- With everlasting regret for the past and “never again” resolve for the future, the United Nations today commemorates the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps, symbol of the Holocaust that slaughtered at least 6 million Jews and others in World War II.
The 191-member General Assembly is holding its first-ever special commemorative session to mark the event which is of particular significance for a world body that Secretary-General Kofi Annan says was in part born out of the ashes of the Holocaust.
Before the day-long session, Mr. Annan and his wife, Nane, hosted a coffee reception for death damp survivors and other distinguished guests, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
The plenary session, laden with symbolism, is to be addressed by Mr. Annan and the Foreign Ministers of Israel and Germany, heirs to the two sides of the Holocaust, as well as senior ministers from a host of other countries from all regions.
It comes three days before the actual anniversary of the liberation by Soviet troops on 27 January 1945 of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp which, with its gas ovens and crematoria, came to epitomize more than any other the horrors and efficiency of the Nazi death machine.
Very nice to see the U.N. getting around to this after only 60 years.
- Coming 30 years after the world body adopted a resolution branding Zionism a “form of racism” — a move that soured UN-Israel relations — the UN’s special session represents a significant event, a Western diplomat said.
[Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Dan] Gillerman, who has often clashed with the United Nations over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said the organization’s decision to hold the event could be linked to an evolving world.
“Maybe we are at a point in history where the changes in the world are reflecting on the United Nations. We do live in a changing world, in a world which hopefully presents us today with a unique window of opportunity to make peace in our region,” he said.
“Maybe that atmosphere has made it possible for 148 countries, including many countries who normally may not have supported such an initiative, to come aboard and we are very gratified that this is happening,” Gillerman said.
The session approved by UN members was sponsored by the United States, Israel, the European Union, Russia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. [AFP]
Besides being a powerful symbolic gesture toward Israel, this is an offical world statement against those who would minimize or even deny the existence of the Holocaust and all that they stand for.
Elie Wiesel spoke with AFP about the gathering:
- “Survivors will doubtless feel that this is their last big ceremony. They are in the process of disappearing,” he told AFP in an interview.
“We used to see each other at weddings, then celebrating children’s birthdays, then children’s marriages, and now we meet at funerals.”
For the writer, this anniversary is also a vivid reminder of his own life in Buchenwald in April 1945.
Seized in his Romanian hometown, young Elie was separated from his mother and sisters in Auschwitz and moved to Buna and then Buchenwald where his father died of dysentery.
“I was convinced I was not going to get out alive,” he recalls.
For him, liberation was “an accident.”
“We were 400 teenagers in our barracks. Suddenly, it arrived. It was not a moment of joy because freedom came with the realization that we were orphans. We simply gathered to say the kaddish, the prayer for the dead.
“With every survivor who leaves us, a fragment of memory is buried,” he added.
However, he does not believe that the memory of the Holocaust is threatened.
“I am not afraid it will be forgotten. I was fearing that at first, but now I don’t, because I know that this is the most documented tragedy in history … I have always believed that whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness himself: children of the survivors, their friends, readers, students.”
On the other hand, said Wiesel, “I am afraid of the trivialization of this memory, especially when one does films. I do not like the word ‘docudrama’ that is so much in fashion.”
Has the world learned its lessons 60 years later? At 76, Wiesel hesitates while admitting balancing between optimism and pessimism.
“The United Nations will hold a special session for the first time, and heads of state will find the time to go to Auschwitz. The lesson is that the world is searching for lessons … But if someone told me in 1945 that I would (be) waging battle against anti-Semitism in 2005, I would not have believed it. The danger therefore is still there.”
For him, indifference is what is corrupting the modern world.
“I know five American presidents,” continued Wiesel, a US citizen who thinks in Yiddish, writes in French and lives his daily life in English. “I asked each of them: Why did not the Allies bomb the railway going to Birkenau? No one can answer that, there is no response.
“Indifference for me is the evil,” he said.
