So, I was hiding in the heap of dead bodies because in the last week the crematoria did not function at all. The bodies were just building up higher and higher. So there I was at night time; in the daytime, I was roaming in the camp, and this is how I survived. On January 27, 1945, I was one of the very first; Birkenau was one of the very first camps being liberated.”
— Bert Stern, a Survivor
Seventy-five years ago today, the Red Army stood at the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Soviet soldiers could not believe the harrowing sights unfolding before their eyes: the 7,000 remaining prisoners—human skeletons, just skin and bones, some of them dying These were the sad remnants of 1.3 million people—women, men and children—who had been deported by the Nazis to the largest concentration camp ever constructed, a facility that combined a killing center and slave labor. It is estimated that between 1940 and 1945, at least 1.1 million people died there, some of them gassed; others tortured and shot by the Nazi guards; others succumbing to hunger, cold, disease, and exhaustion.
Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the many concentration camps established by the Nazis, was the culmination of the Nazi plan to dominate a Europe populated by a pure Aryan race. The term “Holocaust” has been used to describe the mass-murder of six million Jews, killed simply because they were Jews. It is true that not only Jews were deported and murdered in Auschwitz: other targeted groups included the Roma, the homosexuals, and the physically and mentally handicapped. All these people were considered threats to racial purity, but for the Jews, the plan was different; it was total and final. Even seventy-five years later it is difficult to understand the frenzy and determination of the Nazis and their collaborators in their effort to wipe from the face of the earth a whole people, to perform what became known as “the final solution”, to eradicate any remnant of their culture and civilization. And perhaps most difficult to understand is that as the Nazi mass-murder machine took its daily toll, the world stood silent.
It would be a dangerous error to think that the Holocaust was simply the result of the insanity of a group of criminal Nazis. On the contrary, the Holocaust was the culmination of centuries of hatred and discrimination targeting the Jews. The hatred propagated by the
Roman Catholic Church, the persecutions and expulsions, the auto-da-fé of the Holy Inquisition, and the pogroms in Eastern Europe—all these were the fate of the European Jews for two millennia, since the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and deportation of the Jews from their homeland.
Even in the case of the Holocaust, the Nazis did not move immediately to trying to exterminate Jews; they moved step-by-step to dehumanize Jews, so that when the “final” step came it was accepted by the masses. Throughout the 1930s, after the Nazis took power in Germany, they began with laws that required the Jewish people to be gradually removed from the rest of the population, stripping them of their citizenship and their human rights. Jews were barred from the professions, their shops looted and confiscated, their synagogues destroyed and their books burned. Then Jews were forced into squalid ghettos or confined to camps where they were used as slave labor. And all of this was accompanied by systematic incitement and racial indoctrination that portrayed Jews as sub-human, no more than cockroaches, who polluted the pristine German society.
Albert Speer was one of Hitler’s closest confidants, the Minister of the Armaments and War Production in the Third Reich. He was sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment at the Nuremberg Trials. In an affidavit, sworn and signed at Munich in 15 June 1977, Speer wrote:
“The hatred of the Jews was Hitler’s driving force and central point, perhaps even the only element that moved him. The German people, German greatness, the Reich, all that meant nothing to him in the final analysis. Thus, the closing sentence of his Testament sought to commit us Germans to a merciless hatred of the Jews even after the apocalyptic downfall.”
Hatred and prejudice were not confined to Germany, however. Such conditions were prevalent in many European nations; had this not been so, the Holocaust would not have been possible. In many conquered states, the Nazis found enthusiastic collaborators in their scheme to rid Europe of Jews. There were also courageous, heroic citizens who endangered their own lives and those of their families to save Jews. We call them the Righteous Gentiles.
For us, citizens of the Free World today, it is difficult to understand the enormity of Auschwitz, and the depth of the cruelty; it is difficult to understand or accept what human beings are capable of doing to each other when motivated by blind prejudice and hatred. After the Holocaust, the world seemed eager to find a more cooperative path. The founding of the United Nations was one expression of that moment. For a while, we thought that hatred of Jews had finally been eradicated. But slowly the demonization of Jews started to come back.
Antisemitism is on the rise again all over Europe and the United States, and anti-Semitic incidents are multiplying. Irrationality and intolerance are back. Jews are being targeted as Jews again in Europe. Jews are being attacked on the streets, in supermarkets, in schools. Synagogues and Jewish businesses are attacked. There are mass-demonstrations, with thousands of people shouting death threats to the State of Israel and to Jews. There is even a revival of Holocaust revisionism, spanning those who minimize the atrocity to those who rewrite history so as to honor the disgraced officials of those dark days.
We are concerned because we know where hatred can lead.
Antisemitism and racism should have no place in the 21rst century. Houses of worship should be places of love, understanding, and healing. Nations should not tell their people to kill in the name of God
Jewish History and consciousness will be dominated for many generations by the traumatic memories of the Holocaust. No people in history has undergone an experience of such violence and depth. For us, to remember is not only a commandment, it is the moral commitment to the sanctity of human life, a commitment to pass on to the next generations the very basic values of acceptance of the Other, of tolerance and understanding.
We remember the Holocaust, because memory is an integral part of our culture. Because memory shapes us. We remember the victims because of the command “Zachor” (Remember).
Remembrance is not an isolated act; it has a moral dimension. The rescuers taught us that even in the hell known as Holocaust, the individual had the choice and the capacity to behave humanely if they cared—and had the courage. We remember because we do not want our past to be our children’s future.