“Liberation Day was the greatest day in my life. I shall also never forget it.” – Rose Kaplovitz
January 27th marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945. United Nations Resolution 60/7 established the date as an international day of remembrance with the first commemoration ceremony occurring in 2006. The Resolution also rejects all forms of Holocaust denial and ensures the preservation of sites used for the Final Solution. Despite the pain still felt, the memory of the Holocaust must be kept alive so that we, as a global community, never again allow such a tragedy to occur.
Near the end of World War II, as the Soviet forces approached the Auschwitz complex, SS officers began to evacuate the camp, killing thousands and forcing nearly 60,000 prisoners to march from the camp. Over 15,000 died during the death marches from Auschwitz. When the Soviets eventually liberated the complex, more than 7,000 prisoners still remained, mostly ill and dying. Bart Stern describes that he managed to survive by “hiding out in the heap of dead bodies because in the last week when the crematoria didn’t function at all, the bodies were just building up higher and higher.”
Of those who survived the death marches, many were so weak from the arduous journey that they could hardly move. Susan Pollock explained that “I remember crawling out of [the barracks] – because by that time I was too weak to walk, but I couldn’t bear to stay among the corpses any longer…I was trembling and virtually lifeless, lying near the barracks, the stench of corpses everywhere, and unable to walk or lift myself up, when they arrived with a little ambulance. I don’t think I was able to talk to the soldier who approached me, my comprehension has long gone, but I remember the gentleness in him.” Liberators managed to bring human dignity back to those who had long been treated more like animals.
Of Auschwitz, survivor Irene Weiss described that “‘[It] is not actually on earth.’ It was a system of masters and salves, gods and subhumans.” Before arriving in the concentration camp, “we had been absolutely unaware of a place such as Auschwitz. It was a stunning reversal of the life we had had up until then. And I cannot emphasize enough how utterly scary it is to be at the mercy of your fellow human beings. As a child I could not understand what we had done to deserve going there.” To this day, Mrs. Weiss insists that the only way to cope with such trauma is to keep it at a distance. For many survivors, the Holocaust remains a reality held at arm’s length so that its tendrils cannot once again break their spirits or consume their lives.
Recalling her liberation during a death march through Czechoslovakia, Gerda Klein describes how she prayed for her freedom for six years. “I couldn’t absorb the wonder of, perhaps, freedom. Until crushing, almost overwhelming, joy by seeing a strange car coming down – no longer green. The white star of the American Army on its hood and two men in unfamiliar uniforms.” One of the soldiers approached her and – frightened – she immediately told him, “We are Jewish, you know.” He responded “So am I,” which Mrs. Klein describes as the greatest moment in her life. The soldier then asked if he could see the other ladies and she directed him to a nearby building where the sick women were resting. “He opened the door for me and let me proceed him. He restored me to humanity again.” Within a year, she and the soldier married and have remained together happily since that day.
During the Holocaust, human dignity was ripped from millions in the cruelest way imaginable. Liberation offered hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children an opportunity to move forward from their experiences and share them with the world. We are fortunate to have such inspirational stories of perseverance and strength to educate generations that cannot remember such a time. Yad Vashem’s documentary Our Living Legacy reminds us that “The Holocaust, which established the standard for absolute evil, is the universal heritage of all civilized people.”
While we have avoided death tolls of the same magnitude, genocides have continued to plague communities around the world such as the conflicts in Rwanda, Armenia, Bosnia, Argentina, Cambodia, Syria, and Myanmar. International Holocaust Remembrance Day must be more than a memorial. Educator’s Institute for Human Rights has done amazing work in educating teachers and students from regions recovering from genocide about the Holocaust, the need for tolerance, and the inherent importance of respect for human rights. As we recall the tales of death and liberation, this history must also serve as our renewed motivation to act against injustices and genocides still occurring today.