Survivors gather at Auschwitz, mark 70 years since liberation – Los Angeles Times
Roman Kent paused briefly, as if he himself still needed convincing.
“You are in the German concentration camp in Auschwitz,” he told the audience — words that, even after 70 years, still have the power to evoke horror.
Kent, a former Auschwitz inmate who was born in Poland, was among nearly 300 Holocaust survivors who joined international leaders Tuesday at the former Nazi extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau to commemorate the 70th anniversary of their liberation.
The anniversary culminated in a ceremony housed in a massive tent seating thousands. Behind the podium stood the brick facade of a building in Birkenau, its entrance open. In the distance, through a drizzle of snow, stood guard towers and barracks.
Auschwitz, known by its survivors as a city of death, has come to symbolize human brutality in its most sophisticated and horrific form. The sprawling complex, which includes Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau, was the site of the murder of more than 1.1 million people (some estimates say as many as 1.5 million), approximately 900,000 of them Jews.
The commemoration Tuesday was considered significant because it is likely to be the last time that many survivors—most now in their 80s and 90s—will be able to participate
Over the course of the day, survivors walked through the camps, their arms often interlocked with close family who accompanied them. Some pulled up sleeves to show the inmate numbers tattooed on their forearms. They remembered, some for the first time in years, what had happened over 70 years ago.
“I normally have been able to separate myself from the whole idea of what occurred 70 years ago; it’s a lifetime ago, really,” said David Wisnia, an 88-year-old survivor who now lives in Philadelphia. “But this is the first time, last night, sleeping in that place right around here, where I had a horrible dream. I woke up in the middle of the night and looked out the window and thought that I was back in Birkenau in cellblock 14, where I started in 1942.”
Auschwitz is now a museum and the buildings and exhibitions that stand are stark reminders of the past. But Halina Birenbaum, an Auschwitz survivor, writer and poet, reminded the audience in a stream-of-consciousness speech that the barbarity of the place cannot be fully understood by those who weren’t there.
“Auschwitz was a bottomless pit of hell that I couldn’t get out of … stinking mud, some figures muddling through, cannot tell whether they are old or young, man or woman, lousy wet rags, with numbers, with shaved heads, gray bony faces with legs like sticks…. I remembered there was a Christmas tree, and on the other side, there was fire, fire that burned bodies. I was there, so very much there,” Birenbaum said.
Soon, the memory of Auschwitz and of the Holocaust will only be recalled in books, documents and recorded interviews. Implicit in the presence of survivors at the ceremony Tuesday was the insistence that what happened must be remembered — that indifference was the enemy.
“We do not want our past to be our children’s future,” said Kent, a New Yorker who is president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous and chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.
There was an eruption of applause and Kent grimaced.
“You interrupted me with applause, but I want to say this again: We do not want our past to be our children’s future,” he said, his voice cracking.
Both Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and American philanthropist Ronald Lauder drew connections between past and present.
Komorowski cited author Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor, who wrote that “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” Lauder warned of increasing anti-Semitism in Europe. “Once again, young Jewish boys are afraid to wear yarmulkes on the streets on Paris, London, Budapest, and even Berlin,” he said.
Against the grim backdrop, there was also talk of hope, of closure, of God and of love.
At a Mass held in Auschwitz’s Center for Dialogue and Prayer, Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz asked a question that has been asked many times in the years since the Holocaust: “What does God think of this? Where was he when this happened?”
Wisnia, the survivor from Philadelphia, said that his fear of God and his love of music kept him going in Auschwitz. “I’m a believer,” he said.
Music has played a central part in Wisnia’s life before, during and after his Auschwitz internment. As a young boy, he was a member of the vaunted boys’ choir at the Great Synagogue in Warsaw. Once in Auschwitz, he sang for prisoners and SS officers alike, and later became a cantor, a position he serves in his synagogue today.
“Music is my life,” he said.
After a prayer led by Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Wisnia sang “El malei rachamim,” a Jewish funeral prayer, altering the lyrics so that it included mention of Auschwitz and Birkenau.
Rom is a special correspondent
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