Under the imposing entrance gate of the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz almost 300 survivors and hundreds of dignitaries remembered its liberation 70 years ago and paid homage to the 1.5 million Jews and other prisoners slaughtered there.
A huge tent spanned illuminated train tracks on which cattle trains had once brought prisoners from all over Europe to the entrance, known as the death gate, at the very spot where one former prisoner told an audience of 3,000 he had witnessed enough atrocities to “keep me awake until the end of time”.
Survivors from around 19 countries and dignitaries – including the French president, François Hollande, and German president, Joachim Gauck – crossed snowy train tracks to lay candles at the selection ramp where prisoners had been chosen, often on the whim of SS guards, either for the gas chambers or for slave labour.
An audience watched the moving scenes on television screens as grandchildren and children escorted their relatives across the concrete platform which glistened with ice and falling snow and was flanked by a row of flags in the blue and white striped material of the camp’s prison uniforms.
The Polish president, Bronislaw Komorowski, called Auschwitz a “wound that is open and hurting”, and said it had signalled the collapse of civilisation, “when German Nazis launched a real death industry and a human being was reduced to a tattooed camp number”.
He expressed “gratitude and respect” towards the Ukrainian soldiers of the 101 Lviv infantry division who were the first to enter the camp on 27 January 1945.
But his pointed reference to Ukraine and his failure to specifically mention Russia’s Red Army, coupled with his reference to the “two totalitarian regimes” (Nazi and Soviet) that held Poland in their grip for decades, will further infuriate Russia’s leadership who had already made clear their anger at not being given an official invitation to the memorial ceremony.
In an eloquent address, 86-year-old Polish writer Halina Birenbaum, who was led to the podium by her grandson, described Auschwitz as a “bottomless pit of hell that I couldn’t get out of”, recalling her impressions as an 11 year old of the “grey bone faces with legs like sticks wearing muddy clogs, nothing reminding you of anything remotely human”.
She said that even if she could have, trying to forget her experience had never been an option, because “it’s only in my memory that can I be next to my loved ones”. She was given a standing ovation by President Hollande and other guests, many of whom wiped away tears.
Ninety-three-year-old Kazimierz Albin captivated the audience with an account of his escape on the evening of 27 Feb 1943, one of the 10% of breakouts that was successful. He remembered the “excruciating yell of the siren” as he ran through the icy river Sola and named Harald Fritz, the SS guard who had greeted him and 727 fellow political prisoners as they arrived at Auschwitz with the chilling message:
“For the Jews, two weeks; for priests, a month; for the young and healthy, three months … the only way out of here is the chimney.” Roman Kent, 86, fought back tears, his voice cracking, as he told political leaders to strive to ensure no repetition of the Holocaust, because “we do not want our past to be our children’s future”.
He then repeated the sentence because it was “the key to my existence”.
The billionaire philanthropist Ronald Lauder who has donated millions towards the preservation of the remains of Auschwitz, including the mountains of shoes and suitcases of prisoners, as well as the eight tonnes of human hair which is on display at the memorial museum, said that the anniversary had taken on a different significance following the recent attacks in France in which four Jews were killed, and the rise of antisemitism, which had made Europe “look more like 1933 than 2015”.
“Once again young Jewish boys are afraid to wear yarmulkes on the streets of Paris and Budapest and London; once again, Jewish businesses are targeted and once again Jewish families are fleeing Europe”, he said.
The screeching sound of the shofar, a pitchless ceremonial horn, then filled the air, followed by a recitation of the Kaddish. Survivors spontaneously embraced each other as David Wisnia, an 89-year-old survivor from Philadelphia who as a teenager had been forced to sing for SS guards, chanted the funeral prayer El Male Rachamim, his powerful voice resounding around the tent’s walls.
by Kate Connolly