A Belated Recognition of All of Auschwitz’s Victims

The 70th anniversary put survivors and Jewish victims at center as Poland finally confronts its past.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
World leaders walk by the railway leading to the Birkenau Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland,  January 27, 2015.
World leaders walk by the railway leading to the Birkenau Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2015.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

AUSCHWITZ — Roman Kent, an 85-year-old survivor of Auschwitz who spoke at the memorial ceremony for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on Tuesday, said in his speech that “the passage of time makes it more and more apparent that there is an effort of the ideological successors of the perpetrators ... abetted by much of the media, to sanitize the Shoah. They employ language to describe the Holocaust so it appears less wicked and brutal.”

Kent spoke of how anodyne words such as “lost” are used “when referring to families brutally murdered,” and how the fact that 6 million Jews were murdered is subsumed in the larger numbers of dead from all nations.

It was difficult, however, for the organizers of the memorial to avoid a certain touch of sanitization. In an event attended by cabinet ministers, prime ministers and presidents from around the world, where diplomatic niceties had to be adhered to and 300 elderly survivors had to be taken care of, the ceremony was a nearly impossible balancing act.

Vladimir Putin, center, and Russia's chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, at Moscow's Jewish Museum at a ceremony to70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp, Jan. 27, 2015. Credit: AP

Many months ago the decision had been taken to put the survivors at the center of the 70th anniversary and not to repeat the proceedings of 10 years earlier, when many survivors took ill after spending long hours in the freezing cold listening to the speeches of politicians. This year, the absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, according to Russian sources, had been snubbed and not invited due to the ongoing tension between Russia and its neighbors, had overshadowed the ceremony in advance.

The survivors and VIPs were protected from the elements by a massive tent that engulfed the entire Birkenau gatehouse, the visual symbol of the entrance of no return to Auschwitz. The classical music gave a genteel European atmosphere, despite the horrors mentioned in the speeches and the survivors who seemed for a moment shrunken in the cavernous interior, like Halina Birenbaum, a survivor born in Warsaw in 1929 and now a citizen of Israel, who was dwarfed by the young Polish man who held her hand on the way to the podium.

But she was the only person who managed for a brief moment to transport the audience back in time, not by evoking the horrors she lived through, but when she spoke of her fear at the camp that “maybe one day I will go into the crematorium and I will never have experienced a true love’s kiss,” and granting a glimpse of the 15-year-old fearful not of death, but of the loss of life because “I am prisoner 48693 with a death penalty because I was young, because I was Jewish.”

David's starmade of candles is seen on Jewish cemetery at the former Terezin Nazi concentration camp on January 27, 2015.Credit: AFP

Half the speakers were Jewish

For the first time, half of those speaking at the anniversary ceremony, Kent and Birenbaum along with the president of the World Jewish Congress, were Jewish, representing the million Jews killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, around 90 percent of all those who were murdered there. In many ways it was the culmination of a long struggle over the historical narrative of the camp, which for most of the decades since liberation on January 27, 1945 had been about the “Polish victims of fascism,” while the Jews at first were not to be mentioned, and then only in the margins.

The Polish political prisoners still featured prominently, with 92-year-old Kazimierz Albin, who was arrested on his way to join the exiled Polish Army in France, representing them, as well as 100 other survivors wearing scarves in the striped pattern of the prisoner uniform with the red triangle of political inmates. But the acknowledgment that the overwhelming majority of victims had been Jews was finally evident in the speech made by Polish President Bronisaw Komorowski, who said that the Germans in Poland had made his country a giant cemetery for Jews and “ended many centuries of long Jewish presence in our land.”

It was a belated recognition from the leader of a country that is finally recovering from the accumulated trauma of the brutal German occupation, which killed 6 million Poles, half of them Jewish, followed by Communist subjugation. Today’s Poland is finally capable of confronting its past, and it seems that Jewish life has not been vanquished here either.

A child brings a candle to at a Jewish cemetery at the former Terezin Nazi concentration camp on January 27, 2015.Credit: AFP

A few hours earlier, in the new Jewish Community Center in the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, they were preparing the last of 600 packed kosher lunches for the survivors and their family members.

“There are still a lot of Jews here all around Poland, but some people run away from their identity,” said Ishbel Szatrawska, a Jewish student working at the Jewish community center. “Many think we’re these weird Jews who want to stay and live in the cemeteries, but that would be throwing away a thousand years of Jewish history.”

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