Oswiecim, Poland — It was an event that some said was never meant to be: After marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2015, organizers doubted they would be able to gather more than a handful of survivors for the 75th anniversary.
And yet under a pale winter sun, some 100 mostly frail survivors and their families joined heads of state from at least 52 countries Monday at a memorial event on the site in southern Poland where Nazis orchestrated the industrial slaughter of 1.5 million people, of whom 1.1 million were Jews.
Most survivors attended thanks to the support of the New York-based Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation, chaired by the cosmetics baron and philanthropist Ronald Lauder.
Among the heads of state attending were presidents Reuven Rivlin of Israel, Andrzej Duda of Poland, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, and Alexander Van der Bellen of Austria.
Secretary of the Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin represented the United States and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo led a delegation from New York. Also present were the kings and queens of Belgium and Spain, and from England, Prince Charles’ wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
As the first speaker, Duda both honored the survivors and emphasized that Poland too was a victim of the Nazis.
“We do assume an obligation for the future … to preserve this place and all the other sites of the Shoah,” he said. Poland would do this “in the name of the republic whose land was the first target of Nazi German aggression and whose territory was occupied and whose nation was subjected to terror and who established the largest underground resistance movement against the Third Reich and whose soldiers fought against the Germans on all the fronts of the Second World War and whose 6 million citizens died at hands of the Nazis, including 3 million Jews.”
Last week Duda skipped a major Holocaust memorial event in Jerusalem, in part angered over accusations by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Poland collaborated with Germany in 1938.
“Distorting the history of the Second World War, denying the crimes of the genocide and the instrumental use of the Holocaust to attain any goal is tantamount to a desecration of the victims whose ashes are scattered here,” he said.
The heart of the ceremony featured testimony by three Jewish survivors, Batsheva Dagan, Elza Baker, and Marian Turski, and a former Polish political prisoner, Stanisław Zalewski.
The official ceremony, organized by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, took place in a large white tent built around the main entrance to Birkenau-Auschwitz II. The train tracks were visible beneath transparent floor tiles, and images of the camp were projected on the ceiling. Survivors wore striped scarves reminiscent of the camp uniforms many once wore.
In the five years since the last milestone 70th anniversary, there has been an ominous rise in anti-Semitism, including violent attacks in Pittsburgh; Poway, Calif.; Halle, Germany; Jersey City; and Monsey, N.Y.
Lauder, who is also president of the World Jewish Congress and led the now 30-year effort to preserve the death camp’s once-crumbling infrastructure, addressed this spike in remarks on behalf of “The Pillars of Remembrance,” the top donors to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.
“Seventy-five years ago when the world saw what happened here, nobody in their right mind, nobody, wanted to be associated with the Nazis,” he said. “Now, the open spread of anti-Jewish hatred [is seen] throughout the world once again. In 2020 we hear the same lies the Nazis used so effectively in their propaganda” about Jewish control of the economy and the media.
Lauder called directly on the leaders in attendance to fight anti-Semitism with strong anti-hate statutes and to resist the United Nations resolutions singling out Israel.
“To hear this madness, online, in the media, and even within democratic countries — we cannot look [the] other way and pretend it didn’t happen,” he said. “That’s what people did throughout the 1930s and that’s what led to Auschwitz.”
The ceremony ended with the blowing of a shofar in the presence of Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant clergy, and the recitation of El Maleh Rachamim, a memorial chant, and Kaddish, the prayer for the dead.
A ‘family reunion’
The night before, 100 survivors and their family members from the United States, Canada, Israel, Australia, and several European countries packed a repurposed tram depot in Krakow for a welcome dinner hosted by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation.
Many arrived that day from New York on a charter flight hired by Lauder. Among the speakers was Ukraine’s Zelensky, who days before had been in Israel to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation.
“I can’t imagine the strength you need to survive it, and you did,” he said. In a dark world, he added, “You are the rays of sunshine that penetrate the darkness.”
He did not mention his own Jewish background, as he did in a Jan. 24 meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when he spoke of relatives killed by the Germans and his grandfather’s time as a Red Army soldier fighting the Nazis.
In his remarks at the dinner, Lauder also spoke of the survivors as an inspiration.
“You alone have a perspective that none of us can ever have,” he said. “And that is why we honor you and we honor your bravery.”
He also took what appeared to be a pointed swing at the Palestinian leadership, saying that the Jewish reaction to the extermination of one-third of the Jewish people was “not one single act of retribution.” The survivors “did not fester for 75 years” in displaced persons camps, he said, and Jews did not “create terror and mayhem around the world and extort money from governments like a crime syndicate.”
The dinner was otherwise neither political nor somber, but celebratory; one participant, Andrew Silberstein from Tenafly, whose father Michael was a teenager when he arrived at Birkenau in the summer of 1944, called it a “family reunion for people who don’t know each other.” Grandchildren led tiny grandparents to their seats; families broke into spontaneous choruses of “Am Yisrael Chai,” the people of Israel live.
The largest contingent, representing four generations, accompanied New Yorker Rachel Roth, 94, and her aunt Ella Blumenthal, 98. Roth’s memoir “Here There Is No Why” recounts how she survived both the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Auschwitz. According to her niece, Efrat Lax of Modiin, Israel, Roth has 18 grandchildren and 38 great-grandchildren. Some 40 members of the family were called up on the stage to sing along with a video of “Hatikvah” as performed by students from Lauder-funded Jewish schools across Europe.
Another New Yorker, Jeanette Spiegel, 98, took part with her daughter, Heidi Spiegel, and two of her grown grandchildren, Harrison Manin and Grace Hutcher. She shared a story that, like that of every survivor in the room, was no less improbable for being true.
Sent before the war by her Austrian-Jewish parents on a Kindertransport to Belgium where they thought she’d be safe, she was rounded up by the Nazis in 1944 and spent nine months in Auschwitz. In January 1945, at age 20, she was one of thousands of prisoners led out on a death march, and was eventually herded into an open cattle car for the brutal trip west. She and a friend managed to sneak out of the car in Neisse, now Nysa, Poland, and convinced a high Nazi official that she was a German refugee and that her father was a German soldier stationed in Vienna. The official allowed them to travel on another train to Leipzig via Dresden.
There’s a story there, too: The young women didn’t look like prisoners because they still had all their hair, so they could be paraded in front of Red Cross officials by Nazis eager to hide the truth of the camp.
Asked what it felt like to return to a site of so much suffering, she said, “It is a very tragic, very sad thing. But it is like visiting a cemetery. I am here to say Kaddish for family and friends who died there.”
Manin, 26, had been with his grandmother on a previous trip to the former death camp and said he grew up with her stories of survival. “It’s very powerful, especially now, when you see the return of fascism worldwide,” he said.
Monday marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the anniversary of when Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz in the closing months of World War II.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor in chief of The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. He served as NJJN editor for 13 years.