Opinion

Liberating Auschwitz – 75 Years Later, What Does It Mean?

evil 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.

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Wayne D Peterkin
6 months ago

It means that the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust must never be repeated. Unfortunately, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and we now have multiple generations not only throughout the world but right here in America that not only refuse to learn from history but aren’t even taught it. When we have vast numbers of Americans who cannot name the three branches of our own government we are heading for disaster. Our grandkids will be the ones paying the price.

Keith S. Clark
6 months ago

When members of your family saw the camps with their own eyes, it insulates you from the fools that claim it never happened. My fathers Generation will never forger, I and my Generation will never forget. I only hope my Children and their children will seek out the truth so when our Politicians make statements like “The Gulags were not so bad” they will know the truth and never vote for a Democrat ever. National Socialists did this, just like the Bernie workers of today. First it’s the bullying, then the imprisonment, then the extermination. Know history or die by… Read more »

Lynn
6 months ago

I find myself exploding at the self congratulating “good” liberals who compare Donald Trump to a mass murderer/savage like Hitler. Their hyperbole and bombastic rhetoric cheapens the real evil lurking beneath their vacuous statements. They really believe they are free thinking and have not been swayed by the media propaganda they have already digested.

Jones
6 months ago

Thank you for this article. As a 19 year old PFC I walked through the remains of the camp at Dachau in 1962. Much of it was still there – the gas chambers, the ovens, the bunkers, and some of the structures. Much of the remainder was documented in photographs. Lifeless bodies hung from ropes, gaunt human bodies stacked like cord wood, and those that were still among the living – little more than skin stretched over a skeleton. There were many memorial stones placed around the grounds – “Grave of Thousands unknown”, “Execution Range With Blood Ditch”, “Grave of… Read more »

VikkiC
6 months ago

What it means is that anyone calling another person a nazi or hitler doesn’t have ANY understanding of what that means in reality, and probably never will. They should count their lucky stars!!!

Rita F. Silva
6 months ago

They say that history forgotten is doomed to be repeated, This is why we must never forget.

John Karkalis
6 months ago

Anyone,who has read the account of the Nuremberg Trials beginning in 1945 remains dumbfounded by the magnitude of the crime. Did our Better Angels abandon us as a species then? Shocking, the matter of fact manner in which perpetrators and participants described their grisly task as if it were little more than a 9 to 5 job, “greeting ” their victims as they passed through a gate above which was written, “Arbeit macht frei” then leading them to the “showers”. Nazi efficiency was a source of pride for the perpetrators, from train to chimney in record time. When I was… Read more »

Arteest
6 months ago

And yet the Holocaust continues. Here in the USA, Africa, China and N Korea to name a few. Man’s inhumanity to man is staggering but is only understood by realizing it’s source is our sin nature. Satan would have us believe Jesus trip to the cross was ineffective. Not true.

HAL HOFFMAN
6 months ago

I WOULD NEVER DOWN PLAY THE HOLOCAUST!
BUT 60 MILLION PEOPLE ALSO DIED UNDER STALIN AND ARE SELDOM REMEMBERED TOO!

Patriot Will
6 months ago

Ignorant, self-centered people can fill themselves with coldness and hate. Some people exhibit this hate by being small-minded and making fun of those who are different from themselves. Others even physically attack those that are different. In the most extreme cases, people hate so much that they will even kill those that are different. The concentration camps serve as warnings to all of us, that we must all do our best to remain kind and fair-minded to people in general, no matter what our prejudices may be.

Brenda Blunt
6 months ago

If we aren’t careful, it will happen here!!

Dr. Michael Peltzman
6 months ago

The article leaves a profound effect; and speaks to the heart of the issue!!

Douglas E Fauber
6 months ago

I have always been aware of this ‘final solution’. In Terre Haute Indiand, we have been blessed by Eva Kohr- Who passed away recently- a holocaust survivor although her twin sister did not. She was a roll model of forgiveness, and started the Candles Museum to educate our youth. WE MUST NEVER FORGET>!

julienne
6 months ago

Thank you for publishing this poignant reminder of our urgent responsibility.

Annette
6 months ago

What a fabulous article! And humbling.
I think we owe it to the survivors and their rescuers to live the best, most positive life that we can.

Stephen Russell
6 months ago

Agree with others Never Again: Id show movie Schindlers List outside camp for tourism to camp, use dioramas, videos to show Horrors.
Host Camp Trail from Poland to Czech, etc for Death camps alone & host Memorial center

Barbara M
6 months ago

I agree with the comment “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. I pray we all learn from our mistakes.

Josephine pooley
6 months ago

Beautifully said. May we never forget!

Joanna Johnson-Smith
6 months ago

It is the tragedies such as this, that make history so important, so vital to our futures and what we wish those futures to be. We must be reminded, often, of the mistakes of past human beings, to prevent repeating those heinous errors. Our monuments are reminders, our flag is a reminder, and truthful History education in our schools is a reminder, and a Warning. Sometimes, these reminders are difficult to face, but they remain a large part of who we are and who we will be. They matter. It is in remembering the horrors of tyranny and Socialism, Communism… Read more »

Theresa G. DUpre
6 months ago

No words………

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