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Behind the Headlines: Auschwitz Commemorations Leave Some Lingering Questions

January 30, 1995
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“Magda. Marta, Monique. Nettie. Renata. Rosalia. Ruth. Samson. Sandor. Vera. Willy. Henek. Schmulek. Emil”.

As two days of controversy clouded ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz drew to a close last Friday, Polish Jewish actor Szymon Szurmiej intoned the first names of the 1.5 million men, women and children who died in the largest and most notorious Nazi death camp.

An endless recitation of names resounded from loudspeakers across the vast cemetery of Birkenau.

But after the mourning and tears, after the speeches and wreath-layings, last week’s commemorations left major questions for the future.

They also illustrated that after half a century, the political as well as personal legacy of Auschwitz is still traumatic.

As the names were read, many of the several thousand people in attendance lit memorial candles.

Under a light shower of snow, they prayed and wept as they placed the candles on the red brick ruins of the crematoria where hundreds of thousands of bodies were burned. And they prayed and wept was they placed the candles on the red brick ruins of the crematoria where hundreds of thousands of bodies were burned. And they placed them on the rusting rail tracks that brought cattle cars full of Jews-most of whom died-from across Europe.

The names and the flickering candles brought home the human tragedy of Auschwitz in an extremely powerful way and served as a fitting conclusion to the official ceremonies and formal speeches.

One of the key questions left after the ceremonies were over was how to build on memory to forge Jewish continuity.

“If Hitler is not to have a final victory, we must above all not just remember, but rebuild”, Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, said in an interview.

“We must remember for the future”, said Jakobovits, who headed the official British delegation to the commemorations.

“Obviously we have to remember the enormity of the sacrifice. We must constantly remind the world of what can happen”, he said. “But at the same time, survival must serve a purpose. We shouldn’t survive just to be alive”.

In this context, many Jewish participants in the ceremonies were encouraged by the opening of a Jewish Youth Club and Education Center in Krakow, Poland on Jan. 26.

The new youth center, whose opening was attended by Jewish and Polish dignitaries, is the fourth such center to be established in Poland by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation since the fall of the Communist regime five years ago.

It is part of a variety of initiatives encouraging the re-emergence of Jewish life in Poland and other post-Communist countries.

“You don’t just want to be blown away by Auschwitz”, said David Singer, director of research and publications for the American Jewish Committee.

“If Jewish life goes on, you need to affirm life”, he said.

Attended by heads of state and representatives of more than two dozen countries, last Friday’s ceremony-televised internationally–was the climax of two days of commemorations marked by conflicts between Jews and Poles as to how Auschwitz should be remembered.

In its official plans for last week’s events, the Polish government had scheduled highly ecumenical ceremonies, which according to Jewish critics, memorialized Auschwitz as a universal symbol of man’s inhumanity to man, without paying tribute to the uniquely Jewish dimension of the suffering.

Some Jewish groups had also accused the Polish organizers of trying to “Polonize” or “Christianize” Auschwitz.

Ninety percent of Auschwitz victims were Jews killed as part of the Nazi’s Final Solution. For Jews as well as for most of the world, Auschwitz has become the paramount symbol of the Holocaust.

At least 70,000 Roman Catholic Poles were also killed there, and Poles generally view Auschwitz as the symbol of Polish suffering under the Nazis.

The Polish-Jewish conflicts grabbed the media’s attention and at times threatened to eclipse the commemorations.

Some observers said that focusing so exclusively on Jewish-Polish disputes over Auschwitz tended to obscure the fact that it was the Germans who founded the camp and carried out the horrors.

In the end, however, the conflicts had some positive results.

For one thing, Jews staged their own separate memorial ceremony on Jan. 26 as a supplement to the official program

Some here said such a ceremony should have been planned from the beginning, regardless of what the Polish government was organizing.

Attended by several hundred survivors and other Jews–and at least as many reporters, some of whom clambered onto the ruined crematoria at Birkenau to get good camera angles–it was an emotionally charged ceremony that participants agreed was necessary.

“What should have happened is that five years ago, the Jews should have got together and said, ‘This is what we’d like to do on the 50th anniversary of Auschwitz,’ ” said Jewish scholar Jonathan Webber.

“What should also have happened is that Catholic Church should have come up with a plan, the Polish government come up with a plan, Auschwitz survivors come up with a plan. The more the merrier”, he said.

Ami Mehl of the Israeli Foreign Ministry said, “I think we had to have two different ceremonies in Auschwitz, one especially for Jews, and one for all the others, including the Jews, because most of the people who were killed here were Jews.

“So we ourselves had to do it separately, and we didn’t have to have any contact with the main ceremony”, Mehl said.

What the conflict also did was to bring the truth about Auschwitz–as well as who died there and why-out into the open in Poland.

In this sense it was an educational experience, many participants and observers agreed.

Just how much the educational experience was needed was reflected in a survey of Polish attitudes on the Holocaust and Jews.

The survey by the American Jewish Committee, released on the eve of the Auschwitz commemorations, showed in quantitative form how strongly Poles believe they were equal victims of the Nazis.

In the poll, 40 percent of respondents said both Poles and Jews suffered equally from Nazi persecution.

The survey also showed how the Poles have what Singer of the AJCommittee called a “remanticized conception” of how Poles acted toward Jews in World War II.

“The key variable in having greater knowledge, greater emphasis on Holocaust remembrance and more positive orientation to Jews is better education”, Singer said.

Pressure from Jews, including specific pressure from Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor who headed the official American delegation, forced the Polish organizers to change the official program to include more Jewish content.

He and others succeeded in getting the organizers to start the proceedings with the Kaddish, the prayer for mourning, and other Jewish prayers.

Wiesel also succeeded in convincing Polish President Lech Walesa to include reference to the Jews in his speech last Friday.

Walesa said that Auschwitz “stands for the suffering of many nations, especially the Jewish nation”.

The words “especially the Jewish nation” not been a part of Walesa’s prepared text, but had been a later addition intended to reflect the concerns of his Jewish critics.

Walesa’s omission of specific reference to the Jewish dimension of Auschwitz in two earlier speeches had caused extreme bitterness.

“It was obviously very hurtful”, said Jakobovits.

But, he added, the final form of last Friday’s official ceremony gave him “a sense of tremendous comfort”, especially because “30 nations were represented and paying tributes and invariably mentioning Jews.

“Starting with the Jewish memorial prayer recited by the chief rabbi of Warsaw was exceedingly moving”, he said.

Jakobovits, who fled Nazi Germany as a teen-ager in 1936, said his feelings were shared by many of the Jews present at the ceremonies on both days.

“My overwhelming feeling was that I could walk out of Auschwitz. Walk out alive”, he said.

Both Polish and Jewish participants agreed that the official pomp and tribute was valid in a political sense, but ran the risk of being purely ceremonial.

“I don’t think that any ceremony could adequately memorialize the memories of the dead which were here in such great numbers”, said Polish Bishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the Polish Episcopate’s Commission for Dialogue with the Jews.

Said Noah Krieger, an Auschwitz survivor who now lives in Israel: “Today the official come because they are officials”.

“They’re leaders of states and they want to pay some tributes to what happened 50 or 55 years ago”.

“Sure they want to express solidarity and they want to deliver a message of peace in the world and all this”, he said.

“But today they’re here, and this evening they will not remember even where they were”, Krieger said. “They will have forgotten all about Auschwitz and Birkenau and all this.

“We don’t forget”, he added. “That’s the difference”.

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