On Tuesday, more than 3,000 guests gathered in the small Polish town of Oswiecim, about 30 miles west of Krakow, to commemorate and remember what occurred there seven decades ago.
For non-Poles, Oswiecim is better known by its German name, Auschwitz, or Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the largest and most notorious concentration camp systems used by the Nazis to systematically exterminate Jews, Catholics, Gypsies, political prisoners and other “enemies” of the Third Reich during World War II.
This week marked the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, and about 300 survivors, most in their 80s and 90s, attended the commemorative ceremonies.
As with American heroes of WWII, the survivors’ advancing age means that the opportunity to hear the first-hand accounts of those who endured one of the worst human atrocities in modern history is quickly evaporating.
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And, as with the passing of any generation, there is valid fear that when those voices fade, so will some of the truth of their experiences and the lessons of their suffering.
Indeed, the Holocaust’s very existence has been questioned since the first Soviet soldiers came upon the gas chambers and crematoriums of Majdanek in 1944.
The initial disbelief was understandable. It’s hard to conceive having a normal reaction to what the soldiers unearthed.
It wasn’t until British and American soldiers made similar discoveries while pursuing German forces across Europe, that the Allies accepted the painful and grisly truth.
Crematoriums brimming with the ashes of their victims.
Piles of starved, mangled bodies, stacked several stories high, the skin stretched so tightly over their bones it was almost translucent.
The survivors, half-alive, walking aimlessly among the dead and dying.
Meanwhile, stacks of shoes, suitcases, toys and other personal effects were stored in warehouses, often only hundreds of feet from the remains of their previous owners — evidence that the captors believed the only inherent value of their victims was their material possessions.
The HBO documentary Night Will Fall illustrated the urgency of the Allied Forces to record the horrors they discovered. They needed to do so not merely to prove to the world the Holocaust had happened, but to guard against the possibility that the hate behind these atrocities would never again be allowed to manifest itself in this way.
“My instructions were to film everything which would prove that this had actually happened,” said British media baron Sidney Bernstein, then chief of the film section at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force during WWII.
“It’d be a lesson to all mankind, as well,” he added, perhaps hopefully.
Bernstein was responsible for collecting footage at concentration camps and producing a film that would be a teaching tool and serve as a powerful reminder of what is possible when hatred and apathy penetrate a society.
Unfortunately, the film was never completed. In the shifting political landscape of post-war Europe, the Allies decided it would alienate the German populace and the Allies needed Germany’s help in rebuilding the nation and guarding against Soviet expansionism.
The Holocaust has not been forgotten because the film was never made. Indeed, the history books, literature and human memory have more than adequately documented the evolution of the vicious ideology that fed the Nazi extermination.
And society has evolved, mostly for the better.
Speaking at the ceremony at Auschwitz this week, President Bronislaw Komorowski of Poland said, “The memory of Auschwitz means the memory of the importance of freedom, justice, tolerance and respect for human rights.”
But when surveying recent events throughout the world — the massacre of thousands at the hands of Muslim extremists in North Africa, the backlash against immigrants in Europe, and a palpable resurgence of anti-Semitism — there is good reason to worry that the lessons of the Holocaust will not outlast its rapidly diminishing population of survivors
That’s a reality that would be as tragic as the original atrocity itself.
Cynthia M. Allen is a Star-Telegram editorial writer/columnist. 817-390-7166.