KRAKOW, Poland (JTA) — What kept you alive? Did your non-Jewish friends reject you? Could you ever forgive?
Those were some of the questions posed by Jewish young adults to Holocaust survivor Marcel Tuchman on Monday at the Galicia Jewish Museum here.
“What kept me alive was having my father with me,” said Tuchman, 93, a physician from New York who was born in Poland and survived several concentration camps, including Auschwitz. “And another thing was the hope I had that one day I will be able to tell the story to the likes of you, so you can tell it to the next generation.”
His meeting with young Jews was one of many such encounters taking place in and around Krakow on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet army’s liberation of Auschwitz, where an estimated 1.1 million people were murdered — many of them gassed.
On Tuesday, in a tent set up around the gaping entrance to the Auschwitz-adjacent Birkenau concentration camp, survivors and their companions were joined by dignitaries from more than 40 countries for ceremonies that may well mark the final time that so many Auschwitz survivors are together here again.
Halina Birenbaum, who survived Auschwitz as a child, described to the crowd of 3,000 her impressions of the Nazi camp 45 miles east of Krakow, calling it “a bottomless pit of hell that I could not get out of.”
“All around us was electric barbed wire. Rows of barracks, stinking mud … a disgusting mass of people all in lousy wet rags, with numbers and shaven heads,” she said. “Those gray faces with legs like sticks, wearing those muddy clogs. Nothing reminded you of anything human.”
Roman Kent, president of the International Auschwitz Committee, which was founded by a group of Auschwitz survivors, said his experience in the camp was “more than enough to keep me awake at night until the end of time.”
He added: “How can I ever forget the smell of burning flesh that permeated the air” or “the cries of children torn from their mother’s arms.”
While survivors cannot forget, others simply must remember. Otherwise, Kent said, “the conscience of mankind would be buried alongside the victims.”
Tuesday’s memorial was sponsored by the World Jewish Congress, the USC Shoah Foundation and Discovery Communications, whose subsidiary, Discovery Education, is working with the Shoah Foundation to develop digital teaching materials about Auschwitz. The event also featured the screening of a short documentary, “Auschwitz,” co-directed by the famed filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who started the Shoah Foundation.
In a moment of disequilibrium, survivors watched the film about their former place of imprisonment, sitting in front of the very gate through which cattle cars once passed, delivering so many Jews to their deaths. Just outside the tent, a light snow was falling on the remaining barracks of Birkenau, surrounded by barbed wire.
For some guests, the entire ceremony began on a bizarre note: with ushers instructing survivors and their children, grandchildren, friends, to enter the tent through separate doors and sit apart. All this, mere steps from where they had been selected upon arrival some 72 years ago, told to go to one side while their parents, siblings,
spouses and children were sent to the other.
Marcel and his son, Jeffrey, were among those who politely refused to be parted.
A source who asked not to be named said ceremony organizers from the Auschwitz Museum had simply wanted to create a good photo op, with survivors flanked by dignitaries. But this faux pas brought past and present together in a disturbing way for some, against the backdrop of the Birkenau gate — dressed up and lit to look like a stage set.
At the event, Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, addressed the crowd.
“Auschwitz never goes away,” he said. “This awful place stands as a reminder that propaganda leads to anti-Semitism … that anti-Semitism will grow if nobody speaks out.”
Anti-Semitism, he said, “leads to places like Auschwitz.”
He added: “After the recent events in Paris and throughout Europe and around the world, I cannot ignore what is happening today. Jews are targeted in Europe once again because they are Jews.”
The ceremony was the culmination of several days of events and meetings attended in total by some 300 Holocaust survivors. Few of them were actually liberated at Auschwitz. But all passed through its gates.
Today they are in their 80s and 90s, and fit enough to have traveled from Israel, America, Argentina and elsewhere.
A group of survivors who was to visit the Auschwitz exhibit on Monday never got beyond the infamous gate, marked “Arbeit Macht Frei” — so crowded was this threshold with eager journalists who had come from around the world. And yet the hubbub didn’t seem to faze them a bit. In fact, most of the visitors seemed determined to tell their stories to all who inquired.
“I know that we’re getting old and have to make sure that the memory doesn’t die with us,” said Irene Weiss, 84, of Fairfax, Va., who traveled with her daughter Lesley. Her key message to today’s youth: “[Don’t] be deceived by demagogues.”
On Monday at a ceremony for visiting survivors, Spielberg, whose Oscar-winning movie “Schindler’s List” was filmed partly in Krakow, told the survivors, “I found my own voice and my own Jewish identity thanks to you.”
Spielberg, whose USC Shoah Foundation has interviewed more than 50,000 Holocaust survivors since it was founded 21 years ago, said he was first confronted with the Holocaust as a child reading the numbers on the arms of survivors being taught English by his grandparents in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Edgar Wildfeuer, 90, came here this week from Argentina with his daughter, Doris Wildfeuer, wanting to show her both the camp he survived and city where he grew up: Krakow, with its parks and market squares, its church spires and streetcars. They planned to visit the street where he had lived and the synagogue where he had his bar mitzvah.
Wildfeuer, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, lost 32 relatives.
“I was the only one left,” he said.
Still, his daughter said, “He wanted to show me not only that place but the place where he grew up and was happy.”
Tuchman, too, recalled a happy childhood in Poland. But when the question of forgiveness came up before the youthful crowd on Monday evening, he paused.
“Forgiveness is a very complicated thing,” Tuchman said. After the war, he testified on behalf of a German engineer who had overseen slave laborers, including Tuchman himself, in Auschwitz.
But Tuchman also dealt out his own justice. In postwar Germany, he and a fellow survivor spied a man who had tortured them.
“He was a sadist: He pounded on our stomachs when we were sick with diarrhea,” Tuchman recalled. “We recognized him on the street and grabbed him, and beat the hell out of him.”