Wearing scarves displaying the same prisoner number tattooed on their arms, the last remaining eyewitnesses who can testify to the crimes of the Holocaust slowly made their way to the site where more than one million Jews lost their lives. Accompanying the Holocaust survivors, presidents, prime ministers and royalty from around the world congregated at the Auschwitz Memorial on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Amid a recent resurgence of anti-Semitic sentiments and violence, leaders warned against the burgeoning collective ambivalence towards the distorition of historical memory.
Located in southern Poland, Auschwitz opened in 1940 and became the largest of the Nazi concentration and death camps. In such camps, Adolf Hitler aimed to mitigate his “Jewish problem” through a plan to eliminate all Jewish people, artists, educators, Romas, homosexuals, and handicapped who were deemed incompatible with the Aryan race and his vision for Germany’s national identity. Undesirables of the Nazi state were murdered in gas chambers or exploited as laborers or patients for Josef Mengele’s heinous medical experiments. Upon hearing word that the Soviet army was approaching in January of 1945, Nazi officials ordered 60,000 Auschwitz prisoners to march through the snow and inclement weather to camps further west. When Soviet troops arrived at Auschwitz on January 27, there were around 7,000 survivors left, many emaciated and near piles of corpses or confiscated belongings – evanescent echoes of the captives and one million victims who died.
The past is not static; rather, the prejudice and nationalism that facilitated the realization of anti-Semitic ideology and rhetoric persist in the modern political climate. The observance occurred amid a world order characterized by political polarization exacerbated by increasing global economic uncertainty as well as divisive public and political discourse in Europe and the United States on the Israel-Palestine conflict. These conditions beget violent anti-Semitic behavior. In 2018, a Holocaust survivor who was murdered in her own home represented the 74% spike of anti-Semitic incidents in France compared to the previous year. The perrenial shadow of anti-Semitisim looms over Germany and Poland: the number of anti-Semitic attacks in Germany rose by 60% around 2018 and a far-right paper in Poland distributed inside the Parliament recently printed a headline saying “How to Spot a Jew.” According to a survey by the European Union, 90% of Jews affirmed that anti-Semitism sentiments are augmented in their country.
David Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee, told Reuters that “Jews in western Europe think twice before they wear a kippah, they think twice before they go to a synagogue, think twice before they enter a kosher supermarket.”
There is a growing concern amongst leaders of the international community about the weaponization of narratives of World War II and the Holocaust to aid their political agenda, an action that not only hampers the rendering of truth tenable, but also elucidates the extension of the historical battlefield into the contemporary consciousness. Although heads of state were invited to a ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem held by the fifth World Holocaust Forum, the Polish president, Andrej Duda, decided to pull out after being notified that Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, would be speaking and he would not. Leading up to the event, Putin and the Russian government have been accused of manipulating the Soviet-German non aggression pact of 1939 and Russia’s contributions to the war to paint the Soviet army as heroes.
“Unfortunately, I am sorry to say this, but President Putin consciously, certainly, spreads historical lies and obviously does it with an agenda because he is trying in this way to erase the responsibility of Stalinist Russia for the start of World War II together with Nazi Germany… I imagine he is ashamed of it today,” said Duda to Israeli state television.
Yet the Polish government is also contorting the line between reality and fantasy, as the government recently passed a bill that outlawed the ability of the populace to accuse Poland of complicity in the Holocaust; the government ended up negating the law after sustaining swift international backlash.
The perversion of history is compounded by the fact that many of the two hundred survivors in attendance are over ninety years old and are gathering probably for the last time. With fewer witnesses alive to tell their story, the international community risks not being able to connect the history with the present and to learn from the outcomes of the past.
Zofia Posmysz, a 96-year-old Polish survivor of Auschwitz said that Putin’s remarks “takes me back immediately and keeps me awake at night… I fear that over time, it will become easier to distort history… I cannot say it will never happen again, because when you look at some leaders of today, those dangerous ambitions, pride and sense of being better than others are still at play. Who knows where they can lead.”
As the survivors repeat the phrase “Never again,” the two words serve at once as a prayer and a warning. In a few years, the international community will have to learn how to reconcile with such a horrific moment that manifests the terrible tragedies man can inflict on each other when its witnesses—and perhaps their accurate narratives—fade from public memory.
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