For five years from 1940 to 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau became the most infamous Nazi killing center. So hideous and horrifying was the extermination of the Jews that Supreme Allied Commander in Europe Dwight D. Eisenhower sent a cable to Washington, DC to General George Marshall:
“The things I saw beggar description…The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were…overpowering…I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’”
Ben Hibbs, the editor of the popular Saturday Evening Post (June 9, 1942 Journey to a Shattered World) wrote, “You have to walk into one of those places and smell the unspeakable stench, not only of the dead but of the living.”
In the book Auschwitz by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt there is this passage:
“[Auschwitz was] the greatest catastrophe of western civilization both permitted and endured, and obscuring the responsibility of the thousands of individuals who enacted this atrocity step by step. None of them was born to be a mass murderer, or an accomplice to mass murder. Each of them inched his way into iniquity.”
Army Signal Corps photographs documented the evidence of the sheer mass murder that Americans had thought was impossible propaganda and the narrator in a news reel declared, “The murder that will blacken the name of Germany for the rest of recorded history.”
On Tuesday, January 27, 2015 delegations from around the world, including some 100 former prisoners, will travel to Auschwitz-Birkenau to mark the 70th anniversary of its liberation and to honor the survivors, soldiers, reporters and others who bore witness to the extermination of 1.5 million people.
The Telegraph has posted powerful portraits of some of the survivors. Their horror and sorrow are etched deeply in their faces, their eyes are pools of emptiness emblematic of a life irrevocably altered.
Sergeant Norman Turgel of the British Intelligence Corps wrote, “I remember one morning seeing a man sitting by the gate. He was just bones, and I could see from his features that he was a man, though I couldn’t tell his age. He was wearing the yellow striped uniform. He held his hand up, and as I passed he said the Jewish words of a prayer, and then he died.”
For most members of Europe’s Jewish community, whose family and friends endured the horrors of the Second World War, memories are never too distant. Since then, for the most part, Europe has been a safe place to live but events in Paris two weeks ago have significantly raised concerns for some Jewish communities.
Since the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices and the subsequent targeting of a kosher supermarket which left four Jewish shoppers dead, there have been heightened security measures for Jewish communities in Europe.
The Holocaust teaches us the dangers that unchecked hatred can pose for society—dangers that we must continue to guard against if we are to fulfill the survivors’ vision of “Never Again.”
The New York Times powerfully reminds us that 10 years ago, on the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, 1500 survivors attended. This year 300 are expected, most of whom are 90 years old and some are over 100. This will likely be the last time a large number of survivors will be able to gather there.
From now on the site will be organized to explain to generations who were not alive during the war what happened rather than to act as a memorial to those who suffered through it.
Andrzej Kacorzyk, deputy director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum said of the 70th anniversary, “We find this to be a moment of passage. A passing of the baton. It is younger generations publicly accepting the responsibility that they are ready to carry this history on behalf of the survivors, and to secure the physical survival of the place where they suffered.”
The ceremony will host state leaders from Poland, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, The Netherlands, Croatia, and other countries. Other notable guests will include film director Steven Spielberg, founding chair of the USC Shoah Foundation; Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban; and other Auschwitz 70th anniversary committee members, but no President of the United States.
Bernadette Meehan, National Security Council spokeswoman, said in an email that, “President Obama will be in India, on a long-scheduled trip.”