Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp gathered Monday for commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of its liberation, returning to the place where they lost entire families and warning about the ominous growth of anti-Semitism and hatred in the world.
In all, some 200 survivors of the camp were expected, many of them elderly Jews a nd non-Jews who have traveled from Israel, the United States, Australia, Peru, Russia, Slovenia and elsewhere. Many lost parents and grandparents in Auschwitz or other Nazi death camps, but were being joined by children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.
Some visited the site, now a memorial museum, on the eve of the anniversary. When asked by reporters for their reflections, they were eager to share their stories, hopeful that their message will spread.
“We would like that the next generation know what we went through, and it should never happen again,” said 91-year-old David Marks, his voice cracking. He lost 35 members of his immediate and extended family after they all arrived in Auschwitz from their village in Romania.
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“A dictator doesn't come up from one day to the other,” Marks said, saying it happens in “micro steps."
"If we don't watch it, one day you wake up and it's too late,” he added.
Most of the 1.1 million people murdered by the Nazi German forces at the camp were Jewish, but other Poles, Russians and Roma, or Gypsies, were imprisoned there. Some of the Polish survivors walked with Polish President Andrzej Duda through the camp's gate Monday wearing striped scarves that recalled the prison garb they wore more than 75 years ago.
Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet army on Jan. 27, 1945.
World leaders gathered in Jerusalem last week to mark the anniversary in what many saw as a competing observance. Among them were Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, French President Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Prince Charles.
Politics intruded on that event, with Duda boycotting it in protest after Putin claimed that Poland played a role in triggering World War II. Duda had wanted a chance to speak before or after Putin to defend his nation’s record in face of those false accusations, but he was not given a speaking slot in Jerusalem.
Duda said Monday that he felt that in Jerusalem, “Polish participation in the epic fight against the Nazis was ignored."
“I want to stress that the Poles fought for the liberty of the entire world and many Polish citizens fell in the battle for liberty in the war against the Nazis," Duda said. "Our fallen are etched in the annals of Polish history and we remember and honor them and expect others to do the same.”
Among those attending Monday's observances at Auschwitz, which is located in southern Poland, a region under German occupation during the war, were Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Israeli President Reuvlin Rivlin.
Rivlin recalled the strong connection that Israel shares with Poland, which welcomed Jews for centuries. It became home to Europe's largest population of Jews — and later the center of Germany's destruction of that community.
“The glorious history of the Jews in Poland, the prosperity of which the Jewish community has enjoyed throughout history, along with the difficult events that have taken place on this earth, connect the Jewish people and the State of Israel, inextricably, with Poland and the Polish people,” Rivlin said while standing alongside Duda.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan was guided through the camp by museum director Piotr Cywinski and viewed a plaque that includes the name of his city after it recently pledged a contribution of 300,000 pounds ($391,000) for the site's preservation.
Organizers of the event in Poland, the Auschwitz-Birkenau state memorial museum and the World Jewish Congress, have sought to keep the spotlight on survivors.
“This is about survivors. It’s not about politics,” Lauder said Sunday as he went to the death camp with several of them.
Lauder warned that leaders must do more to fight anti-Semitism, including by passing new laws to fight it.
On the eve of the commemorations, survivors, many leaning on their children and grandchildren for support, walked through the place where they had been brought in on cattle cars and suffered hunger and illness and came close to death. They said they were there to remember, to share their histories with others, and to make a gesture of defiance toward those who had sought their destruction.
For some, it is also the burial ground for their parents and grandparents, and they will be saying kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
“I have no graves to go to and I know my parents were murdered here and burned. So this is how I pay homage to them,” said Yvonne Engelman, a 92-year-old Australian who was joined by three more generations now scattered around the globe.
She recalled being brought in from a ghetto in what was then Czechoslovakia by cattle car, being stripped of her clothes, shaved and put in a gas chamber. By some miracle, the gas chamber that day did not work, and she later survived slave labor and a death march.
A 96-year-old survivor, Jeanette Spiegel, was 20 when she was brought to Auschwitz, where she spent nine months. Today she lives in New York and is fearful of rising anti-Semitic violence in the United States.
“I think they pick on the Jews because we are such a small minority and it is easy to pick on us,” she said, fighting back tears. “Young people should understand that nothing is for sure, that some terrible things can happen and they have to be very careful. And that, God forbid, what happened to the Jewish people then should never be repeated.”
In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron paid his respects at the city’s Shoah Memorial and warned about rising hate crimes in France, which increased 27% last year.
“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.