“When I sleep, I dream, I dream, I dream. We did not know who was going to be left alive. ‘Don’t forget, tell the world,’ was the last thing our friends said before they were taken to their deaths.” ~ Joseph Sher, survivor of a German ghetto and labor camp in Nazi-occupied Poland; a tailor and father.
On January 27, 1945, Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazis’ most infamous complex of extermination camps. Of the 1.3 million men, women, and children who had been brought to the camps in cattle cars over the years of the Second World War, only about 7,000 remained by the time the Soviet soldiers reached the gates. In this camp, the Nazis murdered over 1.1 million people. They killed prisoners with poisonous gas, bullets, starvation, overwork, exposure, and disease.
Yesterday, the 66th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, was the U.N.’s annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Though services in New York City were snowed out, all over the world, individuals, communities and countries honored Holocaust victims and survivors. Even Iran, whose President Ahmadinejad is a well-known Holocaust denier, recognized the day for the first time this year. MSNBC has a photoblog of several memorial services, including a gathering of survivors at Aushwitz-Birkenau.
“Let us remember, let us remember the heroes of Warsaw, the martyrs of Treblinka, the children of Auschwitz. They fought alone, they suffered alone, they lived alone, but they did not die alone, for something in all of us died with them.” ~ Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald; writer, professor, and Nobel Laureate
The vast majority of those in Auschwitz were Jews the Nazis targeted as part of Hitler’s genocidal “final solution,” but many other groups were also victims. According to the Museum and Memorial of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the camps’ prisoners numbered 1.1 million Jews, 140 to 150 thousand Poles, 23 thousand Sinti and Roma, or gypsies, 15 thousand Soviet prisoners of war, and about 25 thousand other captives, including members of other ethnic groups the Nazis deemed inferior, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay men, German “criminals”, and mentally disabled persons.
Over the course of the war, Auschwitz held about 232 thousand children. Only about 700 survived. Many of these children had been kept alive only because they were wanted for Josef Mengele’s twisted medical experiments.
“When my youngest brother shouted, which I still hear him screaming, ‘I want to live too!’ When they took us away, he shouted, ‘I want to live, I want to live!’ This picture will never, never in my life disappear from my eyes. A lot of times when I lie down, I still hear that voice. He was 3 years old. Even though they were that small, the little children knew what was happening to them.” ~ Eva Galler, Holocaust survivor who escaped from a train to a death camp; mother and Hebrew teacher
The Holocaust was one of history’s mass murders, in which Nazis killed over six million people. Millions more were wrenched from their homes, families, and countries, watched their loved ones die in front of them, lost every personal belonging, suffered excruciating physical and mental pain, and saw their communities dismembered as former friends and neighbors watched with indifference or even approval.
Remembering the Holocaust means grieving for the victims of the Holocaust, and the pain of the survivors. It also means celebrating the lives of those who survived, and those who were murdered. Even during the Holocaust, when the human potential for evil was given its full scope, there were acts of heroism big and small — Joseph Scher tells of two girls who smuggled explosives into his labor camp and destroyed a crematorium before being caught and hanged. Gentiles like Corrie ten Boom risked their lives to hide Jews and resistance fighters. In Bulgaria, the Christian mystic Peter Deunov rallied the Bulgarian people and the Tsar to refuse to deport any of Bulgaria’s Jews, saving them all. Even in the depths of the camps, inmates shared their pitiful stores of bread and comfort with each other, and gave each other strength.
“Our Courage is not shackled
Life is marvelously beautiful.”
~Israel Cendorf, a poet who died in Auschwitz, in a song that became the anthem of Pithiviers, a transit camp. Prisoners sang this song on their way to the gas chambers.
Remembering the Holocaust means grieving and honoring the victims’ and survivors’ bravery and compassion. It should also mean renewing our commitment to fighting genocide, a commitment we have betrayed time and time again. It’s shameful that we bludgeon our political opponents with language about the Holocaust, yet refuse to acknowledge or interfere in the systemic slaughter of men, women, and children. We have to do better.
“Do I want to remember, the creation of hell?
The shouts of the Raiders, enjoying the hunt.
Cries of the wounded, begging for life.
Faces of mothers carved with pain.
Hiding Children, driping with fear.
No, I don’t want to remember, but how can I forget?
Do I want to remember this world upside down?
Where the departed are blessed with an instant death.
While the living condemned to a short wretched life,
And a long torturous journey into unnamed place,
Converting Living Souls, into ashes and gas.
No. I Have to Remember and Never Let You Forget.”
~Alexander Kimel, Holocaust Survivor and poet
You can read more first-person accounts of the Holocaust at HolocaustSurvivors.org, Remember.org, the website of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the website of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Holocaust survivors have also written numerous accounts of their experiences, including Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, Night by Elie Weisel, and the dense but important Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt. I also recommend the graphic novel Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spielgelman, the son of a Holocaust survivor.
This photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau was found on Rodrigo Galindez's flickr, and is reused with thanks under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.