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WORLD WAR II

‘It should never happen again’: Auschwitz survivors mark liberation 75 years on

Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, a dwindling number of elderly Holocaust survivors gathered at the former German Nazi death camp on Monday to honour its more than 1.1 million mostly Jewish victims and to share their alarm over rising anti-semitism.

'It should never happen again': Auschwitz survivors mark liberation 75 years on
Auschwitz survivors and dignitaries in the former concentration camp, 75 years later. Photo: DPA

More than 200 survivors came from across the globe to the camp the Nazis built at Oswiecim in then-occupied Poland, to share their testimony as a stark warning amid a recent surge of anti-Semitic attacks on both sides of the Atlantic, some of them deadly.

Survivors dressed in blue and white striped caps and scarves symbolic of the uniforms prisoners wore at the camp, passed through its chilling “Arbeit macht Frei” (German for “Work makes you free”) black wrought-iron gate.

Accompanied by Polish President Andrzej Duda, they laid floral wreaths by the Death Wall in Auschwitz where the Nazis shot dead thousands of prisoners.

“We want the next generation to know what we went through and that it should never happen again,” Auschwitz survivor David Marks, 93, said earlier at the former death camp, his voice breaking with emotion.

Thirty-five members of his immediate and extended family of Romanian Jews were killed in Auschwitz, the largest of Nazi Germany's camps that has come to symbolize the six million European Jews who died in the Holocaust.

From mid-1942 the Nazis systematically deported Jews from all over Europe to six camps — Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka.

Organizers insist that Monday's memorial ceremony must focus above all on what survivors have to say rather than the bitter political feuds that have tainted the run-up to the anniversary.

“This is about survivors, it's not about politics,” Ronald Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, told AFP in the Auschwitz camp, now a memorial and state museum run by Poland.

“We see anti-Semitism rising now and we don't want their (survivors) past to be their children's future, or their grand children's future,” he added.

Royals, presidents and prime ministers from nearly 60 countries will attend the ceremony, but no top world leaders, some of whom opted instead to attend a high-profile Holocaust forum in Israel last week seen as rivalling the ceremonies in Poland.

Poland's President Duda boycotted the Jerusalem forum after he was denied the opportunity to speak there while Russian President Vladimir Putin was given the floor, despite having earlier falsely accused Poland of colluding with German Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler and contributing to the outbreak of
World War II.

Duda was to make an address at the Monday ceremony in Auschwitz alongside survivors.

READ ALSO: Remembering Nazi crimes inseparable from German identity, says Merkel


Allies knew in 1942

For some, nightmarish memories of the camp are still vivid, more than seven decades on.

German soldiers “only had to point one finger at you to send you to the gas chambers”, says Auschwitz survivor Bronislawa Horowitz-Karakulska, 88, a Polish-Jew who was imprisoned there as a 12-year-old with her mother.

“Whoever looked weak, skinny, bony, was selected for death,” said Horowitz-Karakulska, who survived after her mother bribed guards with a diamond she had smuggled into the camp.

“It was full of German soldiers, barking dogs — German shepherds — commotion, fear, screams, Auschwitz was one big horror,” she told Polish media.

READ ALSO: Last survivor of first convoy of Nazi prisoners dies at 96

While the world only learned the full extent of the horrors after the Soviet Red Army entered the camp on January 27, 1945, the Allies had detailed information about Nazi Germany's genocide against Jews much earlier.

Andrzej Duda (m), President of Poland, Piotr Cywinski (l), Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and survivors of the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp take part in the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz at the death gate of the former concentration camp. Photo: DPA

In December 1942, Poland's then London-based government in exile forwarded a document, titled “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland”, to the Allies.

The document included detailed accounts of the unfolding Holocaust as witnessed by members of the Polish resistance, but drew disbelief and only muted reactions from the international community.

To inform the Allies, Polish resistance fighters Jan Karski and Witold Pilecki famously risked their lives in separate operations to infiltrate and then escape from Nazi death camps and ghettos in occupied Poland, including Auschwitz.

'Final Solution'

Regarded as exaggeration and Polish war propaganda, “a lot of these reports were simply not believed” by the Allies, renowned Oxford historian, Professor Norman Davies, told AFP.

Despite “strong demands” by the Polish and Jewish resistance for Britain or the US to bomb the railways leading to Auschwitz and other death camps, “the military's attitude was: 'We've got to concentrate on military targets, not on civilian things',” said Davies, an authority on Polish history.

“One of the targets that the (British) military did bomb was a synthetic fuel factory near Auschwitz” in 1943-44, he added.

Although British warplanes flew over the death camp itself, incredibly, no orders were given to bomb it.

Professor Dariusz Stola, an expert on the history of Polish Jews, echoes this assessment.

“Military leaders didn't like civilian politicians meddling in their business,” Stola told AFP.