“The opposite of love is not hate but indifference, the opposite of education not ignorance but indifference, the opposite of beauty is not ugliness but indifference, the opposite of life is not death but indifference to life and to death.”
The writer continues to wage his fight for Darfur, against anti-Semitism, and for children.
For him, Prince Harry dressing up in Nazi uniform for a costume party is also a reflection of indifference. Or the fact that 45 percent of Britons, according to a poll, are unaware of Auschwitz.
Another survivor, Samuel Pisar, spoke yesterday in the Washington Post:
- Sixty years ago the Russians liberated Auschwitz, as the Americans approached Dachau. The Allied advance revealed to a stunned world the horrors of the greatest catastrophe ever to befall our civilization. To a survivor of both death factories, where Hitler’s gruesome reality eclipsed Dante’s imaginary inferno, being alive and well so many years later feels unreal.
We the survivors are now disappearing one by one. Soon history will speak of Auschwitz at best with the impersonal voice of researchers and novelists, at worst with the malevolence of demagogues and falsifiers. This week the last of us, with a multitude of heads of state and other dignitaries, are gathering at that cursed site to remind the world that past can be prologue, that the mountains of human ashes dispersed there are a warning to humanity of what may still lie ahead.
….Auschwitz, the symbol of absolute evil, is not only about that past, it is about the present and the future of our newly enflamed world, where a coupling of murderous ideologues and means of mass destruction can trigger new catastrophes.
When the ghetto liquidation in Bialystok, Poland, began, only three members of our family were still alive: my mother, my little sister and I, age 13. Father had already been executed by the Gestapo. Mother told me to put on long pants, hoping I would look more like a man, capable of slave labor. “And you and Frieda?” I asked. She didn’t answer. She knew that their fate was sealed. As they were chased, with the other women, the children, the old and the sick, toward the waiting cattle cars, I could not take my eyes off them. Little Frieda held my mother with one hand, and with the other, her favorite doll. They looked at me too, before disappearing from my life forever.
Their train went directly to Auschwitz-Birkenau, mine to the extermination camp of Majdanek. Months later, I also landed in Auschwitz, still hoping naively to find their trace. When the SS guards, with their dogs and whips, unsealed my cattle car, many of my comrades were already dead from hunger, thirst and lack of air. At the central ramp, surrounded by electrically charged barbed wire, we were ordered to strip naked and file past the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. The “angel of death” performed on us his ritual “selection” — those who were to die immediately to the right, those destined to live a little longer and undergo other atrocious medical experiments, to the left.
….Have we already forgotten?
I also witnessed an extraordinary act of heroism. The Sonderkommando — inmates coerced to dispose of bodies — attacked their SS guards, threw them into the furnaces, set fire to buildings and escaped. They were rapidly captured and executed, but their courage boosted our morale.
As the Russians advanced, those of us still able to work were evacuated deep into Germany. My misery continued at Dachau. During a final death march, while our column was being strafed by Allied planes that mistook us for Wehrmacht troops, I escaped with a few others. An armored battalion of GIs brought me life and freedom. I had just turned 16 — a skeletal “subhuman” with shaved head and sunken eyes who had been trying so long to hold on to a flicker of hope. “God bless America,” I shouted uncontrollably .
In the autumn of their lives, the survivors of Auschwitz feel a visceral need to transmit what we have endured, to warn younger generations that today’s intolerance, fanaticism and hatred can destroy their world as they once destroyed ours, that powerful alert systems must be built not only against the fury of nature — a tsunami or storm or eruption — but above all against the folly of man. Because we know from bitter experience that the human animal is capable of the worst, as well as the best — of madness as of genius — and that the unthinkable remains possible.
In the wake of so many recent tragedies, a wave of compassion and solidarity for the victims, a fragile yearning for peace, democracy and liberty, seem to be spreading around the planet. It is far too early to evaluate their potential. Mankind, divided and confused, still hesitates, vacillates like a sleepwalker on the edge of an abyss. But the irrevocable has not yet happened; our chances are still intact. Pray that we learn how to seize them.
