Struggle to mark horror of Auschwitz - Leaders, survivors to pay tribute (CHICAGO TRIBUNE) By Tom Hundley OSWIECIM, Poland 01/27/05)
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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
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
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
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
"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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