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Hope in the Face of Evil: Embassies Remember Liberation of Auschwitz

By Diana Oxner

For this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, countries around the world commemorated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp where over 1 million men, women and children were killed, most of them Jews. Locally, embassies in D.C. ranging from Croatia to Italy held their own commemorations.

That included ambassadors from the two countries inextricably linked to the notorious death camp: Germany and Poland, where the Nazis set up the vast Auschwitz-Birkenau complex.

On Jan. 28, survivors, their families, members of the diplomatic community and U.S. government officials gathered at Polish Ambassador Piotr Wilczek’s residence to reflect on the liberation of the camp, which Soviet troops entered on Jan. 27, 1945, the date now known as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

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Polish Ambassador Piotr Wilczek was among the keynote speakers who participated in a discussion and film screening to honor the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Photos: Embassy of Poland - Twitter

Described as a “soul-less machinery of death,” over 1 million Jews were systematically exterminated in Auschwitz alone, many in gas chambers, along with non-Jewish Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Roma and other persecuted groups.

“One needs an extraordinary level of resilience, humanity and strong will to not only ensure that such evil will never return, but that the memory of those who perished will serve as eternal, somber proof of what humans are capable of committing,” said Wilczek.

German Ambassador Emily Haber marked the solemn occasion by quoting German President Frank-Walker Steinmeier who, a couple days earlier, described the Holocaust as “the industrial mass murder of 6 million Jews,” making it “the worst crime in the history of humanity.”

Held in conjunction with the Center for Jewish Civilization at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, the event also highlighted some of the silent heroes of the Holocaust by showcasing the documentary “The Secret Web of Good Around Auschwitz.”

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German Ambassador Emily Haber reflected on her countrymen's role in mass extermination of  over 1 million Jews, non-Jewish Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Roma and other persecuted groups in the "soul-less machinery of death" known as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Camp. Photos: Embassy of Poland - Twitter

Directed by Barbara Daczyńska, the documentary shows how over 6,000 residents of Oświęcim and the surrounding area tried to help those imprisoned at Auschwitz by supplying them with onions wrapped in bread, socks, cigarettes, medication and other goods. “How can you not feed someone when they are hungry?” said one women in the film, who when she was younger would hide bread under the gate surrounding the camp.

These small acts of kindness were reminders that the prisoners were not alone in “that hell on earth,” according to the documentary.

But these small acts of kindness also came at a high price — imprisonment or even death if caught by the Nazis. Women, now in their 80s, recounted the moments when a parent was taken away and never returned after being caught helping prisoners.

The documentary showcases the bravery and humanity of these “righteous among the nations” — an honorific used by Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jews — including the 67 Poles who were killed for helping their imprisoned neighbors.

The event also emphasized the importance of preserving an accurate history of the Holocaust and its legacy — a particularly contentious issue today given recent accusations that countries such as Russia and Poland are attempting to rewrite that history.

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Described as a “soul-less machinery of death,” over 1 million Jews were systematically exterminated in Auschwitz alone, many in gas chambers, along with non-Jewish Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Roma and other persecuted groups.Photos: Carl S from Pixabay

In 2018, Poland’s conservative Law and Justice party was criticized for a bill that would’ve made it a criminal offense to accuse Poland of complicity in Nazi war crimes. After an international outcry, the law was shelved.

More recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin has come under fire for downplaying the Soviet Union’s role in triggering World War II when it joined Nazi Germany in the 1939 attack on Poland. Putin even made the odd suggestion that Poland was to blame for the outbreak of war.

In response to the tensions, Polish President Andrzej Duda skipped a remembrance ceremony held in Israel that was attended by Putin. Instead, he held a smaller ceremony in Poland that excluded Russia.

Anna Sommer Schneider, associate director of the Center for Jewish Civilizations, stressed the importance of educating and reminding people about Jewish and Polish history as well as the full picture of what Auschwitz means. She said this history should be preserved “free of simplification, distortions, trivializations and politization.”

For his part, Wilczek underscored the importance of professionals such as historians, museum guides and volunteers who deepen the common understanding of what happened in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, beyond the statistics.

To honor International Holocaust Remembrance Day, various other embassies also chose to highlight stories that revealed the faces behind the statistics.

On Jan. 27, Embassy of Canada collaborated with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to screen the film “Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz.” This documentary, directed by Barry Avrich (who was on hand for the screening), depicts the life of Ferencz, a Hungarian-born American lawyer who was the last surviving prosecutor at the Nuremburg Trials.

Ferencz discovered the daily reports known as the Einsatzgruppe sent to the Third Reich detailing the actions of Nazi paramilitary death squads that played a key role in killing the Polish elite and implementing the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” These dossiers specified how many Jews were killed on a daily basis. In a comparison to the “industrial horror of Auschwitz” that erased prisoners’ individual identities, the Einsatzgruppe reports and Ferencz’s prosecution of the top generals named in them expose the “direct human being-to-human being atrocity” that occurred during the Holocaust, according to the film.

That same evening, the Embassy of Italy shed light on the largely unheard-of stories of how the Holocaust impacted women. Writings from three Italian mothers and daughters who survived the Holocaust were presented in a theatrical reading. Directed by playwright Federica Cellini and accompanied by Jewish-Italian piano and accordion player Simone Baron, these three stories speak to the human endurance that survived in a time of darkness.

Down the street, the Embassy of Croatia showcased the lives of two survivors of the Holocaust. Branko Lustig, an Auschwitz survivor and Croatian filmmaker, was featured in a short documentary titled “Branko.” With the exception of his mother, most of Lustig’s family was killed during the Holocaust. On the day of the liberation, he weighed only 66 pounds. He credited his survival in Auschwitz to a German officer who happened to know his father because they lived in the same neighborhood.

Director Topaz Adizes depicted Branko’s first time going back to Auschwitz since its liberation when he was 13 years old. Because of the timing, he was robbed of having a Bat Mitzvah, a rite of passage for Jewish boys. However, at the age of 87, he finally received his sacrament at the very location that condemned him for his religion.

Given the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, the Holocaust commemorations took on an added urgency. All of the embassy events also put a face to the grim statistics behind Auschwitz and made one message abundantly clear: the history of the Holocaust is multi-faceted and filled with layers of personal stories that need to be told and preserved so we can learn from our mistakes and never repeat them again.

 


Diana Oxner is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.

 
 

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