A Soviet footsoldier returns to Auschwitz:
- On Jan. 27, 1945, Yakov Vinnichenko walked through the gates of Auschwitz into a netherworld of ghostly, emaciated women huddled together in dark barracks to prop one another up. “Some tried to kiss us, but it was uncomfortable — you didn’t want to get infected,” the one-time Soviet infantryman recalls.
Vinnichenko was among the first outsiders to glimpse the horror of the concentration camp in southern Poland as the troops of the Soviet 322nd infantry division cut the surrounding barbed wire and swept through.
This week, he and a handful of comrades-in-arms return to Auschwitz to join Vice President Dick Cheney (news – web sites), Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders in honoring the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. It will be his second trip to Auschwitz since the liberation; he traveled there in 2000 to mark the 55th anniversary.
Up to 1.5 million prisoners, most of them Jews, perished in gas chambers or died of starvation and disease at Auschwitz. In all, some 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
By the time Vinnichenko’s unit arrived, most of the prisoners had been evacuated by the Nazis on death marches as they fled toward Germany. About 7,000 were left — “those who couldn’t move,” as Vinnichenko put it.
“They were skin and bones, could hardly stand on their feet. … It’s impossible to describe,” he said.
“They were holding each other up, they couldn’t walk. The Germans just left them behind. They didn’t have time to burn them up, to shoot them.”
….Under communist rule, the Soviet narrative of World War II avoided mention of the Holocaust — a theme that could raise questions about the state’s demonizing of Jews at home and its hostile relations with Israel. Only in the years since the Soviet Union broke up has the destruction of European Jewry won widespread acknowledgment in Russia.
Vinnichenko had seen persecution and cruelty in his own prewar life: In 1933, when he was 7, his father starved to death in the state-induced famine in his native Ukraine that killed up to 10 million people. Three of his uncles were sent to Soviet labor camps; his mother fled to a village near Moscow, leaving him with his grandparents.
“They took the grain away from the peasants. There was nothing to eat. They took the horses, the cows,” Vinnichenko said. “Life was hard until the war.”
He joined the Soviet Army in 1941, at age 15, after the Germans invaded his homeland; there was no other choice.
“Whether you wanted to go or not, they picked you up. No one asked. It was the same on the front; you don’t want to fight, you’re shot dead by your own men,” he said. “The commander’s behind, you’re in front — it’s only in movies that the commander is in front.” [AP]
And finally, the Pope sends a reluctant envoy:
- Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, whose mother was killed in Auschwitz, said on Friday he did not want to visit the death camp but accepted when Pope John Paul named him his representative at ceremonies there next week.
The Roman Catholic archbishop of Paris told journalists his mother and 30 to 40 relatives from his father’s family died in the Nazi concentration camp in southern Poland.
….”I’ve been to Auschwitz once in my life and I do not want to go back again,” said Lustiger, 78, a close associate of the Polish pontiff. “I have no human or spiritual reason to go. If I go, it’s because the pope asked me to.”
Lustiger’s parents were Polish Jews who lived in Paris. He converted from Judaism to Catholicism during the war while hiding with Catholic families from German occupying forces.
….The cardinal, who once was tipped as a possible future pope, said his mother managed to smuggle out a letter to his family before she was sent from France to Auschwitz.
“She said, ‘my children, watch out, they want to kill all of you’,” he recalled.
He said he had seen Nazi anti-Semitism at first hand while on month-long stays in Germany in 1936 and 1937 to learn German.
“I had playmates who were a few years older than me and in the Hitler Youth,” he said. “One of them, who didn’t know who I was, told me: ‘you’ll see, they’ll kill all the Jews.”‘
Lustiger, who frequently stresses his heritage and participates in dialogue with Jewish leaders, said he thought the Nazis wanted to kill the Jews because God had singled them out by revealing Himself and his laws to them.
“They wanted to kill the messenger to stamp out the message,” he said. [Reuters]