For Allied military leaders, bombing Auschwitz, or its supply lines “was looking like a humanitarian operation and they didn't want it,” said the former head of the Warsaw-based Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of all Nazi Germany's death and concentration camps and the one where most people were killed. And it is the only one to have been preserved as it was when it was abandoned by the Germans fleeing the advancing Red Army.

Operated by the Nazis from 1940 until 1945, Auschwitz was part of a vast and brutal network of death and concentration camps across Europe set up as part of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler's “Final Solution” of genocide against an estimated 10 million European Jews.

Once Europe's Jewish heartland, Poland saw 90 percent of its 3.3 million pre-war Jewish citizens killed under Nazi German occupation between 1939 and 1945.

READ ALSO: 'Hell on earth was a German creation,” says Foreign Minister on visit to Auschwitz

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ANTI-SEMITISM

‘We will fight for our Germany’: Holocaust survivor issues warning to far right

Holocaust survivor Charlotte Knobloch on Wednesday called for a stronger defence of the country's "fragile" democracy and issued a searing rebuke to the far right: "We will fight for our Germany".

'We will fight for our Germany': Holocaust survivor issues warning to far right
Knobloch addressing the Bundestag on Wednesday. Photo: DPA

In an emotional speech to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Knobloch told the Bundestag lower house of parliament that extremists and conspiracy theorists were exploiting fears around the pandemic and a diversifying society.

“We must not forget for a single day how fragile the precious achievements of the last 76 years are” since the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp on January 27th, 1945.

“Anti-Semitic thought and words draw votes again, are socially acceptable again — from schools to corona protests and of course the internet, that catalyst for hatred and incitement of all kinds.”

Knobloch, 88, a former leader of Germany's 200,000-strong Jewish community who survived the Holocaust in hiding as a child in Bavaria, warned that the enemies of democracy are stronger than many think”.

“I call on you: take care of our country,” she said, describing right-wing extremism as “the greatest danger for all” in Germany.

'You lost your fight'

Addressing deputies of the hard-right Alternative for Germany, the largest opposition group in parliament with nearly 100 seats, Knobloch accused many of its followers of “picking up the tradition” of the Nazis.

“I tell you: you lost your fight 76 years ago,” Knobloch said. “You will continue to fight for your Germany and we will keep fighting for our Germany.”

Knobloch fought back tears as she recounted the terror of the Nazis' rise and the deportation of her grandmother, Albertine Neuland, to the Theresienstadt concentration camp where she starved to death in 1944.

READ ALSO: 'Fight against forgetting': Germany marks Holocaust anniversary in shadow of coronavirus

“I stand before you as a proud German, against all odds and although much still makes it unlikely. Sadness, pain, desperation and loneliness accompany me.”

The window of a new synagogue which opened in Konstanz in November 2019. Photo: DPA

But she said Germany's enduring commitment to reckon with its history made her hopeful.

“I am proud of the young people in our country. They are free of guilt for the past but they assume responsibility for today and tomorrow: interested,
passionate and courageous.”

However Bundestag speaker Wolfgang Schaeuble, a respected elder statesman,
warned that the German consensus around atonement for the Nazis' crimes, long
seen as part of the bedrock of the post-war order, was showing signs of vulnerability.

He told the chamber it was “devastating” to admit that “our remembrance culture does not protect us from a brazen reinterpretation or even a denial of history”.

“And it doesn't protect us from new forms of racism and anti-Semitism,” said Schaeuble, 78.

Jewish journalist and activist Marina Weisband, 33, also urged continued vigilance.

“To be Jewish in Germany is to know it happened and can happen again,” she said.

“Anti-Semitism doesn't begin when shots are fired at a synagogue,” she said, referring to an extremist attack in the eastern city of Halle in October 2019.

READ ALSO: 'It doesn't change my feeling about Germany': Jewish community fearful but defiant after Halle attack

“The Shoah did not begin with gas chambers… It is not extinct, this conviction that there are people whose dignity is worth more than others'.”

Germany has officially marked Holocaust Remembrance Day every January 27th
since 1996 with a solemn ceremony at the Bundestag featuring a speech by a survivor and commemorations across the country.

Of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, more than one million were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, most in its notorious gas chambers, along with tens of thousands of others including homosexuals, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war.

This year's anniversary is marked by growing concerns about extremist violence and incitement in Germany.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken of her “shame” over rising anti-Semitism, as the Jewish community has warned that coronavirus conspiracy theories are being used to stir hatred.

In a speech recorded for Remembrance Day, Merkel thanked the elderly survivors “who muster the strength to tell the story of their lives”.

“Their first-hand accounts show us just how vulnerable human dignity is and
how easily the values that underpin peaceful coexistence can be violated,” she
said.

Anti-Jewish crimes have risen steadily, with 2,032 offences recorded in 2019, up 13 percent on the previous year, according to the latest official figures.

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