Monday, January 27 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Russian soldiers. The date has also been recognized in many countries as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year approximately 300 survivors of the camp, according to the BBC, made the pilgrimage to mark the occasion. They were joined by political leaders and dignitaries of many countries.
Originally, Auschwitz was constructed as an Army barracks. Then, beginning in May, 1940 it was used to hold Polish political prisoners. Exterminations began in September 1941. Jews, gypsies and other prisoners were transported there from early 1942 until late 1944. It was the largest of the concentration camps and, in my opinion, the most notorious. The camp was operational until January, 1945.
It is not known for certain how many people were murdered at the camp. First of all, despite the Germans’ reputation for maintaining meticulous records, some of the prisoners were not registered. Secondly, towards the end of the war the Nazis, perhaps sensing they were going to lose, began to cover their tracks. For example, on Himmler’s orders mass graves were opened, the prisoners’ remains were burned, and the ashes were scattered so as to prevent an accurate count of the victims. Additionally, as Russian troops approached, the guards tried to evacuate the camp to hide the evidence. They evacuated most of the prisoners to other camps. The relatively few that remained were liberated by the Russians. Estimates of those murdered at Auschwitz are as high as four million (by the Russian government), but the most reliable and generally accepted number is 1.1 million, approximately 90% of which were Jews. The remainder included gypsies, communists, homosexuals, political prisoners and other dissidents or “undesirables.” This estimate was determined after much detailed research by Franciszek Piper, who is a polish scholar, historian, author and recognized expert on the history of Auschwitz. In his analysis, Mr. Piper went so far as to analyze timetables of train arrivals and deportation records. Approximately 1/6th of all the Jews who perished in the Holocaust were murdered at Auschwitz.
Not all of them were actually gassed. Some died as the result of disease, starvation, medical experiments, or were simply worked to death. Moreover, some German companies, such as Krupp and Siemens, maintained their own “subcamps” staffed by slave labor dedicated to manufacturing their products. Estimates of the number of such camps vary, but there were several dozen whose laborers worked in venues such as factories, mines, chemical plants, and foundries. The workers tried to retaliate as best they could through sabotage and work slowdowns, with some success.
This reunion is likely the last one that will include survivors. As Kevin Connolly, a reporter for the BBC denotes, most of them were mere children during the war, but today they are in the 80s or 90s, and their time is running out. For that reason, many of them brought along their children and even grandchildren whom they hope will keep the memories of the Holocaust alive after they are gone.
Some survivors that made the trip, like Marcel Tuchman, 93, feel they “owe[s] a debt” to those who were exterminated. Others, like Isabelle Choko of Paris, have found it difficult to confront the memories of their experiences, even after all these years. She told NBC News that she had maintained silence of her ordeal for decades. Now, she was there to face them and, hopefully exorcise them. “I had only one solution in front of me [she told NBC]. It was to live, love, work, have children, [and] have joy in my life…… because it is only those sentiments that allow you to survive.”
There are many more stories, too many to relate here. The best way we can honor both the victims and the survivors is to keep the memories alive. There are various documentaries appearing on TV this week. I highly recommend HBO’s “Night Will Fall,” which includes interviews of actual survivors plus actual footage shot in 1945 by liberating British, US and Russian troops. It was edited by Sidney Bernstein and Alfred Hitchcock, among others, and contains the most vivid and horrifying film of the camps and the victims I have ever seen. Some parts are very painful to watch, but, at the same time, very necessary.
Remember, NEVER FORGET!