Detroiter is forever changed by 70th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation.
They were a most impressive group, despite their age and infirmities. Some of them were still robust, most walked slowly, and some needed assistance or were in wheelchairs. The youngest was 85 years old; many of them were older than 90.
They are survivors of the Nazi’s Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. Many of them wore blue-and-white striped scarfs with a large red “P” (for prisoner) in the center. Although aged and slow moving, these are some of the toughest people that we will ever know. They lived through the horrors of the Nazi German death camp. More than 1.1 million Jews, Poles, political prisoners and others did not.
The survivors gathered together on Jan. 27, in Oswiecim, Poland, for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of their liberation from Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Soviet Army. And, they were — deservedly so — the center of attention. The event was the initiative of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the International Auschwitz Committee.
The commemoration was held under what was reportedly the largest tent ever erected in Europe. It held 3,000 attendees, bathed in soft blue lighting. Also covered within the tent was the infamous railroad entrance to Birkenau, an ominous structure that is now a visitor’s center for the 1.5 million tourists who visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museums in 2014.
This entrance to the massive death camp was also featured in a dark scene in the movie Schindler’s List. The railroad tracks leading into the camp ran through the middle of the tent under see-through Plexiglas.
I could only imagine the thoughts of the survivors as they faced the entrance to Birkenau. Seventy years ago, this was their entrance into the hell of the camp. But, it was also their exit in 1945.
It was my distinct honor and privilege to attend the commemoration, along with Marcin Chumiecki, director of the Polish Mission at Orchard Lake Schools in Orchard Lake. We were invited to attend as special guests by our friend Piotr Cywinski, executive director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museums in Poland.
In addition to the survivors and guests, more than 40 different nations sent delegations. Bronislaw Komorowski, president of Poland, was there, along with U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew.
The presidents of Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, Malta, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland and Ukraine; prime ministers of Belgium, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway; and royalty including the queen of Sweden and the crown prince of Denmark, to name just a few of the dignitaries, also came to honor the survivors. Other special guests included filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who provided support for the event and created a film, Voices of Auschwitz, released on the day of the event.
There were several speeches. Speakers were solemn and respectful — this was not a gala celebration — and their main message: “Remember what happened here; never forget.”
Piotr Cywinski of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museums, which are United Nations Historical sites, provided brief, but direct remarks to the audience. He stated that the museums “take on a form of warning, a horrid warning” for future generations.
Polish President Komorowski also addressed the audience and noted that we must prevent any replication of Auschwitz-Birkenau anywhere in the world.
Three survivors spoke. Roman Kent, however, completely captivated the audience. His address was, for me, the highlight of the event. An 85-year-old survivor, Kent became emotional as he issued a plea to world leaders to remember what happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau and to always strive for tolerance.
“We do not want our past to be our children’s future,” he said to applause, fighting back tears and repeating those words a second time.
I sat next to his niece, who had come from her home in Colorado to be with her uncle. She described him as “a gentle, normal, next-door-neighbor type of guy,” but one who had an extraordinary past. She cried as her uncle spoke.
I must admit I was misty-eyed as well as her uncle described the humiliation, the tortures of Auschwitz and his fears for the future. I was honored to shake his hand after the event.
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, also spoke. In the wake of the murders in France, Lauder gave a stern warning that anti-Semitism is on the rise, and he asked world leaders present to work to prevent another Auschwitz, warning of a rise in anti-Semitism in today’s world.
To say the least, this was a once-in-a lifetime occasion. It is one thing to read about the Holocaust. As a historian, I often experience events and people through the pages of a book. This time, however, I was on the actual grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau. I saw the camps, the ovens and the evil that is left in the buildings, which are preserved as museums for the world to consider and remember. And, I was privileged to listen to and meet actual survivors. I pledged to myself to do my part; I will never forget this day and place.