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Unspeakable horrors remembered

Naomi ConradJanuary 27, 2015

Seventy years ago, the Soviet Red Army liberated Auschwitz. DW's Naomi Conrad was on hand as politicians, survivors and their families gathered at the camp to remember the horrors committed by the Nazis.

Holocaust Gedenkfeier in Auschwitz 27.01.2015 Überlebende
Image: Reuters/M. Lepecki

What kept him alive in Auschwitz, Marcel Tuchman says, was the belief that "civilized people would end the horror." For years, he says, he clung to the hope that the humiliation, death and starvation would be stopped by those outside the barbed wires. Tuchman shrugs: "Little did we know that many just didn't care." He smiles a twisted, wry smile.

The 93-year-old Tuchman is one of the 300 survivors and their relatives who, together with government officials, church leaders and others from all over the world, gathered outside the "gate of death" of the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau Tuesday to commemorate its liberation 70 years ago by the Soviet Red Army on January 27, 1945.

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski told the more than 3,000 visitors that the German occupiers had "made my country a place of extermination." He spoke inside a tent built especially for the event, above the illuminated railway tracks on which prisoners had arrived to the satellite camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the snow-covered barracks and barbed-wire fences visible through the gate. People were turned into mere numbers in Auschwitz, he said. It was, he added, Europe's duty to remember and defend its values. "From this place we are condemning all manifestations of hatred, anti-Semitism and xenophobia," he said.

'Nothing reminded you of anything remotely human'

The Germans built Auschwitz in 1940. It first served as an internment camp for Poles and then, from 1942 onwards, as the largest extermination camp in Europe: Estimates vary, but it is generally accepted that at least 1.1 million people from all over Europe were killed in Auschwitz, mainly Jews, but also Roma and Sinti, political prisoners, and prisoners of war. In 1947, it was turned into a museum.

As the number of survivors - many of whom are now in their 80s and 90s - is dwindling, the commemoration was focused on their stories and testimonies.

Halina Birenbaum, prisoner "No. 48693," told the packed audience, many dressed in somber black, that Auschwitz was a "bottomless pit of hell," full of stinking mud, barbed wire, "a disgusting mass of people in lousy wet rags, wearing muddy clogs." "Nothing," Birenbaum, who was born in Poland and now lives in Israel, added, "reminded you of anything remotely human." By saying those words, she said, "I am reliving this horror."

'Skin and bones, but still alive'

The survivor Roman Kent said that one minute in Auschwitz was like an entire day "and a day was like a year, a month an eternity." The smell of death, he added, permeated the air; human skeletons roamed the camp, "just skin and bones, but still alive." His message to the world leaders gathered in the audience, he said, was that "we must all remember and teach others to remember."

Then, he said, the Holocaust and other atrocities, such as in Darfur and Kosovo, as well as the recent attacks in Paris, "will have no place on the face of the earth." He warned of attempts by the media to "sanitize the Shoah so that it appears less wicked and brutal." That, he added, obscured the truth.

Roman Kent compared a month in Auschwitz to "an eternity"Image: Reuters/Laszlo Balogh

Kazimierz Albin, who was caught when he tried to join the Polish resistance and was brought to Auschwitz with the first group of Polish political prisoners in 1940, recalled the sirens that used to echo through the camp whenever a prisoner escaped. And, yet, he said, the sound was one of hope: the hope that the outside world might learn of the crimes of the Nazis in the camps. Only 10 percent of the escapes were successful, he says; those who were caught were killed. Albin last heard the sound of the siren in early 1943, the day he escaped from Birkenau. "That sound continues to vibrate in my subconscious ever since," he said as dusk gathered around the barracks and the heavy snowfall coated the three journalists broadcasting live outside the tent.

When he took to the stage, Ronald S. Lauder, the head of the Jewish World Congress, warned that a storm "of anti-Semitism was sweeping through Europe." Jews were being targeted in Europe again, he said, "because they are Jews." Synagogues and Jewish businesses were being attacked, he said, and young Jewish boys were afraid of wearing their kippahs - also known as yarmulkes, or skullcaps - in places like Budapest, London, Paris and Berlin. The year 2015, he said, "looks more like 1933," adding that Jewish families were starting to flee Europe. Governments had to stand up to this new wave of hatred, Lauder said: Anti-Semitism had led to Auschwitz: "Don't let this happen again."

The snowfall had stopped by the time the survivors and others had filed out of the tent and past the railway tracks that had brought so many to their death. Under the former death camp's harsh floodlights, they put down candles to honor the many who, unlike them, had not survived or escaped Auschwitz's previously unimaginable horrors.