Oswiecim, Poland — The 300 Auschwitz survivors who commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau at the death camp this week were motivated by two things: a heartfelt need for some closure and the desire — some called it a mission — to warn the world that the anti-Semitism and hatred that spawned the Shoah are still all around us.
Prior to, during and following the tearful ceremony, held in a huge heated tent in front of the camp’s infamous train station, the survivors, including 21 from the U.S., sounded the alarm before anyone who would listen.
“I have a story to tell and I feel it’s important to tell it,” Haim Liss, an Israeli Auschwitz survivor born in Lodz, told The Jewish Week just hours after the Auschwitz ceremony.
Liss, 84, who has spoken to countless youth groups about his wartime experiences, said he feels it is imperative to impart his story to the younger generation.
“I speak to the young people and tell them I was 13 years old when I arrived at Auschwitz after living in the Lodz ghetto. I explain how I was affected and how I lost my mother and my father. If I don’t share this information it will be lost.”
During the commemoration, which was organized by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and the International Auschwitz Council in coordination with the Polish government, speakers urged world leaders to heed the lessons of the Holocaust to recognize and fight the anti-Semitism and xenophobia running rampant in much of the world.
“This awful place stands as a reminder that anti-Semitism leads to death. It is a reminder that propaganda leads to anti-Semitism,” Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, told the survivors and world leaders who assembled in front of the train station that brought more than a million people, the vast majority of them Jews, to the death camp.
“Once again, young Jewish boys are afraid to wear yarmulkes on the streets of Paris and Budapest and London. Once again,” Lauder implored, “Jewish businesses are targeted. And once again, Jewish families are fleeing Europe.”
The World Jewish Congress and The USC Shoah Foundation, housed at the University of Southern California, brought the American survivors to Auschwitz.
Roman Kent, an Auschwitz survivor, told the assembled dignitaries that many people in the world are actively working to minimize the Holocaust.
“Unfortunately, there is an effort by the perpetrators and the deniers and the ignorant, abetted by much of the media, to sanitize the Shoah. They employ language to deny the Holocaust so it appears less wicked and brutal.”
Kent said it “has become routine” to describe murdered Holocaust victims as “lost.”
“Lost does not adequately describe what happened. Eleven million people including six million Jews and 1.5 million Jewish children were not lost or misplaced. These children were murdered, as were the generations that would have followed them. We hear that millions ‘perished,’ but they did not perish in the normal sense of the word. They were viciously murdered and burned in the crematoria.”
By “cleansing” the Holocaust “we lessen the atrocities of the perpetrators. It is now up to the leaders of the world, but there remains so much more to be done. We must be involved and stay involved.”
Kent said that if he had the power he would add an 11th commandment: “You should never, ever, be a bystander.”
During a reception for the survivors the night before the Auschwitz ceremony, the director Steven Spielberg thanked the survivors for having the courage to tell their stories in order to educate future generations.
“We are the custodians of your testimonies. They will survive as long as children can listen to your words,” Spielberg said, referring to the 53,000 Holocaust testimonies his organization, the Shoah Foundation, has taped and archived over the years.
“We are facing anti-Semites, extremists, religious fanatics who want to strip you of your past, of your identity and of your story,” Spielberg said. “There are growing efforts to banish Jews from Europe,” the director said.
The USC Shoah Foundation, the organization he created after filming “Schindler’s List” and talking to survivors, sponsored the visit to Auschwitz of 25 international educators and a dozen students. The group traveled to Poland for a four-day series of workshops on how to utilize the testimony archive for educational purposes; the series culminated with a visit to Auschwitz and conversations with survivors.
“This is a trip that will assure that the next generation will ‘get it,’” said Beth Meyerowitz, a USC professor of psychology who accompanied the Shoah Foundation educators and students to Poland. Meyerowitz said Spielberg spent a day with the group.
Johanna Soderholm, an educator from Finland, contrasted her first trip to Auschwitz in 1987 with her visit this week.
Back then there were pictures on the wall. Now we can hear and see the survivors through their testimonies. We can connect with them and the Holocaust on an emotional level.”
Edgar Wildfeuer, 90, came here this week from Argentina with his daughter, Doris Wildfeuer, wanting to show her both the camp he survived and city where he grew up: Krakow, with its parks and market squares, its church spires and streetcars. They planned to visit the street where he had lived and the synagogue where he had his bar mitzvah.
Wildfeuer, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, lost 32 relatives.
“I was the only one left,” he told JTA.
Still, his daughter said, “He wanted to show me not only that place but the place where he grew up and was happy.”
Charlotte Masters, a 16-year-old student from Washington, D.C., called the visit to Poland “life changing and amazing.”
“Until you come here you can’t really comprehend the enormity of the Holocaust,” she said. “You can’t forget it or look past it.”
Masters said that the people she encountered in Poland also encourage the teachers and students “to focus on the heroes as well.”
If the visit to Auschwitz and the testimonies project taught her one thing, Masters said, “it is that my generation must learn from the past.”