World Leaders Honor Survivors Beneath the Gates of Auschwitz


Oswiecim, Poland — It was a series of events that some said was never
meant to be: After marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of
Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2015, organizers doubted they would be able to
gather more than a handful of survivors for the 75th anniversary.

And yet over three chilly days, some 200 mostly frail survivors and their
families traveled here for the anniversary and ceremonies at the site in
southern Poland where Nazis orchestrated the industrial slaughter of 1.5
million people, of whom 1.1 million were Jews.

One of those survivors was Jeanette Spiegel, 98, a New Yorker who
came with her daughter, Heidi Spiegel, and two of her grown
grandchildren, Harrison Manin and Grace Hutcher.

She was among the 100 survivors attending thanks to the support of the
New York-based Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation, chaired by the cosmetics billionaire and philanthropist Ronald Lauder.

At a welcome dinner in Krakow Sunday night hosted by the ABMF,
Spiegel shared a story like the story of every survivor in the room, was
no less improbable for being true.

Asked what it felt like to return to a site of so much suffering, she
said, “It is a very tragic, very sad thing. But it is like visiting a
cemetery. I am here to say Kaddish for family and friends who died

The centerpiece of the week’s events was a ceremony Monday at
Auschwitz-Birkenau, where survivors were honored by heads of state
from at least 52 countries. January 27 marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day, held on the anniversary of when Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz in the closing months of World War II.

The official ceremony, organized by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial
and Museum, took place in a large white tent built around the iconic
main entrance to Birkenau-Auschwitz II. The train tracks were visible
beneath transparent floor tiles, and images of the camp were projected on the ceiling. Survivors wore striped scarves reminiscent of the camp
uniforms many once wore.

For all the pomp, the focus was kept on the men and women gripping
canes and walkers in the front row. The heart of the ceremony was
testimony by two Jewish survivors, Batsheva Dagan and Marian Turski; Elza Baker, who is of Roma and Sinti descent; and a former Polish political prisoner, Stanisław Zalewski.

Turski, 93, a Polish-Jewish historian who survived the Lodz Ghetto and
Auschwitz, addressed his grandchildren and friends, warning about the
need to be vigilant in today’s climate.

“Don’t be indifferent,” he implored. “Don’t be indifferent when you
witness historical lies. Don’t be indifferent when the past is manipulated for the sake of current political interests. Don’t be indifferent when any minority is discriminated against.”

In a speech read by a companion, Baker, a survivor of Roma and Sinti
descent, who was deported to Auschwitz from Hamburg at age 8, said:
“May I just say one thing; in times like this, when minorities have to feel vulnerable again, I can only hope that everyone would stand up for
democracy and human rights.”

In the five years since the last milestone anniversary, the 70th, there has been an ominous rise in public expressions of anti-Semitism, including violent attacks in Pittsburgh, Poway, Calif., Halle, Germany, Jersey City and Monsey, N.Y.

Lauder, who is also president of the World Jewish Congress and who led the now 30-year effort to preserve the death camp’s once-crumbling
infrastructure, addressed this spike while speaking on behalf of “The
Pillars of Remembrance,” the top donors to the Auschwitz-Birkenau

“Seventy-five years ago, when the world saw what happened here,
nobody in their right mind, nobody, wanted to be associated with the
Nazis,” he said. “Now, the open spread of anti-Jewish hatred [is seen]
throughout the world once again. In 2020 we hear the same lies the Nazis used so effectively in their propaganda” about Jewish control of the economy and the media.

Lauder called directly on the leaders in attendance to fight anti-Semitism with strong anti-hate statutes and to resist the United Nations resolutions singling out Israel.

Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, opened the ceremony with remarks
that honored the survivors and victims and reminded listeners of the
politics that still cloud the historical memory of the Shoah.

Last week Duda skipped a major Holocaust memorial event in
Jerusalem, in part angered over accusations by Russian President
Vladimir Putin that Poland collaborated with Germany in 1938. Duda
used part of his speech to defend Polish honor during the war, saying his
republic was “the first target of Nazi Germans” and that its “soldiers
fought against the Germans on all the fronts of the Second World War.”

