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Struggle to mark horror of Auschwitz - Leaders, survivors to pay tribute (CHICAGO TRIBUNE) By Tom Hundley OSWIECIM, Poland 01/27/05)Source: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0501270319jan27,1,3035296.story?coll=chi-newsnationworld-hed CHICAGO TRIBUNE CHICAGO TRIBUNE Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
OSWIECIM, Poland -- On Jan. 27, 1945, Soviet soldiers from the 1st Ukrainian Front liberated the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Sixty years later, leaders from more than 40 nations will gather Thursday beside the snow-covered ruins of the camp´s Crematorium No. 2 to mark the occasion.

Tribute will be paid to the victims and survivors. There will be speeches and somber music as comfortable societies attempt to grasp some meaning in the systematic murder of 1.1 million people, to find something ennobling in the agonies of this place.

But in the end, there is nothing ennobling about Auschwitz.

"There are two options," said Michael Schudrich, an American who is chief rabbi of Poland.

"We can say Auschwitz is so horrible, it should just be buried and forgotten; so horrible, there is no purpose in gathering together," he said. "Or we can ask ourselves: What would those murdered at Auschwitz want? What is the way that we can most effectively pass their message on to the next generation?"

To refer to this anniversary as the "liberation" of Auschwitz is a bit of a misnomer. For most of the 60,000 inmates of the camp, the approach of the Soviet army a week earlier meant the beginning of a long "death march" to concentration camps inside Germany.

For Marian Turski, an 18-year-old Jew from Lodz who was active in the underground resistance, it would be worse than anything he experienced in Auschwitz.

"In my case, we walked two days and one night to a rail junction at Wodzislaw," he said. Stragglers were shot; others were felled by the fierce Polish winter.

"At Wodzislaw we were loaded into cattle cars, 120 in each car, for the second part of our journey. To Buchenwald," said Turski, a historian who now lives in Warsaw.

Although the distance to Buchenwald was only 250 miles, the journey took three days. The prisoners were given no food or water.

"When we got to Buchenwald, there were 36 dead bodies in my car--36 out of 120," he said.

A few days later, when the first Soviet troops entered the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau, they found about 7,000 prisoners who were left behind.

Although the Soviets were welcomed as liberators, it was only a matter of weeks before they began plundering and raping those they liberated. Women who survived the Nazis were raped to death by Soviet soldiers, according to survivor testimonies.

Ten thousand Soviet war prisoners were sent to Auschwitz in 1941, and a grim fate awaited the survivors among them. Stalin decreed that there were no Soviet "prisoners," only "betrayers of the motherland." Thus classified, they were rounded up and sent to languish in Siberia.

Many in Eastern Europe saw the Soviets "not as liberators but as aggressors--it was a second occupation," said Piotr Setkiewicz, director of the archives at the Auschwitz-Birkenau state museum.

Little notice at first

At the time, the liberation of Auschwitz drew little notice in the Western press. Even Pravda, the Soviet newspaper, did not pick up the story until nearly a week later.

Soon after the Pravda story, a Soviet film crew arrived at Auschwitz. They restaged the liberation using real soldiers and real inmates, according to Setkiewicz. The soldiers wore clean uniforms, and the inmates greeted them with bouquets.

Not until several months later, in April 1945, when advancing American and British troops liberated the camps at Dachau, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen did the West began to comprehend the enormity of the Nazis´ crime against the Jews.

The Russians had a different interpretation.

"One of the least appealing aspects of the Soviet analysis of Auschwitz, now and later, was the downplaying of the scale of suffering endured by the Jews in the camp; the emphasis was on referring to everyone who died as collectively ´victims of fascism,´" Laurence Rees wrote in a new history.

As Jewish survivors attempted to make their way back to homes in Poland, Slovakia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, they discovered how much things had changed. Strangers were living in their houses. Strangers had taken over their shops. In cities and towns where they had coexisted separately but peacefully with Christians for years, they now found open hostility.

Many decided to start new lives in North America or Israel. Turski, who survived a second death march from Buchenwald to Terezin was a committed socialist determined to stay in Poland.

"I was offered a chance to study in the United States or Canada, but I chose a more difficult path," he said. "I wanted to build a new society, to rebuild the country."

Some of the most prominent Nazi leaders were tried for war crimes. Rudolf Hoess, the first commandant of Auschwitz, was captured and sent back to the camp as a prisoner. He was hanged next to Crematorium No. 1 on April 16, 1947.

But very few of the estimated 6,500 members of the SS who ran Auschwitz-Birkenau with such sickening efficiency were ever brought to justice. According to historian Rees, only about 750 SS members received punishment of any kind.

The survivors were tormented by demons. Even some of those who seemed to have built normal, happy lives for themselves in adopted homelands found, in their old age, that repressed traumas bubbled to the surface and claimed their sanity.

At the end of the 20th Century, a final indignity was heaped upon the victims when it came to light that banks in Switzerland and elsewhere profited hugely by hiding the victims´ deposits from their rightful heirs.

As the representative of the nation credited with liberating Auschwitz, Russian President Vladimir Putin is one of three heads of state who will give a speech at Thursday´s ceremony. Given the increasingly anti-democratic tendencies of his regime, the choice makes many uncomfortable.

The two other speakers are Israeli President Moshe Katsav and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski. Vice President Dick Cheney will represent the U.S.

Pope sends representative

Pope John Paul II, whose boyhood home is near Auschwitz and who worked briefly as a slave laborer under the Nazis, has dispatched Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the archbishop of Paris, as his representative.

The choice of Lustiger, a former Jew whose mother died at Auschwitz, has been criticized by some Jewish leaders who say that while Lustiger is widely respected, conversion to Catholicism is hardly the message that most Jews would draw from Auschwitz.

Despite the conflicting interpretations and lingering injustices, despite all the inadequacies in attempting to commemorate Auschwitz, it must be done.

"Auschwitz is a symbol of the Holocaust. It is a place of national tragedy. It is a place of individual sorrow. How do you create the space for all of those feelings and emotions?" asked Schudrich, the rabbi.

"There is no answer," he said. "But I think we must continue to struggle to find meaningful and honest ways to remember what happened there," he said. (Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune 01/27/05)


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