The reflection on our own indifference. The 77th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz
The beginning of extermination at Auschwitz constituted the main theme of the 77th anniversary of liberation of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, only a small group of participants, mainly a dozen of survivors, gathered within the Memorial.
Among those who sat in the auditorium of the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust there was also the French delegation led by Prime Minister Jean Castex, the delegation of Polish authorities led by Wojciech Kolarski, Secretary of State at the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland, as well as ambassadors of many countries. Honorary patronage over commemorative events was extended by Andrzej Duda, President of the Republic of Poland.
Marek Zając, Chairman of the Council of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, led the events and inaugurated them standing by the “Arbeit macht frei” gate. (“works make one free”)
"Due to the coronavirus pandemic, most of you can see me thanks to the online connection and the media. However, invariable points of reference for us all have always been constituted by the accounts of survivors of Auschwitz and the Shoah together with this authentic site”, Zając said.
"The pandemic created new challenges also in education. Here, at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial, we had to face a particularly complex task – how to connect the authenticity with latest technologies and online learning? As a result of cooperation between the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation as well as Israeli Companies AppsFlyer and Diskin, the project of remote online tour of Auschwitz is in progress, unique on a global scale”, Chairman Zając said, walking through authentic post-camp premises. “Thanks to this initiative, we are going to bring the history of Auschwitz closer to those who for various reasons would never have the opportunity to come here”, he emphasized and then headed towards the ICEAH auditorium.
The main theme of this year’s commemorative events was the beginning of mass extermination of Jews in gas chambers.
"In its early days, starting from June 1940, Auschwitz operated as a concentration camp mainly for Polish political prisoners. Nearly two years later, on 26 March 1942, a transport of 999 Jewish women from Slovakia arrived here. It constituted the prelude of mass extermination at Auschwitz. Several first groups of deported Jews consisted of people able to work, needed as slave labour force for the extending camp complex. However, as soon as in late April, people regarded by the Germans as unnecessary began to arrive in transports – the elderly and children. After the selection performed by SS doctors, they were immediately murdered in the gas chambers”, Marek Zając said.
By the intermediary of the recording donated by the Rena’s Promise Foundation and originating from the coming documentary "999. Young women from the first official Jewish transport to Auschwitz”, participants of commemorative events had the opportunity to hear the voices of women from the 26 March 1942 transport who survived: Elisabeth Silberstein Bence, Judith Spielberg Mittelman and Edith Friedman Grosman.
“We didn’t even realize what is happening to us. I was sitting in a corner, and I was staring, what is happening. Some of them were screaming, crying… But nobody could really anticipate what’s coming,” said Elisabeth Silberstein Bence.
Bogdan Bartnikowski was born in 1932. During the Warsaw Uprising, he was expelled together with his mother from their home and found himself in the transit camp in Pruszków. On 12 August 1944 both were transported to Auschwitz. At the camp he was registered as prisoner number 192731. On 11 January 1945 Bogdan and his mother were evacuated to Berlin-Blankenburg (working commando of the Sachsenhausen camp), where his work consisted in removing rubble from the city. After the liberation he came back together with his mother to Warsaw.
“Recently, at a meeting with students from a secondary school, I was talking about our childhood camp experiences, and after a dozen or so questions about the details of life in the camp, the question came up: ‘And was there a school in Birkenau?’ I burst out laughing. Birkenau? A school? But after a while I thought to myself: yes, it was a school. It was a school for survival. A school, in which they wanted to make slaves out of us, when they wanted to deprive us of any hope for life, to prepare us to march in pairs, like animals, to the gas chamber. In accordance with the purpose of this camp," said Bogdan Bartnikowski.
“There are very few of us left. There are literally just a few people in this room right now, a few children whom I remember, with whom I was first in the FKL, in the women's camp, for one day, and then in the men's camp. We still meet, we talk about our camp past. These are our personal tragic memories. Each such recollection means tearing out of ourselves those terrible experiences, but we realise that we have to talk about it. To preserve the memory of what happened here, of what totalitarianism can bring about in its drive," he added.
Halina Birenbaum was born in 1929 in Warsaw. During the war she was incarcerated in the Warsaw ghetto and then in several German concentration camps, subsequently Majdanek, where she lost her mother, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ravensbrück as well as Neustadt-Glewe. Her father perished in Treblinka. Among all of Halina’s relatives, only her brother survived the war. In 1947 she reached Israel where she got involved in her literary work.
“People who survived these ordeals remembered them forever and tried with all their might to document them for the world to preserve in human memory and warn against their recurrence are passing away. New generations are born and grow up for whom this history is distant and old as if it does not concern them. Especially as they are so nightmarish that one would rather run away from the sorrows and tragedies than delve into them... People want to forget, belittle, deny their existence, and falsify history! But to ignore the criminal facts of this war and Holocaust is to renew this terrible threat,” she said.
“Today, I reflect with great regret that I have accomplished too little with my fervent messages from those years of war and extermination of my Jewish people from Poland and all the countries of Europe. For a long time, people were reluctant to listen, believe us and imagine for themselves until most of the survivors had departed from this world - until it became too late, and they could carry on boldly, brazenly, and unpunished with these arrogant marches of hatred and deafening screams of "Death to Jews, death to foreigners, death to refugees!". Death! To other people. It will come. No one will be spared. No one lives forever, neither the strong nor the weak - only remembrance. It is the only eternal thing from Generation to Generation,” said Halina Birenbaum.
Then the time came for Director of the Auschwitz Museum, Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński, to take the floor: “Meanwhile, here and now, we need to remind ourselves that the watchword “Never Again” did not originate after the war. It had already been heard in the camp. And that it was not a cry for an eternal memory but for mindfulness, a kind of motto for the future. And the times are such as we wanted and managed to create. There is still too little of this moral anxiety in our memories to make us question our all-too-frequent indifference. It is not the memory that the victims, former prisoners and survivors had in mind.
“I would therefore like to thank the Auschwitz survivors present here, and all those who are following these commemorative events through the media and the Internet… I implore everyone to observe a moment of silence, to reflect on their responsibility, indifference and commitment. This much we owe to the victims. It is, above all, what remembrance is meant to do, today,” Piotr Cywiński emphasized.
The next part of commemorative events, devoted to new technologies in the education about Auschwitz, was inaugurated by Ronald S. Lauder, Chairman of the New York Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation: “There are young people who know nothing about it. When people know nothing about the Nazis, and the gas chambers, and the horror, that’s when crimes like this can be repeated. That is why people, especially young people, must come to see it for themselves. But what do we do when there is a pandemic and no one can travel? We have developed a new concept – live remote tours with live guides.”
Next, Marek Zając presented one more unique tool to be applied for the purposes of education about camp history – the Auschwitz VR Project.
"Together with the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation and the Polish company Real Invented Studio we are developing its virtual representation from the period of World War II and the Holocaust. The project is absolutely ground-breaking in various ways. It is characterized by outstanding precision. With great diligence and attention paid to details, basing on archive documents, historical photographs, and modern scans, in cooperation with Memorial historians”, he said.
“But it is crucial that, by the intermediary of this virtual space, the visitors equipped with VR goggles or watching it on 2D screens will always be assisted by guides and educators. It will never be a game or entertainment”, Marek Zając emphasized.
Auschwitz survivors also referred to the role and necessity of using new technologies by the Museum in its educational activity.
"I would stress that the possibility of using electronic devices, the development of the Internet and other devices that enable interested persons to see Auschwitz virtually, so to speak, without having to come here, is significant. Not everyone can, not everyone has the strength or means to come here from the end of Europe or even from other continents, but thanks to the development of these means and implementation of existing programmes increasingly introduced here in the Museum, they can observe... see, walk along the camp roads just like the prisoners,” said Bogdan Bartnikowski.
"I want the memory and knowledge of the Holocaust to protect us from further tragedies and ensure that we successfully counter new threats in every corner of the globe. Therefore, I am filled with hope that the latest Internet technology and painstaking efforts of the Auschwitz Birkenau State Memorial Museum, Director Piotr Cywiński and his dedicated team will soon make it possible for the knowledge and memory of the Holocaust to be present in schools all over the world through live Internet transmissions,” said Halina Birenbaum.
"When you walk with an online guide along the path that I walked under different conditions. I will not mince words, the path of my agony; don't think about it. Think primarily about yourselves, because the Internet is a very close and personal thing. Think about yourselves. What can I do, what should I do, so that something like this does not happen to you or me? Think of it as fate dealt out by man to his fellow man under different conditions that can, should and must be avoided. And that is the message for you,” said Marian Turski.
After the speeches by survivors, prayers were said within the premises of the former Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp by rabbi Michael Schudrich, bishop Piotr Greger from the Roman Catholic Church, priestmonk Aleksander Mokriszczew from the Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church as well as bishop Adrian Korczago from the Evangelical-Augsburg Church.
The commemoration finished with lighting candles by the monument in Birkenau.
It is estimated that at least 232 thousand children were deported to Auschwitz, including ca. 216 thousand of Jewish origin, 11 thousand Roma, ca. 3 thousand Poles, over 1 thousand Belarusians and several hundred Russians, Ukrainians and other. In total, ca. 23 thousand children and teenagers were registered in the camp, with slightly over 700 of them liberated in Auschwitz in January 1945.
THE ADDRESS OF DR. PIOTR M. A. CYWIŃSKI DURING THE 77TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE LIBERATION OF AUSCHWITZ
“In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies
but the silence of our friends.”
These words from Martin Luther King reflect, to a large extent,
the complexity of the post-war relationship between European Jews and their European homeland.
80 years ago, the mass extermination of European Jews began in Auschwitz,
a concentration camp that had been in existence for two years,
which at the time was mainly populated by Poles.
The Shoah knocked on the gates of Auschwitz to claim its greatest number of victims.
King’s words, unfortunately, epitomise our Western attitude today.
We are so proud of the values we have developed over centuries,
our philosophical and religious foundations,
and our humanism
and definitions of human rights.
These are enough for us.
Today, we cannot incorporate these lofty ideals into
social, political, international, and universal human life.
The Rohingya, the Uighurs, the hunger-stricken in Yemen, those fleeing terror,
starvation or hopelessness can only attest to this.
In today’s world, we are witnessing the slow end
of the old ideological divisions in politics.
The Left and Right are becoming increasingly less divergent.
Today, a new division is increasingly visible:
those who, in the spirit of universal values and humanism,
pursue a humane world,
and those who tread the path of dehumanisation.
And yet, we are hardly perturbed by this either,
enthralled by the beautiful sound of our fundamental values. Consequently, we slump into silence and indifference.
Meanwhile, here and now, we need to remind ourselves
that the watchword “Never Again” did not originate after the war.
It had already been heard in the camp.
And that it was not a cry for an eternal memory but for mindfulness,
a kind of motto for the future.
And the times are such as we wanted and managed to create.
There is still too little of this moral anxiety in our memories
to make us question our all-too-frequent indifference.
It is not the memory that the victims, former prisoners and survivors had in mind.
I would therefore like to thank the Auschwitz survivors present here,
and all those who are following these commemorative events
through the media and the Internet…
I implore everyone to observe a moment of silence,
to reflect on their responsibility, indifference and commitment.
This much we owe to the victims.
It is, above all, what remembrance is meant to do, today.