Sixty years ago the Russians liberated Auschwitz, as the Americans approached Dachau. The Allied advance revealed to a stunned world the horrors of the greatest catastrophe ever to befall our civilization. To a survivor of both death factories, where Hitler’s gruesome reality eclipsed Dante’s imaginary inferno, being alive and well so many years later feels unreal.
We the survivors are now disappearing one by one. Soon history will speak of Auschwitz at best with the impersonal voice of researchers and novelists, at worst with the malevolence of demagogues and falsifiers. This week the last of us, with a multitude of heads of state and other dignitaries, are gathering at that cursed site to remind the world that past can be prologue, that the mountains of human ashes dispersed there are a warning to humanity of what may still lie ahead.
The genocides in Armenia, Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda and the recent massacres of innocents in the United States, Spain, Israel, Indonesia and so many other countries have demonstrated our inability to learn from the blood-soaked past. Auschwitz, the symbol of absolute evil, is not only about that past, it is about the present and the future of our newly enflamed world, where a coupling of murderous ideologues and means of mass destruction can trigger new catastrophes.
When the ghetto liquidation in Bialystok, Poland, began, only three members of our family were still alive: my mother, my little sister and I, age 13. Father had already been executed by the Gestapo. Mother told me to put on long pants, hoping I would look more like a man, capable of slave labor. ”And you and Frieda?” I asked. She didn’t answer. She knew that their fate was sealed. As they were chased, with the other women, the children, the old and the sick, toward the waiting cattle cars, I could not take my eyes off them. Little Frieda held my mother with one hand, and with the other, her favorite doll. They looked at me too, before disappearing from my life forever.
Their train went directly to Auschwitz-Birkenau, mine to the extermination camp of Majdanek. Months later, I also landed in Auschwitz, still hoping naively to find their trace. When the SS guards, with their dogs and whips, unsealed my cattle car, many of my comrades were already dead from hunger, thirst and lack of air. At the central ramp, surrounded by electrically charged barbed wire, we were ordered to strip naked and file past the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. The ”angel of death” performed on us his ritual ”selection” — those who were to die immediately to the right, those destined to live a little longer and undergo other atrocious medical experiments, to the left.
In the background there was music. At the main gate, with its sinister slogan ”Work Brings Freedom,” sat, dressed in striped prison rags like mine, one of the most remarkable orchestras ever assembled. It was made up of virtuosos from Warsaw and Paris, Kiev and Amsterdam, Rome and Budapest. To accompany the selections, hangings and shootings while the gas chambers and crematoria belched smoke and fire, these gentle musicians were forced to play Bach, Schubert and Mozart, interspersed with marches to the glory of the Fuhrer.
In the summer of 1944, the Third Reich was on the verge of collapse, yet Berlin’s most urgent priority was to accelerate the ”final solution.” The death toll in the gas chambers on D-Day, as on any other day, far surpassed the enormous Allied losses suffered on the beaches of Normandy.
My labor commando was assigned to remove garbage from a ramp near the crematoria. From there I observed the peak of human extermination and heard the blood-curdling cries of innocents as they were herded into the gas chambers. Once the doors were locked, they had only three minutes to live, yet they found enough strength to dig their fingernails into the walls and scratch in the words ”Never Forget.”
Have we already forgotten?
I also witnessed an extraordinary act of heroism. The Sonderkommando — inmates coerced to dispose of bodies — attacked their SS guards, threw them into the furnaces, set fire to buildings and escaped. They were rapidly captured and executed, but their courage boosted our morale.
As the Russians advanced, those of us still able to work were evacuated deep into Germany. My misery continued at Dachau. During a final death march, while our column was being strafed by Allied planes that mistook us for Wehrmacht troops, I escaped with a few others. An armored battalion of GIs brought me life and freedom. I had just turned 16 — a skeletal ”subhuman” with shaved head and sunken eyes who had been trying so long to hold on to a flicker of hope. ”God bless America,” I shouted uncontrollably .
In the autumn of their lives, the survivors of Auschwitz feel a visceral need to transmit what we have endured, to warn younger generations that today’s intolerance, fanaticism and hatred can destroy their world as they once destroyed ours, that powerful alert systems must be built not only against the fury of nature — a tsunami or storm or eruption — but above all against the folly of man. Because we know from bitter experience that the human animal is capable of the worst, as well as the best — of madness as of genius — and that the unthinkable remains possible.
In the wake of so many recent tragedies, a wave of compassion and solidarity for the victims, a fragile yearning for peace, democracy and liberty, seem to be spreading around the planet. It is far too early to evaluate their potential. Mankind, divided and confused, still hesitates, vacillates like a sleepwalker on the edge of an abyss. But the irrevocable has not yet happened; our chances are still intact. Pray that we learn how to seize them.
The writer is an international lawyer and the author of ”Of Blood and Hope.”