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Auschwitz survivors warn of rising anti-Semitism 75 years after camp's liberation

Free Press wire reports | 1/31/2020, 6 a.m.
Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp prayed and wept as they marked the 75th anniversary of its liberation, returning Monday ...
Holocaust survivor Bat-Sheva Dagan, center, is escorted as she places a candle in memory of those who died at the Nazi death camp in Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland. She returned to the camp this week for the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Soviet army’s liberation of the camp. Photo by Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press

Most of the 1.1 million people murdered by the Nazi German forces at the camp were Jews, but other Poles, Russians and Roma were imprisoned and killed there.

World leaders gathered in Jerusalem on Jan. 23 to mark the anniversary in what many saw as a competing observance. Among them were Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, French President Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Prince Charles.

Politics intruded on that event, with President Duda boycotting it in protest after Mr. Putin claimed that Poland played a role in triggering World War II. President Duda had wanted a chance to speak before or after Mr. Putin to defend his nation’s record in the face of those false accusations, but he was not given a speaking slot in Jerusalem.

Those claims come as many Eastern European countries in recent years have been mythologizing their own people’s behavior during the war and suppressing knowledge of wrongdoing, something Poland’s government also has been criticized for.

President Duda said Monday at a news conference that he felt that in Jerusalem, “Polish participation in the epic fight against the Nazis was ignored.”

At the commemoration, he did not mention Russia by name. Yet he stressed how Poland was invaded and occupied, losing 6 million of its citizens in the war, half of them Jews. He recalled how Poland fought the Germans on several fronts, warned the world in vain about the genocide of the Jews, and for decades has been a responsible custodian of Auschwitz and other sites of the German atrocities.

“Distorting the history of World War II, denying the crimes of genocide and negating the Holocaust as well as an instrumental use of the Auschwitz for whatever purposes is tantamount to desecration of the memory of the victims,” President Duda said. “Truth about the Holocaust must not die.”

Among others attending the observances at Auschwitz, which is located in the part of southern Poland that was occupied by Germany during the war, were German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. The United States was represented by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Organizers of the event in Poland, the Auschwitz-Birke-nau state memorial museum and the World Jewish Congress, have sought to keep the spotlight on survivors.

On the eve of the commemorations, survivors, many leaning on their children and grandchildren for support, walked through the camp where they had been brought in on cattle cars and suffered hunger and illness and came close to death. They said they were there to remember, to share their histories with others and to make a gesture of defiance toward those who had sought their destruction.

“I have no graves to go to and I know my parents were murdered here and burned. So this is how I pay homage to them,” said Yvonne Engelman, a 92-year-old Australian who was joined by three more generations now scattered around the globe.

She recalled being brought in from a ghetto in what was then Czechoslovakia by cattle car, being stripped of her clothes, shaved and put in a gas chamber. By some miracle, the gas chamber did not work that day, and she later survived slave labor and a death march.

In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron paid his respects at the city’s Shoah Memorial and warned about rising hate crimes in the country, which increased 27 percent last year.

“That anti-Semitism is coming back is not the Jewish people’s problem: It’s all our problem. It’s the nation’s problem,” President Macron said.

Hundreds of diplomats and guests, along with several Holocaust survivors, joined U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and General Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande for a ceremony at the United Nations in New York.

“May we make a pledge: We stand united against hate,” said Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a Holocaust survivor. “We stand united against anti-Semitism. We stand united against xenophobia and racism and any form of bigotry.”

Secretary-General Guterres said that “solidarity in the face of hatred is needed today more than ever,” and that the United Nations “will stand firm every day and everywhere against anti-Semitism, bigotry and hatred of all kinds.”