Bucknell University student Julia Carita heard firsthand stories from Holocaust survivors during Monday’s 75th-anniversary remembrance of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland.
“Attending the ceremony wasn’t anything I could have prepared for,” she said of Monday’s solemn ceremony attended by about 200 survivors of the Polish death camp.
The survivors prayed and wept as they marked the anniversary, returning to the place where they lost entire families and warning about the ominous growth of anti-Semitism and hatred in the world, according to The Associated Press.
Speakers at the event included survivors and presidents from Israel, Germany, Ukraine and Poland.
Marian Turski, a 93-year-old Polish Jewish survivor, said he did not expect to make it to the next commemoration and wanted to transmit a message to his grandchildren’s generation: That the destruction of the Jews began with small steps that were tolerated. What began with banning Jews from sitting on benches in Berlin evolved in incremental steps to ghettos and death camps. And that such horrors could happen anywhere, even in the United States.
“Auschwitz did not descend from the sky,” he said, crediting those words to Austrian President Alexander van der Bellen, among those present. Calling for people to not be indifferent, he said: “Because if you are indifferent, you will not even notice it when upon your own heads, and upon the heads of your descendants, another Auschwitz descends from the sky.”
As powerful as they were, Carita said the speeches were secondary to the environment and atmosphere.
“For me, the most emotional part surprisingly wasn’t the actual speakers, but it was walking through the barracks at Birkenau in order to get to the ceremony,” said Carita. “It was a long walk that I mostly spent in quiet reflection, taking in the spaces where so many people lived and died against their will. We walked along the path with people from all over the world, all speaking different languages, many of whom had flowers, flags, or pictures in honor of loved ones who had once lived here. It felt incredibly powerful to know that together, we were keeping alive the memories of so many people.”
Bucknell professor David Del Testa said bitter cold weather was a reminder of the conditions endured at the camp.
“The commemoration was well done except that we froze on an open field within Birkenau, which added deep poignancy given the camp’s inmates certainly didn’t have down-filled coats for their many long, cold nights in south-central Poland,” said Bucknell professor David Del Testa. “We watched world leaders listen to the testimony of Jewish, Sinti, and Polish survivors in a group of about 500 public guests who had traveled to Auschwitz for just this purpose. That made me feel hopeful in an otherwise horrible place, that some people decided to bear witness, the public and world leaders both.
“It was also emotionally challenging to be aware that we were in a place that caused so many people so much pain. From what I understood of the speeches, many of the survivors had great difficulty being back at Auschwitz,” said Del Testa. “So, even though it was a commemoration of a positive thing — their liberation — it was really quite somber.”
Laurence Roth, director of Jewish Studies at Susquehanna University, said the anniversary is important “to honor survivors and remember those who were murdered.”
It’s also significant since so few survivors are still living to give their testimony, he said.
“Video archives are good and it’s crucial to have, but there’s only so much video will capture,” said Roth.
About 200 survivors of Auschwitz, where an estimated 1.1 million people died, attended the ceremony. In the week leading up to the event, several world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, denounced rising hate crimes against Jews.
“That anti-Semitism is coming back is not the Jewish people’s problem: It’s all our problem — it’s the nation’s problem,” Macron said.
Roth and Susquehanna University Director of Jewish Life Maria Carson said the specter of the Holocaust hasn’t quelled the hate.
“Genocides haven’t stopped,” Carson said, adding that instances of anti-Semitism have been on the upswing in the U.S. and Europe.
Roth said the atrocities of the Holocaust have a bitter reminder to what is possible if people choose to ignore them.
“This can reappear if we let our guard down,” he said, adding that it doesn’t take much to defend against hate. “How we talk to each other publicly matters immensely.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.