Some 300 survivors from Nazi Germany’s most notorious death camp gathered today in Oświęcim, the southern Polish city that served as the sprawling camp network’s setting, for a commemorative ceremony to honor the 1.5 million people, most of them Jews, who were systematically slaughtered there from 1941-45.
As Auschwitz and The Holocaust drift rapidly from memory to history, today’s will be the last milestone anniversary gathering for which a substantial number of former prisoners will be able to attend.
There’s no shortage of stories related to today’s anniversary, nor is there a dearth of first person traveler accounts. I posted briefly about my visit there last June and won’t add to the noise with any banal platitudes now – other have spoken and written about their experiences, analyzed the ‘lessons learned’ and implored ‘never again’ with far more eloquence than I’ll ever be capable of.
In an eloquent address, 86-year-old Polish writer Halina Birenbaum, who was led to the podium by her grandson, described Auschwitz as a “bottomless pit of hell that I couldn’t get out of”, recalling her impressions as an 11 year old of the “grey bone faces with legs like sticks wearing muddy clogs, nothing reminding you of anything remotely human”.
She said that even if she could have, trying to forget her experience had never been an option, because “it’s only in my memory that can I be next to my loved ones”.
As I walked aimlessly across parts of the grassy 440 acre Birkenau complex last June, my thoughts weren’t with the dead, but mostly with those who survived, like Halina, or my grandfather Anton who lived to tell me tales of the two-and-a-half years he spent in Dachau.
I wondered about the fortitude needed to merely survive when so much of mankind’s barbaric cruelty is stacked so heavily against you. Maybe that that sort of fortitude and desire to live can be found is the only real lesson here.
Here are 23 photos taken in June 2014, my humble attempt at keeping one of the planet’s most heinous crimes on that cusp that separates memory from history for just a bit longer. Most are taken at the museum at Auschwitz I, the original camp, and some at Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, which was engineered specifically for extermination.
According to a recent poll, 20 percent of Germans under the age of 30 have never heard of Auschwitz.