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68 years after the 'liberation' of Auschwitz --lessons learned and unlearned

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Jan. 21, 2013: British Prime Minister David Cameron talks with Holocaust survivor Freda Wineman ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day at 10 Downing Street in London. (AP/Reuters Pool)

On January 27, 1945, Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz Birkenau Death Camp. Actually “liberated” is the wrong word. Opened the gates of hell is more appropriate a term. 

The numbers of murdered are staggering. According to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust nearly a quarter of the 6 million Jews killed in Holocaust were mass murdered there, most in gas chambers. Of the 400,000 political prisoners brought to Auschwitz, only 65,000 left alive; of the 16,000 Soviet POWs, 96 returned home.

Stalin was reported to have said, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.”

But these statistics further illuminate the capacity of humankind to do evil:

Between Dec 1, 1944 and January 15th, 1945, 514,843 pieces of men, women’s and children’s clothing were shipped to Germany from Auschwitz. In the warehouses, Soviet troops found over a million men’s suits, women’s dresses and baby clothing, thousands of pairs of shoes and 7.7 tons of human hair.

So it was appropriate for the United Nations to designate January 27, 2013 International Memorial Day.

So how is humanity doing in the memory department?

On the one hand, the number of Holocaust memorials, museums, movies, websites and books continue to proliferate. The words of Anne Frank, one of the 1.5 million Jewish kids who perished in the Nazi Holocaust, continue to inspire new generations of young people.

On the other hand, the Nazi genocidal anti-Semitic and racist ideology is alive and well, even in democratic countries on the continent where the Third Reich wrought such devastation 70 years ago. 

In economically devastated Greece, the Golden Dawn Party invokes Nazi era anti-Semitic stereotypes as part of its ugly populist agenda to win more votes and clout. 

In Hungary, whose fascists abetted the Nazis to deport 400,000 Jewish citizens to their death at Auschwitz in the closing months of WWII, leaders of the Jobbik Party leverage their hatred of Gypsies (Roma) and Jews—two minorities who were experimented upon, shot and gassed at Auschwitz—to win headlines and more seats in Parliament.

A generation after Auschwitz, many European Jews still look over their shoulders. 

Religious Jews in Malmo, Sweden can’t count on the police or courts to defend them from serial hate crimes. 

In Copenhagen, Jews are told not wear a yarmulke, Star of David necklace or speak Hebrew on the streets. 

In Germany, a respected member of the media likens ultra-Orthodox Jews to Islamist extremists who he says are motivated by the “law of revenge.” 

In France, authorities and Jewish community leaders are grappling with deadly hate crimes, not so much from neo-Nazi thugs, than from radical Islamists who are at war with all Jews. They get their inspiration from Iran’s Holocaust-denying Mullahs and Egypt’s now powerful Muslim Brotherhood.

If we want to show that the world has learned its lessons from January 27, 1945, we need the European Union and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to join the Obama administration in condemning Egyptian President Morsi’s depicting Jews as the “sons of apes and pigs.” 

We need to signal the governments in Hungary, Greece, and the Ukraine, that mainstreaming of Jew-hatred could cost them dearly when they coming knocking at Washington’s door for help.

So as the world pauses for a moment this week to bow our heads honoring dead Jews, we urge leaders to re-commit to protect and respect the Jews who are alive and living among us.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Follow the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Facebook and on Twitter.