Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.
I had the distinct honor of being able to visit the Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II Birkenau camps near Oświęcim, Poland in 2010. With some Jewish ancestry through my father, I had the responsibility to pay my respects. I’m not sure where, when, or how, but this atrocity claimed the lives of a number of my family.
I’m lucky to be here today.
“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe.”Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1940-1945
The Auschwitz concentration camp was a complex of over 40 concentration and extermination camps built and operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II and the Holocaust. It consisted of Auschwitz I, the main camp (Stammlager) and administrative headquarters, in Oświęcim; Auschwitz II–Birkenau, a combined concentration/extermination camp three kilometers away in Brzezinka; Auschwitz III–Monowitz, a labor camp seven kilometers from Auschwitz I, set up to staff an IG Farben synthetic-rubber factory; and dozens of other subcamps.
I distinctly remember an inexplicable feeling of terror and sorrow; the air was heavy and it felt as though the weight of the world was on my shoulders. On visiting the Auschwitz I camp, we were greeted by the infamous sign: Arbeit macht frei, meaning “work makes you free”. The tour guide informed us that the sign we were viewing that day was a temporary replacement, as the original had recently been stolen from the property and desecrated.
I remember the mountain of confiscated shoes, stolen eyeglasses, and other personal belongings that were on display. Like these possessions, the Jews that entered this forsaken ground were also robbed of their lives.
Then we saw the hair. The Nazis had removed the hair of the Jews as they were processed into the camp. And it was here, on display for the world to see. It was there to force the world to remember. And we shall never forget.
As Soviet troops approached Auschwitz in January 1945, most of its population was sent west on a death march. The remaining prisoners were liberated on 27 January 1945, a day commemorated since 2005 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the following decades, survivors such as Primo Levi, Viktor Frankl, and Elie Wiesel wrote memoirs of their experiences in Auschwitz, and the camp became a dominant symbol of the Holocaust. In 1947 Poland founded the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II, and in 1979 it was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.