Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Auschwitz 70 years on: a different place, yet memories of its horror endure

January, 27, 1945, was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the survivors of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. We should never forget the crime of genocide committed by the Hitler regime, the essence of state terrorism. 

We should also remember the Romany, who too were sought to be annihilated by the Nazis.

They had come back, some three hundred of them, but this was not the Planet Auschwitz they remembered. The Auschwitz of their memories was a place where the rules of normal life were upended, where the moral laws of gravity were reversed, where good was deemed evil and evil deemed good – a place scholars came to speak of as an alien planet. One even writes of “the Auschwitz universe”.

That place was cold and desolate, the very sound of the word – Auschwitz – seeming to contain a bitter frost. It was terminal, in every sense: the final destination of an extended railway and the place where more than 1.1 million people, a million of them Jews, were brought to die. And, at the time, this vast factory of murder was ignored by the world.

The great powers knew of its existence, but did nothing to halt its daily output of the dead. US and British planes flew overhead – the inmates watched them in the sky – but they dropped no bombs to destroy the railway tracks or smash the crematoria that, hour by hour, turned human lives into smoke and ash.

The Auschwitz that welcomed those who returned for Tuesday’s international ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation was utterly different. The survivors were ushered into a heated marquee, given blankets to put across their laps and brought tea when they were thirsty.

The infamous “death gate”, now etched into the western imagination as a symbol of civilisation’s end point, was safely contained inside the tent, beautifully lit. Framed like that, separated from the bleak sky, it lost its power to terrify. Now it required a great effort of the imagination to picture the ritual of “selection” that took place close to that spot, where a flick of a Nazi finger would send new arrivals to the left or to the right, either to work as slaves – or to instant death by gas.

There was chamber music, but now it came from an ensemble of professional players rather than the camp orchestra, made up of musicians forced to play for their lives. You could catch a reminder of the vertical blue-and-white stripes forever associated with Auschwitz inmates’ uniforms, but now they were glimpsed in the pattern of the scarves worn by many survivors, perhaps as a gesture of defiance.

And this time, those nations that ignored the pleas of the condemned 70 years ago paid close attention. Kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers listened to and applauded the testimony of those who had returned. Of the politicians, only the Polish leader was allowed to speak. François Hollande and the German president, Joachim Gauck, were VIPs but were deemed less important than the three aged witnesses who took the podium to tell their stories and urge the next generation to remember.

And it was here, among this group, that the greatest change was visible. They are old now. But almost all survivors alive in 2015 were teenagers or children in Auschwitz. They returned with children’s memories.

Most of those were unbearable to hear. Like the 12-year-old boy whose job at Auschwitz was to greet the cattle trucks when they arrived, pull out the corpses of those who had not survived the journey and remove their clothes. “It was a good job,” Daniel Chanoch recalls now. “Sometimes you would find a sandwich in one of the pockets.” To the inevitable question of how he survived, he tells of drinking snow and eating snails stuck to fenceposts or weeds underfoot. Chanoch says there were only two red lines never to be crossed: never steal bread from a prisoner and never eat human flesh.

He tells this matter-of-factly, and he is not the only one. The journey from Krakow to Auschwitz on a bus provided especially for survivors by the World Jewish Congress proves a revelation. The mood is not especially sombre or contemplative. On the contrary, conversation is bright and constant. And there is a regular strain of Holocaust-specific gallows humour.

When told they need to hurry to catch the bus, one calls out “Schnell!” in the manner of an SS tormentor. Another likens the queues to the “selection”. When they see armed guards with alsatians surrounding the Auschwitz perimeter – security was heavy – one quips: “Ah, so the dogs survived.” Only one subject cannot be laughed off. It is not the hardship they endured or the horrors they witnessed. It is the childhood pain they suffered in losing their parents. So what makes the eyes of the Londoner Renee Salt well is not the memory of Auschwitz itself. Indeed, she has returned often: “It’s a kind of satisfaction that I survived. That I can come here and walk out a free person.”

What brings tears are her last moments with her father and the death of her mother, 12 days after liberation. Salt may be in her 80s now, but what you glimpse in those glittering eyes is the 14-year-old who became an orphan.

This is the strange trick time has played. The aged men and women who embody the Holocaust now, some stooped, others in wheelchairs, are the children of the Shoah. This was the tone of the official ceremony too, with a series of speeches emphasising the human cost and the lessons to be learned. A survivor, Halina Birenbaum – she identified herself by her tattooed number, 48693 – described “the barbed wire, the wooden barracks, the grey-bone faces, the legs like sticks, the lousy rags” but what had lingered was her fear that “maybe one day I will burn in this crematorium and will never experience the true love’s kiss that I dreamed of as a 14-year-old”. She warned that the killing at Auschwitz had gone on for years. “If that was possible, all things are possible.”

Politics intruded, inevitably. The Polish president, Bronislaw Komorowski, was keen to emphasise that the Soviet troops who first liberated the camp were in fact Ukrainian – a not-so-subtle poke at the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who was not present. In an uncompromising speech, the head of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, focused on the persistence of antisemitism in Europe, the fear reawakened by this month’s killings in Paris. “It looks more like 1933 than 2015,” he said.

But they were the supporting cast. The people who mattered were the survivors, gathered together for what may be the last time. Some wanted to talk, some didn’t. Some were full of uplifting messages for the future, others with gloom and pessimism.

Some were solemn during religious prayers, others expressed impatience with rabbis. Some believed there was a reason they survived, others insisted it was random. In other words, they were all different. They were members of no monolithic group but of the infinitely varied human race – the stubborn fact that Auschwitz sought to deny.

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