The New York Times:

At Auschwitz, Survivors Plead ‘Never Forget’

News | ASAP In The News
January 27, 2020
By Joanna Berendt

AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU, Poland — In a solemn ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the last living witnesses to the crimes that took place in this Nazi concentration camp testified to their experience and called on others to never forget.

Many were frail, walking only with the support of friends or relatives. They wore scarves emblazoned with their prisoner numbers, the same ones tattooed on their arms. And as they slowly made their way, one by one, to what had been the wall of death, where thousands of prisoners were lined up for summary execution, it was a vivid reminder that before long the last eyewitnesses will be gone.

“What can I say? All I have are these tears to pour over the past,” Batsheva Dagan, 95, told the crowd, her voice often cracking with emotion. “I feel uplifted when I see so many of you here who will carry the memory of innocent people from all nations of the world who met their death here. You will make sure that those horrors are never repeated. I’m sorry, I apologize for the emotions.”

Fifteen years ago, some 1,500 survivors attended the anniversary. This year, there were fewer than 200 and, for many, it is likely to be their last visit.

The ceremony was a culmination of a week of events around the world, including a commemoration in Jerusalem, marking the liberation of Auschwitz by Red Army troops on Jan. 27, 1945.

When those troops arrived, there were only about 7,000 prisoners left alive, and most of them were starving and near death. More than one million people, mostly Jews, had already been murdered at the camp over the course of the war.

Delegations including world leaders from more than 50 countries gathered in the former death camp in the Polish town of Oswiecim and called on the world, once again, to “never forget” the horrors and barbarity of the Holocaust.

Although the Holocaust remains a key area of research for many historians and is a staple of school curricula in many countries, there is fear that the memory of what happened at the camps is fading among younger generations. And the anniversary is taking place at a moment when many countries are seeing a resurgence of anti-Semitism.

Prominent Jewish organizations, including the European Jewish Association, urged parliamentarians from across the Continent to toughen anti-Semitism laws in their countries as well as promote Holocaust education.

That sentiment was echoed throughout the ceremony.

Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics billionaire and president of the World Jewish Congress, said that “the attacks on Jews, the killings, the vicious slanders have only grown worse, and they have even spread to my country.”

“Words are not enough. Political speeches are not enough,” he said. “Laws must be passed. Severe, tough, real laws that will put these hatemongers away in prison for a long, long time. Children must be educated and know where the hatred of Jews leads.”

The former prisoners of Auschwitz, in a series of emotional speeches, drove that point home.

Most are over 90, with a few pushing 100. In the days before the ceremony, several were forced to cancel because of frail health. A team of at least 80 medical professionals, psychologists and volunteers was organized to assist the survivors, both physically and emotionally.

Their stories, even all these years later, remain shocking.

The day before the ceremony, Ben Lesser, 92, offered to share his experience.

A Polish-born Jew, he was just 15 when he, along with his parents and four siblings, were greeted at the Auschwitz concentration camp in May 1944 by Josef Mengele. The infamous doctor surveyed newcomers to determine who was fit for labor and who was to be immediately executed.

Two of his brothers and sisters were told to “go left,” referring to a line for the gas chambers. Mr. Lesser lied to Dr. Mengele that he was 18, healthy and fit to work.

“He asked me if I can run five kilometers,” he said. “I answered yes and was told to go right.”

Mr. Lesser may have been saved from death, but not from witnessing the horrors of a place that became known as the factory of death. He said he still remembered “screams of children thrown into fiery pits” and considered it his moral duty to tell his story for as long as he can.

“People would love to forget the hard truths and that’s why we need to keep coming back here to refresh our memories and keep the world from acquiring amnesia,” said Mr. Lesser, founder of Zachor, a foundation dedicated to ensuring the remembrance of the Holocaust. “Unfortunately, we can’t live forever. What happens after we are gone, I don’t know.”

Marian Turski, 93, a historian and Auschwitz survivor, said that he attended the event as much for his children as for himself.

Speaking during the ceremony, he urged people to pay attention to what was happening in the world and to speak out.

“Don’t be indifferent,” he said. “That’s what I want to say today to my daughter, my grandchildren and their peers, wherever they are.”

“Don’t be indifferent when you witness historical lies,” he said. Don’t be indifferent when the past is manipulated for the sake of current political interests. Don’t be indifferent when any minority is discriminated against.”