“Distorting the history of the Second World War, denying the crimes of
the genocide and the instrumental use of the Holocaust to attain any goal is tantamount to a desecration of the victims whose ashes are scattered here,” said Duda, who has also faced criticism for backing a law that makes it a crime to implicate Poland in the genocide.

Among the other heads of state attending were presidents Reuven Rivlin of Israel, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and Alexander Van der Bellen of Austria. Russia was not represented.

Secretary of the Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin represented the United
States and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo led a delegation from New York.

The ceremony ended with the blowing of a shofar in the presence of
Jewish, Catholic and Protestant clergy, and the recitation of El Maale
Rachamim, a memorial chant, as well as Kaddish, the prayer for the
dead. Dignitaries marched to the monument erected between the
complex’s razed gas chambers to light memorial candles

A ‘Family Reunion’

The night before, 100 survivors and their family members from the
United States, Canada, Israel, Australia and several European countries
packed a repurposed tram depot in Krakow for the welcome dinner,
hosted by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation.

Many arrived that day from New York on a charter flight hired by
Lauder. Among the speakers was Ukraine’s Zelensky, who days before
had been in Israel to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the

“I can’t imagine the strength you need to survive it, and you did,” he
said. In a dark world, he added, “You are the rays of sunshine that
penetrate the darkness.”

He did not mention his own connection to the Holocaust, as he did in a
Jan. 24 meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when
he spoke of relatives killed by the Germans and his grandfather’s time as a Red Army soldier fighting the Nazis.
In his remarks at the dinner, Lauder also spoke of the survivors as an

“You alone have a perspective that none of us can ever have,” he said.
“And that is why we honor you and we honor your bravery.”

He also took what appeared to be a pointed swing at the Palestinian
leadership, saying that the Jewish reaction to the extermination of one-
third of the Jewish people was “not one single act of retribution.” The
survivors “did not fester for 75 years” in displaced persons camps, he
said, and Jews did not “create terror and mayhem around the world and
extort money from governments like a crime syndicate.”

The dinner was otherwise neither political nor somber, but celebratory.
One participant, Andrew Silberstein from Tenafly, N.J., whose father
Michael was a teenager when he arrived at Birkenau in the summer of
1944, called it a “family reunion for people who don’t know each other.”
Grandchildren led tiny grandparents to their seats; families broke into
spontaneous choruses of “Am Yisrael Chai,” the people of Israeli live.

The largest contingent, representing four generations, accompanied New Yorker Rachel Roth, 94, and her aunt Ella Blumenthal, 98. Roth, whose memoir “Here There Is No Why” recounts how she survived both the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Auschwitz, lives on the Upper East Side.

According to her niece, Efrat Lax of Modiin, Israel, Roth has 18
grandchildren and 38 great-grandchildren. Some 40 members of the
family were called up on the stage to sing along to a video of “Hatikvah”
performed by students from Lauder-funded Jewish schools across

Jeanette Spiegel shared her story with a reporter as she rested her hands
on the knees of her grandson.

Sent before the war by her Austrian Jewish parents on a Kindertransport
to Belgium where they thought she’d be safe, she was rounded up by the Nazis in 1944 and spent nine months in Auschwitz. She and a few other women were allowed to keep their hair so they could be paraded in front of Red Cross officials by Nazis eager to hide the truth of the camp.

In January 1945, at age 20, she was one of thousands of prisoners led out on a death march, and was eventually herded into an open cattle car for the brutal trip west. She and a friend managed to sneak out of the car in Neisse, now Nysa, Poland, and convinced a high Nazi official that she was a German refugee and that her father was a German soldier stationed in Vienna. The official allowed them to travel on another train to Leipzig via Dresden.

There’s a story there, too: The young women didn’t look like prisoners
because they still had all their hair.

Harrison Manin, 26, her grandson, said he had been with his
grandmother on a previous trip to the former death camp and had grown
up with her stories of survival. “It’s very powerful, especially now,” he said, “when you see the return of fascism worldwide.”