Auschwitz survivors see need to remember lessons

Published: Thursday, January 27, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 26, 2005 at 11:52 p.m.
OSWIECIM, Poland - Vandalized Jewish graves in western Europe. Growing support for extreme-right parties in Germany. Comments by France's far-right leader playing down the evils of the Nazi occupation.
Decades after World War II, many think the lessons of the Holocaust still need reinforcing in Europe. Survivors from Auschwitz, gathered for today's 60th anniversary of the Nazi death camp's liberation, vowed to keep telling their story to make sure that happens.
Trudy Spira, who came from Venezuela for the ceremonies, said Wednesday renewed efforts to educate people about the dangers of hatred were even more important as the generation that experienced the Holocaust ages.
"It's very important, you are the last generation that can talk to the survivors, we are every day less," said Spira, who was deported to Auschwitz with her family as an 11-year-old from Slovakia in 1944.
An estimated 1 million Holocaust survivors are still alive.
"We can give living testimony . . . to let the world know, to try to get them to learn even though they don't, so that it doesn't happen again," Spira, 72, said at a news conference held by the European Jewish Forum in Krakow, about an hour's drive from Oscwiecim, the town where the camp is located.
Romanian-born Auschwitz survivor Olly Ritterband from Copenhagen, Denmark, whose book "Will To Survive" is read in Danish schools, made the painful effort for her father, who died at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
"For more than 30 years, I couldn't speak about the Holocaust," said Ritterband, 80, who lost 70 relatives in the Holocaust.
"This is the Kaddish for my father," she said, referring to the Jewish prayer for the dead. "I don't want to write. I was crying the whole time, but I did it."
Leaders including Vice President Dick Cheney, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Jacques Chirac and Israeli President Moshe Katsav are to light candles and hear interfaith prayers at the sprawling camp to mark the arrival of advancing Soviet troops on Jan. 27, 1945, as World War II neared its end.
Germany's President Horst Koehler will attend but won't speak at the main ceremony in acknowledgment of Germany's role as perpetrator of the Holocaust. He is to address a youth forum about the Holocaust.
About 1.5 million people, most of them Jews from across Europe, died in gas chambers or of disease, starvation, abuse and exhaustion at Auschwitz and neighboring Birkenau.
- the most notorious of the death camps set up by Adolf Hitler to carry out his "final solution," the murder of Europe's Jewish population.
Six million Jews died in the Nazi camps, along with several million others, including Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies, homosexuals and political opponents of the Nazis.
Reports in western Europe of increasing anti-Jewish incidents such as vandalizing graves and a walkout last week by members of a small German far-right party from an Auschwitz commemoration in the Saxony state legislature are cited as examples of why it's important to go on teaching about the Holocaust.
Earlier this week, a group of nationalist Russian lawmakers called for a sweeping investigation aimed at outlawing all Jewish organizations and punishing officials who support them, accusing Jews of fomenting ethnic hatred and saying they provoke anti-Semitism.
In Moscow on Tuesday, Rabbi Adolf Shayevich condemned the lawmakers for their accusations. The prosecutor general's office later said no investigation into the lawmakers' claims would be made because the letter in which they were made had been retracted.
In France, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, caused an uproar this month when he was quoted by a newspaper as saying the Nazi occupation "was not particularly inhuman, even if there were a few blunders."
Moshe Kantor, chairman of the European Jewish Congress, said incidents such as the Saxony walkout were challenges to education.
"The weakest department of human memory is historical memory," Kantor said at a news conference with the survivors in Krakow. "To have this memory we must work hard."
"The nature of all these attempts to diminish the results and the events of the Holocaust are the same, the shortage of historical memory, and xenophobia and nationalism in the local countries."
Cheney, in Krakow ahead of the ceremonies, said that "we will never forget" the dead and that the survivors, by telling their stories, guarded against a repeat of the horrors.
He noted that the horrors of World War II took place not in a remote section of the globe, but in the middle of Europe.
"Today, many Holocaust survivors have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren," Cheney said. "That I believe is the greatest victory of all. Evil did not have the final say.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who won't attend, said in a speech in Jerusalem that the lesson to be learned was that the world "didn't lift a finger" to stop the Holocaust. He called critics of Israeli measures in its struggle against Palestinian militants "new anti-Semites."
Sharon said Jews learned a lesson from the genocide that they can only rely on themselves.
In Poland, a recent survey indicated that only about half of the population was aware that the majority of Auschwitz victims were Jewish - a holdover mentality from the communist era, when official historical accounts sometimes played down Jewish suffering in the Holocaust.
During communist rule, a plaque that stood at Auschwitz-Birkenau failed to mention that Jews were killed there.

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