January 27, 2015 marks 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. Plans for a worldwide commemoration have been in the works for some time. Through the support of the USC Shoah Foundation and the World Jewish Congress, a group of 100 survivors from around the world will take part in ceremonies at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Consider the following significant points:
Auschwitz stands as the biggest Jewish graveyard in the world and site of the largest industrialized mass murder in history. The estimates of people murdered there are 1.3 million; 1.1 million of which were Jewish, including entire family trees. Remember that the numbers are just that – estimates. Himmler designated Auschwitz in 1943 as the central killing center for the ‘extermination’ of European Jews. Gas chambers made it possible. Numbers of victims will always be an estimate as incoming trains of prisoners weren’t registered unless chosen to live. There can be some accuracy based on recorded transports into the camp e.g. “1,000 Hungarian Jews from XXX arrived on X date.” “1,000 Poles sent on transport to Buchenwald on XX date.”
In 2005, the United Nations designated January 27, the day Russian/Soviet troops reached Auschwitz, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The European Union followed suit, and now Israel designates January 27 as its ‘Official Day of Struggle against anti-Semitism.’ Prior to then different countries chose different dates. The United States still celebrates in April, based on the date American troops reached Dachau.
For a visual picture, Birkenau lies three kilometers away from Auschwitz I, the former Polish army camp. “Auschwitz” included several horrid sub camps. On a cold dark, mid-October night, my husband and I, plus our private tour guide drove to Birkenau. We were the last three people out, staying after closing hours. The enormity of scale of murder and geography is mind-boggling. The reality of 300 humans squeezed into horse barracks built for 50 horses brings shudders. Before I left I shivered, not from the cold, but from the souls and evil I felt I felt around me. I’m not making that up. My husband concurs. We were in temps of 30 degrees in October. Now imagine 30 degrees below zero without a winter coat. A dark winter day is when everyone should visit a concentration camp.
I truly hope that certain terminology is used by those hosting the commemoration. A commitment to honor the memory of all victims of Hitler, including Soviet POWs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Slavs and Poles, Catholic clergy and more encompasses the true reality. Look up the sainted Maximillian Kolbe if you don’t know the name. There are politics of the acceptance/omission of all victims that go back thirty years I am still struggling to grasp. I hope that should crosses be raised next to a Star of David, they too are honored. Sadly in the past great protest from the worldwide Jewish community demanded their removal several times as “desecrating the Jewish memory.” Frankly I don’t get it. There is no monopoly on suffering and the refusal to acknowledge Christians is a direct insult to Poles in their own country.
There is a worldwide petition by Poles to make sure the press uses the term “German death camps.” The German press has been known to refer to them as “Polish death camps.” This is a gross error that insults Poles to the core. More Poles hid and saved Jews than any other country and no country suffered greater in WWII than Poland.Over 300,000 people have signed a worldwide petition to make sure journalists and others properly refer to Auschwitz and others as “German” death camps. See link below.
A web site dedicated to the 70th celebration is set up. It’s expected that delegations from many countries will attend. The President of the Republic of Poland, Bronisław Komorowski will represent Poland. Per Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński, Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, “it is the last big anniversary that we can commemorate with a numerous group of Survivors. For many of them, this anniversary will be the capstone of their personal victory over the dejection and oblivion.”
“The future of our civilisation is in our own hands and we must take responsibility for the shape of that future. And a wise vision of future must be rooted in memory.” – Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
Photos The top and bottom photos taken by author in 2013. The top photo shows the famous train entrance to Birkenau. The bottom photo is of the hanging pole outside the kitchen in Auschwitz I. The middle black and white photo is courtesy of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum