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"What has happened to us?" Article by the Auschwitz Memorial director for the 73rd anniversary of liberation in European press


For the 73rd anniversary of liberation of the German Nazi Auschwitz camp the director of the Memorial wrote an article that was published in many European newspapers. The text appeared in printed or/and online version of the following newspapers: "Le Soir" (Belgium), "Hospodárské noviny" (Czechia), "Le Monde" (France), "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" (Germany), "Népszava" (Hungary), "Haaretz" (Israel), "La Repubblica" (Italy), "Gazeta Wyborcza" (Poland) "Kommiersant" (Russia), "SME" (Slovakia), "El Pais" (Spain), "La Liberté" (Switzerland) and "Népszava" (Hungary).


Photo: Mikołaj Grynberg
Photo: Mikołaj...

"January 27. What Has Happened to Us?
Piotr M. A. Cywiński

73 years ago, the remaining seven thousand KL Auschwitz prisoners were liberated by the Red Army. Right before their escape, the Germans blew up the gas chambers and crematoria which were still operational. They managed to evacuate over 100,000 prisoners deep into Germany in order to continue using them as a slave labour force. Those who survived spent all their lives as witnesses for those who perished.

Today, Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Władysław Bartoszewski, Israel Gutman, Simone Veil, Imre Kertesz and many others are no longer among the living. We, the post-war generation, remain more and more lonesome with the burden of their experience and it would be difficult to deny that we are still unable to manage this burden properly. And I am not referring to facts here. The entire modern world is now living more and more as if they have not learned much from the tragedy of the Shoah and the concentration camps.

And the entire world was supposed to look different after the war. Dialogue and co-operation institutions, such as the United Nations, were being built on a global scale. In Western Europe the process of the states, nations and societies coming together developed to a great extent, and it is now known as the European Union. This organism was created based on the common market which, in place of past models of co-existence formed around the illusive balance of power, made the co-operation and developing interdependence of its member states its main foundations. New legal frameworks of crimes against humanity were accepted and the UN drew up a definition of the crime of genocide. The role of non-governmental organizations was appreciated and their full expansion after the war enhanced the influence of civil society on governmental institutions. The shape of those self-styled social structures no longer imitated the paramilitary culture that was so common before the war among different kinds of brotherhoods, corporations and associations. The Church and other religious organizations felt the new spirit of ecumenism. After the war, it seemed that the world would have to be re-thought. Due to the tragedy of the loss of so many civilians, this war was not like any other war. Auschwitz became its most prominent symbol.

But at the time, there was not enough courage for real justice. Among approximately 70,000 SS men working in concentration and extermination camps, only about 1,650 were punished after the war. Furthermore, the punishment was, in the majority of cases, irritatingly and obviously not enough – a few years of imprisonment, often suspended. It should thus not surprise anybody that many of them later shared the feeling of impunity…

Today we see that these post-war efforts – however legitimate and well thought-out they seem – do not withstand the test of time. We are unable to efficiently react to new manifestations of genocidal frenzy. Starvation and death caused by continuous fights between different groups in central Africa are not treated as priorities by our governments. The arms trade and exploitation of practically free labour overwhelm the poorest regions of the world. The United Nations has ceased to guarantee any kind of hope. The European Union is devoured by internal apathy. At the same time, our democracies suffer from an increase in populism, national egotism and new forms of extreme hate speech. The remilitarization of relationships between people desecrates our streets and cities. Have we really changed that much in the last two or three generations?

Before we meet in two years’ time, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, (constituting the culminating point of the 15th International Holocaust Remembrance Day) we should ask ourselves several questions to ensure this day does not become yet another commemoration event, with the same words and phrases being repeated, taking the form of slogans movingly placed within the familiar shots of outlines of camp architecture.

What is happening to our world? What is happening to us? Has the memory ceased to constitute a commitment? And if it is hope which dies last, then where else is it to be rooted if not in memory? Do we really have to complain about a lack of vision in order to justify our shallowness in reinforcing the good? Does lack of authority justify the promotion of vanity? Should the lack of statesmen allow for the emergence of voices that are not mature enough to handle their own responsibility? Have the results of opinion polls and social media memes become a permanent dictate of our choices? Does the market really need only those who are convinced of their inherent right to convenience and who do not realize that they also have duties, however uncomfortable they are? Are we really able to smother the feelings of our objective and tangible responsibilities so efficiently, sitting peacefully behind the door of our “incapacity to do anything” even with respect to the biggest tragedies?

In a culture which tries to live without being conscious of death, is there still any place for the commemoration of victims? Does the cacophony of individual and equally important stories – to which everyone is naturally entitled – still entail a liberating moral message? Does the total of human self-satisfaction constitute the most efficient measure of good in this world?

Seeing, at a glance, how absurdly unmatched to modern challenges education has become, why are we unable to change its meaning? Is the proportion between the number of lessons like Mathematics compared to classes such as Ethics; the knowledge of using mass media wisely; Civics and the knowledge of internal threats for society; the ability to organize civil opposition; the skills to create aid projects – really justified? Do we really want to build our future on integrals so much? Why does the history we teach remain only a safe study of the past, whilst matching all present circumstances, without presenting any distinct correlations with the current world and the increasingly insecure future?

We do not want to answer these questions ourselves, so it is easier to put them away, ridicule or discredit them. And it does not matter what is happening in Congo, Myanmar or in a neighbouring district or stadium. This does not change the fact that our children – who seem the future of everything we should care for – learn more about sacrifice, dignity, responsibility or ideals from the new “Star Wars” film than from ourselves or at school. Apathy has embraced us not because we do not see great visions for the future, but because we have veiled the image of our shared, common – even the closest – past.

This apathy is so deep that today – maybe for the first time in the history of mankind – while assessing the course of events in so many places, distant and close to us, it is so difficult for us to distinguish what still constitutes peace from what has already become war. Memory and responsibility do not match anymore. This is how our entire civilization is now, at its own request, deprived of its own experience. Are we going to let Auschwitz become part of History? Or should we perhaps move it to the Mathematics section?"