At the memorial event in the former Nazi extermination camp, the eyewitnesses will probably have their say for the last time. The political controversies still remain in the background.
There are life-marked people sitting in the front row in Auschwitz-Birkenau, many over ninety years old, in wheelchairs, some of them nodding off again and again. Around 200 Holocaust survivors are among the last remaining 75 years after the Red Army liberated the extermination camp. “I will probably not experience another anniversary,” explains 93-year-old Marian Turski. “But that’s the way it is. So excuse me if there are feelings.”
The Jewish Pole is one of the few who survived Auschwitz, this death factory where more than a million people were murdered, almost all of them Jews, but also Polish and Soviet prisoners, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals. Turski also survived the death march on which the Nazis forced 60,000 prisoners in January 1945. He was only 32 kilos and half dead. “But I’m one of those who are still alive,” calls the little man from the podium at the entrance gate in Birkenau into the huge white tent.
Victim instead of politicians
The speeches by Turski and three other survivors form the emotional climax of a memorial service that was supposed to overcome trenches. Some, like Batsheva Dagan, looked visibly frail when they told their stories. She hardly recognized herself more than she looked at herself in the mirror after the liberation, without hair and emaciated to the bones. But she survived because, as part of her forced labor, she had to search the murdered person’s luggage and find food there. “Can you do that?” She asked in a failing voice. “Back then everything was possible.”
Numerous heads of state and government were present, including the presidents of Israel, Germany and Poland, Rivlin, Steinmeier and Duda, the Hungarian Prime Minister Orban or the Dutch royal couple. They represented the most important countries from which the perpetrators and victims came. However, only Andrzej Duda was allowed to speak, and he too chose a moderate rhetoric, paid tribute to the victims and promised to preserve the memories and memorials in his country in the future.
The tonality of the memorial event thus stood out from the controversy of recent weeks that overshadowed the Auschwitz anniversary. The main responsibility for this lies with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since December, he has deliberately provoked statements about Poland’s alleged complicity at the beginning of the Second World War. Nevertheless, he was allowed to speak at an event in the Yad Vashem Memorial on Thursday – in contrast to the Polish President Andrzej Duda. The latter therefore canceled his participation.
The memorial in Israel, which, like the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, sees itself as an apolitical actor, was thus drawn into a conflict between Moscow, Warsaw and Jerusalem, which distracted much attention from the victims of the Holocaust. Poland, which lost an estimated six million people under German occupation – Jews and non-Jews – also plays a problematic role under its national conservative leadership. It is undisputed that the country fell victim to both National Socialist and Soviet aggression in 1939. Dealing with the behavior of parts of the population towards the Jews is more difficult. With the Holocaust Law, the government wanted to punish the claim that «Poland» had worked with the occupiers in 2018. This led to a diplomatic crisis in relation to Israel, the consequences of which have not been overcome despite the weakening of the bill. This was also evident before the celebration on Monday, when the Israeli president publicly reminded his counterpart Duda that many Poles had participated in the Holocaust or watched passively.
Yesterday and today
There were no such overtones at the memorial event itself, but there was talk of today’s politics there too. Ronald Lauder, the President of the World Jewish Congress, went the furthest. Anti-Semitism is back in his home country, the United States. “In 2020 we will hear the same lies about the Jews that the Nazis used in their propaganda,” he said with conviction. Attacks against Israel, for example in the form of one-sided condemnations in UN resolutions, were motivated by hatred of the Jews. “Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism,” he said shortly.
Marian Turski, born as Moshe Turbowicz, expressed himself in a more differentiated manner. “It could happen again,” he warned in a speech related to the Holocaust. The still-youthful former journalist called on his own children and grandchildren not to watch when minority rights are undermined. “Do not be indifferent,” a fellow sufferer called the 11th commandment, which he derived from Auschwitz. “And only if you defend your constitutions, your laws and rights, your democracy, can you defeat evil.”