Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp gathered Monday for commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp, using the testimony of survivors to warn about the signs of rising anti-Semitism and hatred in the world today.
In all, more than 200 survivors of the camp are expected, many of them elderly Jews who have travelled far from homes in Israel, the United States, Australia, Peru, Russia, Slovenia and elsewhere. Many lost parents and grandparents in Auschwitz or other Nazi death camps, but today were being joined in their journey back by children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.
Most of the 1.1 million people murdered by the Nazi German forces were Jewish, but among those imprisoned there were also Poles and Russians, and they will also be among those at a commemoration Monday led by Polish President Andrzej Duda and the head of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder.
Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet army on Jan. 27, 1945.
World leaders gathered in Jerusalem last week 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 Duda boycotting it in protest after Putin claimed that Poland played a role in triggering World War II. Duda had wanted a chance to speak before or after Putin to defend his nation’s record in face of those false accusations, but he was not giving a speaking slot in Jerusalem.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is expected at the event at Auschwitz, which is located in southern Poland, a region under German occupation during the war.
Organizers of the event in Poland, the Auschwitz-Birkenau state memorial museum and the World Jewish Congress, have sought to keep the spotlight on survivors.
“This is about survivors. It’s not about politics,” Lauder said Sunday as he went to the death camp with several survivors.
Lauder warned that leaders must do more to fight anti-Semitism, including by passing new laws to fight it.
On the eve of the commemorations, survivors, many leaning on their children and grandchildren for support, walked through the place where they had been brought in on cattle cars and suffered hunger, illness and near 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.
For some, it is also the burial ground for their parents and grandparents, and they will be saying kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
“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 who came from Australia, joined by three more generations now scattered around the globe.
She recalled being brought in from a ghetto in Czechoslovakia by cattle car, being stripped of her clothes, shaved and put in a gas chamber. By some miracle, the gas chamber that day did not work, and she went on to survive slave labor and a death march.
A 96-year-old survivor, Jeanette Spiegel, was 20 when she was brought to Auschwitz, where she spent nine months. Today she lives in New York City and is fearful of rising anti-Semitic violence in the United States.
“I think they pick on the Jews because we are such a small minority and it is easy to pick on us,” she said, fighting back tears. “Young people should understand that nothing is for sure, that some terrible things can happen and they have to be very careful. And that, God forbid, what happened to the Jewish people then should never be repeated.”