The world remembers (GUARDIAN UK) Ian Traynor in Auschwitz 01/28/05)
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White snow and black iron, white birches and black stone, white hair
and black hats of the last witnesses: Auschwitz yesterday was a
monochrome tableau drained of colour except for the brown brick of
the barracks where hundreds of thousands waited to be murdered.
Several hundred survivors and the few living liberators of the death
camp converged on the geometric expanse of barracks, furnaces,
watchtowers and barbed wire that started to give up its awful secrets
to an exhausted Europe 60 years ago.
Political leaders, royals and clergymen converged on the sprawling
complex on the flat land between the rivers Vistula and Sola in
southern Poland for the largest and last such commemoration of the
wickedness that humans can inflict on one another.
For many of those bearing witness in the heart of Europe´s darkness,
this was a final farewell and an attempt at a last act of catharsis
through private ritual, a dread-filled pilgrimage back to the
nightmare years of their youth. Survivors in their 70s and 80s came
from nearby Ukraine and faraway Venezuela, from Poland itself and
Canada, from Israel, of course, and from Britain.
Some came eagerly, determined to confront past horrors. Some were
intensely reluctant and frightened, but showed up out of a sense of
duty and also the feeling that this was some kind of last chance.
Olly Ritterband made it from Copenhagen to the black iron gates of
the death camp. Then she could go no further. "I don´t want to go
into the camp. I just can´t do it. Enough is enough," said the 81-
year-old Transylvanian Jew who survived internment at Auschwitz but
who lost 70 family members here and in other Nazi concentration
Also 81, Zygmunt Soboleski, a Polish Catholic interned at Auschwitz
for almost five years, paid for her trip from Calgary in Canada,
driven by the urge to remember and to warn a world he thinks is
sinking into amnesia.
"It´s amazing," he said. "So many young people have never heard of
the word Auschwitz. We´re so obsessed with the tsunami. But more
people were being killed here every month and nobody cared a damn
The first blizzards of 2005 blanketed the camp in a deep covering of
snow, adding to the hush. The ageing survivors hobbled down the
paths, some wearing the grey-and-white striped caps of the
concentration camp inmate, to stand in temperatures touching minus
Russian, American, Jewish and Polish leaders paid tribute to the
survivors. A German Romany leader made a poignant speech about the
relatively ignored mass murder of Gypsies.
Three of the seven surviving Red Army soldiers who were the first
allied soldiers to fight their way to the gates of the camp on
January 27 1945 were also in attendance, their chests proud with
medals. The Polish president, Alexander Kwas niewski, added to their
If the dominant note was one of remembrance and bearing witness, the
political leaders were also not slow to draw pointed parallels with
"The story of the camps reminds us that evil is real and must be
called by its name and must be confronted," the US vice-president,
Dick Cheney, declared. President Vladimir Putin of Russia was even
more explicit, declaring that terrorism is the new fascism. "The
terrorists have picked up the baton of the executioners in black
uniforms," he stated.
"We can only preserve our civilisation by dismissing all secondary
disagreements and rallying against the common enemy, like we did in
the second world war."
For Viktor Yushchenko, the new president of neighbouring Ukraine,
yesterday´s ceremonies were of a personal nature. His father was
Auschwitz prisoner number 11367. "This is a sacred place for me and
my family. I came here with my children and I hope to come here with
my grandchildren." Under his presidency, he vowed: "There will never
again be a Jewish question in my country."
The problem of contemporary anti-Jewish prejudice, especially in
Europe, was a thread that ran through the speeches of the Israeli and
Jewish leaders, as well as being voiced by ageing camp survivors.
Moshe Katsav, the president of Israel, said: "We fear anti-semitism.
We fear Holocaust denial. We fear a distorted approach by the youth
of Europe. We call upon the European Union: do not let Nazism dwell
in the imaginations of the young generations as a horror show."
Survivors said they had come to Auschwitz partly to sound the alarm
for younger people lacking awareness of the war years. "The world
never learns. There´s nothing new under the sun," said Trudy Spira, a
camp survivor living in Venezuela. "I just don´t like it when they
compare the Holocaust with any other event since, before, or after."
The reasons for such sentiment are not hard to find in a place where
the gold teeth fillings of Jewish victims were smelted down, and
women and children became the human guinea pigs for the deranged
medical experiments of SS doctors. Of the estimated 1.5 million
murdered over five years at Auschwitz, 93% were Jews. And yet, until
democracy came to Poland 15 years ago, the information listed at the
camp museum described the victims only by nationality.
Last night, as three hours of speeches and ceremonies came to a
close, the dark skies over Auschwitz were lit up by a corridor of
fire along a mile of railway track that brought the trains to the gas
chambers. The ceremonies had opened with the sound of a train
arriving at the point where the prisoners were "selected".
Mrs Ritterband, although she could not step inside Auschwitz, was
none the less satisfied that she had come, a final gesture of
closure. She bears no ill will towards the Germans, she said. Indeed,
the main lesson she has learned from the evil she survived 60 years
ago is that hatred is the biggest enemy of life.
"I wanted to live. I wanted to continue living. And to do that it is
important not to hate." (Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers
Limited 2004 01/28/05)
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