Holocaust Survivor Revisits Auschwitz-Birkenau 60 Years Later
July 1, 2005
Editorial note: Hedi Fried is a Holocaust survivor who attended the 60th anniversary ceremony in Auschwitz commemorating the Holocaust. Following is her personal account of the ceremony.
On January 27, 1945, soldiers of the Red Army liberated Auschwitz and showed the world the extent of Nazi cruelty. The date now serves as an official commemoration of the Holocaust. This year being the 60th anniversary, the day was marked by ceremonies held throughout the world, including Sweden, England, France and at the New York headquarters of the United Nations.
The largest gathering was at Auschwitz itself and was attended by heads of state and representatives of many European nations and the United States. As a survivor, I was invited to be part of an official delegation from the Forum for Living History, a Swedish government organization commissioned to engage in issues relating to tolerance, democracy and human rights, with the Holocaust as a starting point. The Forum had been late in deciding to attend. My personal decision to return also was difficult, but I went in hopes of helping others share and understand the meaning of the day.
Looking Back 60 Years
I arrived in a very cold Poland. It felt strange. On January 27, 1945, I did not know that Auschwitz had been liberated and that in three more months I also would be free. Hungry and clad in rags, I still battled the wind and snow on my way to work as a slave laborer. I never would have believed that I would live to experience such a commemoration.
Security for anniversary guests at Birkenau was very thorough. Birkenau is the part of Auschwitz where selection was made of who would live to work for the Reich and who would be slaughtered immediately. To enter the site you had to present an invitation from Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski. Participants were given tags on cords reminiscent of the prisoners’ tags. We were shown the path that led to the gas chambers, and we walked to the place where my sister and I once had to undress, be shorn and receive our prisoners’ clothes. From there we continued to the barracks, where I also recognized the “toilette.” Its 68 holes had to serve about 3,000 people. A companion calculated that the time allotted for each person was about three seconds. That explained the beatings the female SS staff exercised while we relieved ourselves.
World Figures Speak at Ceremony
The podium for the ceremony was arranged in front of a big monument and a set of stone plates, one in each of the languages of those who perished. This had been the place where the transport trains had stopped, the place of the selections. Opposite the podium were chairs for the survivors. We numbered about 1,000: mostly Poles—Jews and non-Jews—a group from France, some Italians, and others from different countries. The invited heads of state sat alongside. Additional visitors had to stand behind. It was very cold, and blankets and hot tea provided by Girl Scouts did not help much.
While we waited for the ceremony to begin, music played, evoking bad memories. Next came the whistle of an arriving train. Then the speeches began. Former Polish Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, himself an Auschwitz survivor, was first. He spoke of wanting to believe that the memory of this place would actively counteract all modern hatred and contempt of people, xenophobic and anti-Semitic, even if the latter is hypocritically called “anti-Zionism.”
The next speaker was Simone Weil, French intellectual leader, politician and fellow survivor, who insisted that “... we former inmates have the right—no, the obligation—to warn and beseech you to make sure that ‘never again’ becomes reality.” Romani Rose, chairman of the Central Council of Germany Sinti and Roma, spoke on behalf of the 220,000 to 500,000 gypsies killed in the Holocaust. A message from Pope John Paul II was read. President Kwasniewski was the next speaker and, for first time, officially stated that the victims of Auschwitz were Jews. He spoke of the special bond between Jews and Poles and about the magnificent spiritual, cultural and economic heritage left by generations of Polish Jews. He concluded: “May today, from this place our common cry sound, a cry for a world without hatred and contempt, without racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, for a world in which the word ‘human’ will always ring with pride.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin followed with a remembrance of the Red Army soldiers who liberated Auschwitz and of the massive losses endured by the Russian people in the course of the war. He bowed his head before those who survived. He wanted people to remember, but also to be aware of the threat of terrorism in today’s world: “We must make sure that what happened will never happen again—never, nowhere and with no one!”
The president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, was the last official speaker. He spoke of past lessons and of the re-emergence of anti-Semitism across the world and asked if it is possible that the deterrent power of the Shoah has weakened. “The answer,” he said, “is in the hands of Europe’s leaders, educators and historians. It is in our hands ... Humanity must pass on the knowledge ... World leaders must know that dangerous doctrines once again can emerge in the world ... The world leadership is responsible for the fate of humanity.”
Closing Ceremonies Stir Emotions
By the end of the program, most people felt completely frozen having spent two hours sitting and listening in the midst of a snowstorm and a temperature of -8 C (17-18 F), yet even before Katsav had finished his remarks, a woman in a white polo shirt, without coat or hat, jumped up from the survivors’ bench and took to the podium. Security guards looked on nervously but did not intervene. When Katsav finished speaking, she cried out in despair and showed the tattooed number on her arm, saying that she had been only 17 when she was taken to Auschwitz and that her life had been destroyed there. They took away her name. She was only a number. “Why?” she cried. “Why did they burn my people? Why?”
Next, the sound of the shofar echoed through this valley of death. You almost felt the presence of those killed assembling around it. Then Cantor Joseph Malovany of New York beautifully chanted the memorial prayer, El Malei Rachamim (G-d of Compassion). Prayers from representatives of the different churches followed. Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, was said and, once again, we listened to El Malei Rachamim now played by an orchestra. Then a choir sang Krzysztof Knittel’s “Song Without Words,” and each of the heads of state lit a candle at the commemoration plate of his countrymen and bowed to the dead. A group of former Soviet soldiers marched past and saluted the plates.
At the end of the ceremony, the rails, which had been prepared with magnesium, were set aflame, and projectors directed to the sky formed the figure of the mythical bird, Phoenix. You could not help but hope that now all the old hate was over, and that a new humanity had been born. And yet I thought, do you dare to believe it? Words, words, once again, words. Where is the action?
Hedi Fried, a psychologist, psychotherapist and educator, is author of The Road to Auschwitz: Fragments of a Life. She lives in Stockholm, Sweden.