50 Years After Auschwitz, End Is Remembered
Survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp stood in the bitter cold Friday beside monarchs and statesmen in the desperate hope that the world will forever rid itself of the wickedness that ruled here half a century ago.
“Just as we owe remembrance to the victims of Auschwitz, so we owe our concern for peace, tolerance and human rights to those living,” said Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a Polish survivor reciting a declaration signed by death camp prisoners and dignitaries from Europe and the United States.
“No more fanaticism and violence,” he said. “No more war and killing.”
Assembled on the world’s largest Jewish cemetery, where twisted crematories double as gruesome tombstones near a meadow of human ashes, about 2,000 people braved light snow and strong winds to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet Red Army.
By the time the first Ukrainian soldiers arrived on Jan. 27, 1945, only 7,000 prisoners remained, most of them left behind by the retreating Nazis because they were too sick or frail to transport. Seven hundred corpses littered the camp, those of inmates executed on the final day of Nazi torment.
In all, historians estimate, between 1.1 million and 1.5 million people died here over 4 1/2 years, making it the most deadly of the Nazi camps.
“Close your eyes and you will see that here heaven and earth are on fire,” said Elie Wiesel, who survived 11 months at Auschwitz before being moved to another death camp just ahead of the Red Army’s advance. “Look and listen as the victims quietly walk toward a dark place, so gigantic that the planet itself seemed in danger.”
The solemn remembrance included prayers recited from five faiths--Jewish, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Protestant and Christian Orthodox. But some Jewish leaders boycotted the ceremony, saying Jews bore most of the suffering at Auschwitz--about 90% of those who died here were Jewish--and therefore deserved a more prominent role.
The disagreement put a spotlight on the delicate question of Polish-Jewish relations, which have always been strained over Auschwitz and the legacy of Nazi terror. About 75,000 Poles were killed at the death camp, which was set up in 1940 to confine Polish opponents of Hitler. In all, about 3 million Poles lost their lives in World War II.
It was not until 1942 that the camp’s focus shifted to Hitler’s so-called Final Solution, which led to the extermination of 6 million Jews in Europe, about half of them from Poland. Today, fewer than 10,000 Jews remain in the country.
The camp’s dual legacy has helped shape Polish perceptions of the Holocaust. In a recent public opinion poll, 68% of the respondents said they believe that Poles suffered either as much as or more than Jews during World War II. Until a few years ago, materials at the Auschwitz museum did not even mention the magnitude of Jewish losses.
“Whole nations, the Jews and Gypsies, were supposed to be exterminated here together with others--above all, us Poles,” said Polish President Lech Walesa during the ceremony Friday.
“It is true, not all victims were Jews,” countered Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who represented the United States at the commemoration. “But all Jews were victims.”
For the most part, the Polish-Jewish quandary was set aside Friday, as survivors of all nationalities and religions joined hands and spoke in a single, anguished voice.
Walesa, criticized for failing to mention Jews during ceremonies in Krakow on Thursday, included references to Jewish suffering in two separate addresses Friday. Meanwhile, Shevach Weiss, speaker of the Israeli Parliament, described Europe as “one huge lake of Jewish blood” but also paid tribute to Europeans--including many Poles--who helped save tens of thousands of Jews from the Nazis.
“People were just people here,” said Danuta Szerc, a nearby villager who as a child scattered pieces of bread in the fields for hungry prisoners. “Everybody wanted to live.”
Leaders from 28 countries, including monarchs and presidents, paid tribute to the dead by laying wreaths and flowers at the Death Wall in the main Auschwitz camp and at a monument erected over a dismantled crematory in the Birkenau section, two miles away. Thousands of prisoners were executed at the wall, while most of the mass exterminations occurred at Birkenau.
Survivors, relatives and friends lighted thousands of candles and placed them around the camp, sometimes sobbing as the memories of 50 years ago rushed through their heads.
“We wanted to leave Auschwitz, but Auschwitz will never leave us,” said Maurice Goldstein, a Belgian Jew who heads the largest organization of camp survivors.
They put candles on railroad tracks where stuffed cattle cars delivered prisoners to their deaths. They put them on the ramp where Nazi officers selected who would live--for a while--and who would die. And they put them in the rubble of the crematories, the guts of the Nazi death machine.
“This place is so horrible. I still feel it,” said Rozalia Rozmilowska, who survived more than a year at Auschwitz thanks to bread smuggled to her by a friend who worked in the kitchen. She carried a candle for the friend--known to her only as Maria, a German political prisoner who escaped during the confusion of the Nazi retreat at the end of the war.
“The sick feeling never goes away,” she said. “Your heart becomes weak, and your legs feel like they are made of cotton.”
Nearby, Andrzej Ostrowski waved the red-and-white Polish flag, and a sign bearing prisoner No. 1660 and the inscription: “Poles died in Auschwitz too.” It was the number of his father, who was rounded up on his way to work and shot at the Death Wall in 1940. Ostrowski, who was just an infant at the time, hoped the sign would attract someone who knew his father.
No one appeared. A dejected Ostrowski vowed not to give up.
“I never got to know my father,” he said. “I have to keep looking.”