I write from Jerusalem, where I attended a ceremony Thursday at which Vice President Mike Pence and other international leaders spoke to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the hellish Nazi death camp where at least 1.1 million people – about 1 million of them Jews – were murdered.
Auschwitz was the deadliest of the concentration camps, playing a key role in the Nazis’ evil plan designed to wipe out the Jewish people. In all, 6 million Jews were shot, starved, gassed and burned to death in the Holocaust – simply because they were Jewish.
Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945. They and their American and British counterparts who fought and defeated the Nazi regime that spread death and destruction across Europe and North Africa would soon open more gates of hell at Dachau, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Mauthausen and other Nazi death camps.
Before arriving in Israel for the ceremonies at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center for Thursday’s moving ceremony, I was part of a delegation from the Simon Wiesenthal Center that had an audience Monday with Pope Francis. That day marked the 78th anniversary of a meeting of 15 top Nazi leaders in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to decide on the most efficient “final solution” of the “Jewish Question”: mass murder all 11 million European Jews.
At our meeting, Pope Francis set the stage for the global commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz. “If we lose our memory, we destroy our future,” the pontiff warned.
At the ceremony in Jerusalem, in addition to a speech by Vice President Pence there were a series of dramatic speeches from Prince Charles, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, French President Emmanuel Macron, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
All emphasized the need to remember – but there were demands by some to do more. Netanyahu urged a united front against the Iranian regime that seeks to eradicate 6 million Israeli Jews. Vice President Pence and the President Steinmeier both uttered prayers and blessings in Hebrew in acts of solidarity with the Jewish people.
“We gather to fulfill the solemn obligation, an obligation of remembrance, to never let the memory of those who died in the Holocaust to be forgotten by anyone anywhere in the world," Pence said. "Today we remember what happens when the powerless cry for help and the powerful refuse to answer."
“This Germany will only live up to itself if it lives up to its historical responsibility,” Steinmeier said. “We fight anti-Semitism. We resist the poison that is nationalism. We protect Jewish life. We stand with Israel. Here at Yad Vashem, I renew this promise before the eyes of the world.”
But what was especially moving was the primal scream from 82-year-old former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who survived the Buchenwald concentration camp as a young boy and was liberated at age 8, along with his brother. Their parents and other family members were murdered by the Nazis. Rabbi Lau spoke for the silent millions, when he rejected calls “to forgive and forget.”
“I came especially to tell you that I cannot forgive,” the rabbi said, “because I am not authorized.”
Even German President Steinmeier dispensed with politically correct pieties and admitted that “I wish I can say Germans have learned from history, but I cannot say that when hatred is spreading.”
Monday morning aging survivors of Auschwitz and the adjacent Birkenau death camp will say the Kaddish prayer for the dead – likely for the last time at the place where their loved ones were tortured, branded, experimented upon, shot, gassed and burned to ash.
The world has now heard from its leaders the importance of memory and solidarity with the victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
But at a time of violent surging anti-Semitism on both sides of the Atlantic there are two major action items for those leaders and each of us must commit to.
First, we must educate our children that evil is real and must be fought. And second, for the phrase “Never Again” to have any meaning in the 21st century we must not only stand in silent tribute to dead victims of anti-Semitism, racism and terrorism. We must have the courage most people failed to show when it counted during the Nazi era.
We will monitor events in France, Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom – and yes on the streets and campuses in America – to see what if anything, we have learned from Auschwitz.