On January 27, 1945, Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland. 75 years later, we are able to reflect on the events of the Holocaust and the atrocities committed at Auschwitz through the lens of time.
When the Nazis heard that Soviet troops would soon arrive at Auschwitz, thousands of prisoners were sentenced to a grueling death march, forced to walk to the city of Wodzislaw, Poland. Those who didn’t die from cold weather, starvation, or exposure were shot if they fell behind. More than 15,000 people were killed on the march to Wodzislaw alone. In total, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum reports that around 1.3 million people were sent to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945. The museum estimates that of those, at least 1.1 million were murdered.
In our current time, many believe that the horrors of the Holocaust could never be repeated. As Marc Santora, Warsaw Bureau Chief for The New York Times wrote, when the world saw the gas chambers at Auschwitz and witnessed the degree of cruelty, torture, and deprivation within its walls, it said: “never again.”
Yet, on the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, world leaders gathered at the site of the former extermination camp amid a global political climate of strife and uncertainty. Anti-Semitism and white supremacist views have been on the rise under the guise of white nationalism. Further unease has followed, the U.S.-Iran tensions, the resurgence of the Hong Kong-Mainland China conflict, and the UK Brexit crisis. And while the world tries to keep from repeating history, the survivors of the Holocaust, the only living memory of a terror that must never be repeated, are dwindling.
As dozens of the most powerful people in the world gathered in Jerusalem earlier this month at the fifth World Holocaust Forum held at Yad Vashem, a Holocaust remembrance center, to combat anti-Semitism, one such survivor warned that even today, they must still be wary of the hatred that fuelled the Holocaust.
“Anti-Semitism is not a Jewish illness, but a non-Jewish one,” said Yehuda Bauer, 95. “It is a cancer that kills and destroys your nations and your societies and your countries. So there are, my friends, 29 million reasons for you to fight anti-Semitism. Not because of the Jews, but to protect your societies from a deadly cancer.
“Don’t you think,” he said at the conclusion of his speech, “that 29 million reasons are enough?”
Now, the tragedy of Auschwitz, of the Holocaust, is at risk of being forgotten. Some factions deny the Holocaust happened at all, trying to write it out of history altogether. Others are even trying to rewrite the past. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, has tried to twist the narrative around the Soviet-German non-aggression pact of 1939 by downplaying Soviet responsibility and blaming Poland for the outbreak of the war, which preceded the invasion of Poland. This stance led Polish President, Andrzej Duda, to abstain from the anti-Semitism event in Jerusalem when Putin was offered a speaking role but Duda was not.
Today, the rising polarization in societies across the globe is putting a strain on the socio-political systems of major world powers. The global revival of radical far-right nationalism has reignited fears of a modern-day Holocaust. One need look no further than the U.S. immigration border crisis to see the danger.
This year, the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum celebrates not only the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, but also the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Stockholm Declaration, which enshrines principles concerning the protection of the environment, and the 15th anniversary of the creation of Holocaust Remembrance Day by the United Nations General Assembly.
Now, more than ever, it is our duty to remember.