By Clementine Boyer
Tuesday, Jan. 27 marked the 70th anniversary of millions of Jews being freed from Nazi concentration camps. On that day in 1945, Soviet troops saved people from concentration camps in Poland and Germany. To commemorate this anniversary, there were celebrations, exhibitions and one very important event in Auschwitz that includes almost 300 survivors.
Contrary to what many people think, Auschwitz was not only an extermination camp in Poland. The camp consisted of three separate parts. The first was Auschwitz I, the main camp. There was Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, the extermination camp. And there was Auschwitz III, or Monowitz, the work camp for slave workers. Those camps were established on May 26th 1940, by the order of Heinrich Himmler, the military commander of the Nazi Party. In June of 1940, the first Jews arrived in the camp, and one year after that, there were 10,900 prisoners in it. Between 1940 and 1945, investigators have estimated that 2.1 to 2.5 million Jews from 29 different countries were exterminated there. Historians still debate the exact numbers of deaths in Auschwitz, but it stands that all lost their lives unfairly.
Danuta Czech is a Polish author and former Vice President of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Her father was in Auschwitz from 1943-45. She wrote Kakendrium, or, A Calendar of Events from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Camp. Czech said that when the camp was freed on January 17, there were 67,012 prisoners who had survived. Many died from starvation and diseases. Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who was in Auschwitz for about two years, wrote in his book, If This is a Man, that some other Italian prisoners and himself tried to return to the Italian border. Even though it was a long and hard journey, they succeeded. Many died trying to cross the border after the liberation.
When Marshal Koniev, the commander of the Red Army, liberated prisoners from Auschwitz with his troops, many of the escapees did not show any joy or happiness.They just walked, and left the camp without words. As Binyamin Wilkomirski, one of the survivors, said in his book, Fragments, it was not liberation, “no joyous liberation. I never heard the world liberation.”
Auschwitz is a symbol of the Holocaust, the massacre of Europe’s Jewish population, but it was not the only concentration camp. Dachau and Treblinka were also very important. According to the “Jewish virtual library” website, there were 23 main camps, and researchers found there were about 20,000 camps between 1933 and 1945.
Rebecca Steiner, director of programs for the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, says that for the 70th anniversary, many events, conferences, exhibitions, commemorations and meetings are planned. It is the most important event of the year for the museum. It is a legacy of World War II, and as the Wall Street Journal said, “maybe the most provocative museum of them all.”
Geoffrey Cocks, a professor of European history at Albion College, explains that this event has a huge impact in our lives. According to Cocks, it was previously very difficult to talk about the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz because of the Cold War. The relationship between the USSR and United States was very strained, and, “for political reasons, in the Cold War, the United States did not or could not devote the proper level of intention on this event,” just because it was a Soviet accomplishment. But since the end of the Cold War, “our knowledge of Holocaust [has become] more sophisticated,” he says. Now, Cocks visits the museum almost every year with his classes, “and as part of the tour, there was always a meeting with a survivor who talked about his experience.”
Steiner explains that, “Auschwitz is the most iconic of the killing centers, but few realize it was also a transit center and network of labor camps.” According to her, when younger people come to the museum, they are not always interested in the subject, and that is quite dangerous, because we must not take the Holocaust lightly. “The danger now is that people in general have perhaps been over exposed to the Holocaust, and are tired of that.” She explains that the younger generation just pays attention to stereotypes, and not the history, “When youngsters think of Auschwitz, they envision train tracks, the “Arbeit macht frei”(work makes you free) gate, and the crematory. They think of skeletal prisoners and barbed wire, dogs, and guards. She also says that they are mostly interested in taking pictures of themselves in front of Auschwitz, because “they do not realize of the impact and the importance of this place.”
More about Auschwitz with Geoffrey Cocks’ interview:
Phot via auschwitz.org