Certain horrors are hard to absorb. Maybe all horrors are like that, but some are so profoundly evil, insensibly, indigestibly, incomprehensibly, unthinkably evil that – even standing right there, on the rails leading to the gas chambers, in a doorframe of the showers, within feet of the crematorium, it was impossible to imagine. That was Auschwitz, 1983. For a time, the light seemed extinguished.
At the age of 23, 37 years ago, I found myself traveling behind the Iron Curtain, visiting a Polish family. With time to make the trek, I traveled to Krakow and on to Oswiecim, a small Polish town. Near town lie two of the darkest Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz and Birkenau.
In these two camps, the first dating to April 1940, second October 1941 – both mid-World War II – more than 1.1 million souls were put to death, after inconceivable deprivation and torture. More than 90 percent of those who entered perished and nine in ten were Jewish. Also exterminated were thousands of Polish prisoners, Gypsies, and other minorities.
All this came to an end 75 years ago this week, when the Soviet Army – approaching Berlin from the West – overran the camps, liberating both. In total, the Americans, British, and Soviets would liberate more than a dozen camps.
The Americans liberated Buchenwald, Dachau, Flossenberg, Dora-Mittelbau, and Mauthausen. The British were first to Neuengamme and Bergen-Belsen. The Soviets overran Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka.
In each instance, the shock – entering these crucibles of evil – was profound. Soldiers who first entered, as described by Alex Kershaw in “The Liberator” and many others – could hardly process what they saw. They were never able to forget, nor were those who survived. More than six million Jews were killed in these camps.
Standing there was like walking silently through the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, only worse. The sense of helplessness, incomprehension, sadness, and grasping-striving-but-failing-to-grasp how humanity could be so evil … surrounded a person. How could anyone hear six million echoes, or even digest the meaning?
Even today, almost four decades later, remembering the place sends a shiver up my spine. The anniversary of liberation is – and should be – a moment of reflection, especially for free people. On us depends the preservation of freedom and humanity. We are now the bulwark, as the generation which liberated these camps was in their time.
The truth – which we wish not know but must acknowledge – is that humanity is capable of horrific things, that what has gone before could occur again, that courage is individual and collective, standing up for what is right necessary, fighting against evil no less necessary. We know that people of conscience must “never forget,” as God is our witness. Beyond trying to absorb what is not absorbable, understand vicariously what cannot be so understood, what does this 75th anniversary of liberation mean? What should it mean?
Perhaps the best understanding nests in words written by Elie Wiesel, Jewish-American Auschwitz survivor, author of 57 books, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who died in 2016. His entire family perished at Auschwitz, except for him and his father.
Wrote Wiesel, for those who live in light from the darkness of “night” – the title of his reflection on Auschwitz, we must work to “think higher, feel deeper,” and remember that “one person of integrity can make a difference.” The operative word is integrity.
As we reflect on what humanity has done to overcome horrors, we cannot lose ground – not an inch – again. As Wiesel wrote, “hope is like peace … it is a gift only we can give one another.”
And for the living – especially those who live in a free society – we have obligations. They are easy to forget. As Wiesel wrote, “whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation … we must always take sides.”
In practical terms, since we can neither turn back time nor remedy past wrongs, we must be true to that time in which we live for Wiesel that had a specific meaning. From the depths, he drew clear insights. “We must not see any person as an abstraction… Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.” So with integrity, respect.
Not everything Wiesel wrote was imbued with hope, but one nugget was this: “If the only prayer you say throughout your life is ‘Thank You,’ then that will be enough.” He never stopped saying thank you.
Nor did he forget to smile, which is to say – look forward with gratitude – no matter what we have lived through, wished not to live through. His castoff observation – one that should carry us forward: “I feel gratitude in my heart each time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile” and “For me, every hour is grace.”
Yes, we must look back to remember, but then ahead – and not forget to smile. Past horrors are hard to absorb. Our job – from the revulsion they stir – is to make the future a place bright and filled with light. Maybe that is, in the end, what the 75th anniversary of liberation means.