75 Years After The Liberation Of Auschwitz, Survivors Return Again
More than 75 years after facing the 'indescribable' horrors of Auschwitz, more than 200 survivors of the most notorious Nazi death camp will return to the site once more.
Ageing survivors have made the journey from all corners of the world -- from Australia, the United States, Israel -- to commemorate 75 years since the Soviet Red Army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.
On Monday afternoon (local time), they'll sit inside a tent built over the historical gate of the former Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp, inscribed with the Nazi slogan, 'Arbeit Macht Frei' -- German for 'work will set you free'.
The Auchwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum expects over 200 survivors will attend the anniversary, reportedly including three Australians.
They'll be joined by world leaders from more than 50 countries, as the occasion is marked across the globe. It could be the last major anniversary where living survivors will be present.
'The Trauma Stays With Everyone'
The Nazi concentration camp is arguably the most enduring and recognisable reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust.
One camp, Auschwitz I, was built in June 1940 in an abandoned Polish military base and operated as a camp for Polish prisoners, including Catholic priests and members of the nation's underground resistance against German occupation.
In March 1942, a much bigger complex -- Auschwitz II-Birkenau -- was built three kilometres away to expedite the Nazi 'Final Solution'. The largest mass murder installations in occupied Europe were created in the form of gas chambers, where Nazis murdered Jews transported from across Europe.
This week, the Sydney Jewish Museum shared survivors' reflections in the leadup to the anniversary, in the form of posts on Facebook.
One of the experiences that has stayed with Auschwitz survivor Kuba Enoch is arriving at the camp at night.
"The trains were opened by SS with dogs, with whips, shouting, 'out, out!'" he told the museum.
We assembled on a platform, (and) jumped out. Any who weren't quick enough got copped with whips. As soon as we assembled, I could see the fire of the crematorium burning -- it was nighttime -- we could smell horrible smells, which still stay with me all my life."
Enoch, born in 1926 in Krakow, Poland, was 13 years old when Germany invaded Poland.
Holocaust survivor Yvonne Engelmann was also young -- just 15.
"The last thing my father told me was in the wagon. He said, 'I don't know where we are going, but I am sure we are not going for a holiday. I want you to promise me that you will survive'," she told the museum.
I found that a very strange question, because at 15, I was truly a child. But I said to him, 'Of course, I will survive'. And I kept my promise.
Prisoners arrived in cramped, windowless cattle trains. At the ramp at Auschwitz, the Nazis selected those they could use as forced laborers. The others -- the elderly, many women, and especially children and babies -- were killed soon after their arrival.
Olga Horak was also imprisoned in Auschwitz.
"All the people on the left side, the groups were taken to the gas chambers soon after and were murdered," she recalled.
"On the right side, we were marched to a shed and shaven completely. I couldn't even recognise my mum who stood next to me."
More than 1.1 million people were murdered by Nazis in Auschwitz, almost all of them Jews, according to thr Auschwitz Memorial and Museum. Six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.
When the Soviet Red Army liberated the camp on January 27, 1945, they found about 7,000 survivors, and the bodies of Nazi Germany's prisoners.
"It’s extremely difficult to tell you how I suffered from the cold, how I felt horribly hungry. That trauma stays with everyone, I suppose, for the rest of our lives," Horak said.
But Enoch said he was a young person "living in hope".
“... my mother must be alive somewhere, my father must be alive somewhere, even my brother could be alive. I didn’t realise what was happening. So you lived in hope.”
The solemn ceremony is scheduled to take place on Monday afternoon (local time) at the former death camp.
But the anniversary is somewhat clouded, as world leaders vow to learn from the horrors of the Holocaust while denouncing the rising threat of anti-Semitism.
On Thursday, more than 45 leaders attended the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Prince Charles, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
But the event was clouded by a dispute between the Polish and Russian leaders. Putin was offered a speaking role, prompting the president of Poland, Andrzej Duda to pull out of the meeting.
“Unfortunately, I am sorry to say this, but President Putin consciously, certainly, spreads historical lies and obviously does it with an agenda because he is trying in this way to erase the responsibility of Stalinist Russia for the start of World War II together with Nazi Germany,” Duda told Israeli state television.
“I imagine he is ashamed of it today.”
In his address, Putin highlighted the role of the Red Army in liberating Auschwitz. He said the Holocaust would only serve as a warning to future generations if told in full, “without exemptions and omissions".
On the eve of the event, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin implored visiting dignitaries to “leave history for the historians,” saying it was the role of political leaders to “shape the future".
But Putin quickly ventured into the sensitive terrain shortly after his arrival, claiming 40 percent of Jewish Holocaust victims were Soviet. Of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis, historians say about one million were Soviet. Putin’s figure appeared to include an additional 1.5 million Jewish victims from eastern European areas occupied by the Soviets under their pact with the Nazis.
French President Emmanuel Macron decried the rising anti-Semitism in Europe, saying Europe must be unified in the face of hatred and must never devolve into conflict again.