Anniversary of liberation of Auschwitz amidst new fears of violence against Jews

January 28, 2015 7:32 pm

For the dwindling band who still remember the horrors, it was
possibly the last time they would gather to remind the world of their
story.
Surviving inmates of Auschwitz, most in their 90s, marked
the 70th anniversary of its liberation yesterday, laying flowers at the
camp’s “wall of death” where many inmates were shot dead.
The
ceremony in Poland, attended by world leaders amid fears of a resurgence
in anti-Semitism, was expected to be the last major commemoration at
which Auschwitz survivors will be present in numbers.

Yesterday’s Auschwitz visit by 300 survivors is expected to be the last at which large numbers will attend. Picture / AP
Yesterday
just 300 turned up, compared with 1500 who attended the 60th
anniversary. Even those who were just children in the camp are now in
their 70s.
Among them was Arek Hersh, who arrived aged 14, and
who eventually became one of a group of orphans who were resettled in
Windermere in Britain.
Hersh, who now lives in Leeds and still
bears his camp tattoo – B7608 – has made numerous visits to Auschwitz,
usually in the company of parties of schoolchildren on educational
trips.

But he said that no amount of return trips ever diminished the
terror instilled in him during his time there in 1944, when he arrived
with 185 other children. Only one other survived.
“I shudder
every time I think about this place,” Hersh said as he stood in the
shadow of the camp’s barbed wire. “I can’t control the fear.”
Hersh,
85, was categorised as “healthy” by the SS when he arrived at the camp,
and so was spared instant dispatch in its gas chambers. He was taken
out of Auschwitz four days before it was liberated by Soviet troops in
January 1945, and forced on a three-day death march through deep snow to
Buchenwald, the inmates wearing only their striped prison pyjamas.
“People died from cold, and others who fell behind were shot in the back of the head,” he recalled.
“When
I think of all the terrible things that happened to us, how we lived,
how we died – it’s a reminder of what men can do to each other.”
With
the camp covered in heavy snow, inmates and dignitaries at the
commemoration gathered in a giant tent erected over the entrance to
Birkenau, where trains arrived carrying around 1.5 million people – most
of them Jews – to their deaths.
In the surrounding countryside, the railway tracks were illuminated.
With
the emphasis on remembering the experiences of the victims, the foreign
dignitaries present did not make speeches during the commemorations.
However, Steven Spielberg, the Hollywood film director who won an Oscar
for the Holocaust drama Schindler’s List, screened a film about life in
Auschwitz.
Hanging heavily over the event was a sense that some
of the dark forces that led to World War II were stalking Europe once
again, with Jews targeted by the recent Islamist attacks in Paris, and
Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.
The Polish Government, which has
been a leading critic of Vladimir Putin’s military meddling in Ukraine,
made a point of not sending him a full diplomatic invitation to the
ceremony. Instead, he was represented by his chief of staff, Sergei
Ivanov.
As he prepared to visit the camp, Spielberg condemned
“the growing effort to banish Jews from Europe”. His remarks were backed
by President Francois Hollande of France, who sought to reassure his
country’s 550,000-strong Jewish community in the wake of the attack by
Islamist gunmen that killed four Jews in a kosher supermarket in Paris.
“You,
French people of the Jewish faith, your place is here, in your home.
France is your country,” he said, speaking earlier in the day at the
Paris Shoah memorial to French Jewish victims of the Nazis.
The
renewed sense of urgency over the need to fight anti-Semitism was summed
up by another survivor, Roman Kent, who is president of the
International Auschwitz Committee. “We survivors do not want our past to
be our children’s future,” he said.
He also called for the world to observe what he described as an 11th Commandment – “You should never be a bystander”.

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