Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the 2015 commemoration could be one of the last times a significant number of survivors of Nazism are able to attend. It's an occasion to remember, says Christoph Strack.
It's the site of horror. Auschwitz, the largest German concentration and extermination camp, is a symbol of Nazi delusions. A visit to the present-day memorial site leaves the spectator speechless in the face of the degree of inhumanity humans are capable of - and in the face of the suffering that Germans inflicted here on people from so many nations.
More than a few of those who survived Auschwitz never returned to the place. The former inmates Jean Amery, Tadeusz Borowski and Primo Levi deemed it impossible to live with survival and took their own lives years or decades after 1945. And those who accompany or observe former Auschwitz prisoners feel that the horror never stops - never. Images are etched indelibly into their memories, the anguish is still felt. Some of them are elderly people who had been detained when they were children and who never forgot the moment when they had to let go of a loved one's hand. During the last major commemoration, in 2005, all of a sudden an elderly gentleman hurried past the assembled heads of state and government and official guests, kneeled down at the unloading ramp, kissed the stone and made a tearful exit. This image, this single scene, gave a better insight into the inconceivable nature of the site than all the speeches delivered that day.
One last commemoration with survivors
Tuesday will see the return of hundreds of survivors to Auschwitz-Birkenau: Jews from numerous countries, as well as about 100 former detainees from Poland. For the last time, contemporary witnesses will attend the January 27 commemoration in such large numbers. We should listen to them while they are still around. And we should turn their memories into our mission.
It took the Germans over 50 years to turn the day of Auschwitz's liberation into a day of memory of the victims of Nazism, with the Bundestag convening for the occasion. It is regrettable that in this year's session, with the focus so much on the survivors, no former inmate will take the floor, with German President Joachim Gauck speaking to the delegates instead.
But do such commemorations really work? Do Germans remain committed to their enduring responsibility? The results of an opinion poll published a few days ago are unsettling. Eighty-one percent of those polled would prefer to consign the systematic persecution of Jews to history. Then again, concentration camp memorial sites in Germany - in both the old and the new federal states - see noticeably increasing numbers of visitors. Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland, achieved a record attendance of 1.5 million visitors in 2014. Both figures prove that remembrance of the Shoah is alive, but it cannot be taken for granted, and in no way is it expressive of a social consensus. To this day, it is not a matter of course that German adolescents, at some point during their school years, visit one of the Nazi camps. Indeed, why not?
Remain on the alert - avoid mere ritual
At a time when we see a rise of right-wing populist movements and demonstrations of a new kind, when we witness a palpable indifference to spreading xenophobic or racist comments on the Internet or via media microphones, it becomes particularly evident how badly memories of the cataclysm of Nazi atrocities are needed. Vigilance is necessary. Commemoration must never become mere ritual - it must lead to consequences.
The French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, who has addressed the Holocaust time and again in his works, says he strives to realize an awareness of the matters on which the present is based. This is where Auschwitz ties in, and the responsibility for making sure that man will never turn into a monster again. We owe this responsibility not only to the victims - that would not go far enough - but to society as a whole: We must remain humane. Auschwitz, that's the site of horror. Its name is here to stay. As a reminder. As an obligation.