steven Spielberg spoke to those gathered at preliminary commemorative anniversary of Auschwitz liberation events on Monday and shined a light on intolerance occuring now. He cautioned that Jews are once again facing “perennial demons of intolerance” from anti-Semites. Spielberg warned of “radical extremists and religious fanatics” who are again provoking hate crimes. For example, the anniversary comes less than three weeks after a terrorist assault, reportedly by radical Islamists, in Paris on a kosher grocery store in which four people died. The director, who is Jewish, made Holocaust film Shindler’s List and founded the Shoah Foundation, which gathered video testimonies from over 53,000 Holocaust survivors. During his talk, he emphasized the growth anti-Semitism in social media and told those gathered that once again people want to “strip you of your past, of your story and of your identity.”
Hermann Höllenreiner, 81, a Roma survivor who resides today near Munich, is concerned about the growing issues on treatment of Roma people across Europe. “I would like to think that things have changed 70 years later,” Höllenreiner noted. “But there is still discrimination.”
Tuesday, there were will be remembrance ceremony attended by the presidents of Germany, France, the Ukraine and Austria; the Kings of Belgium and the Netherland’s; Denmark’s Crown Prince;along with U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, who is an Orthodox Jew. (President Obama will be in Riyadh meeting with the new King of Saudi Arabia.) Reportedly, Russian president Putin wanted to attend the anniversary of Auschwitz liberation event, but was uninvited because of his government’s actions, which further shines a light on other issues of intolerance now.
By Dyanne Weiss