On Thursday, January 27th, 2005, leaders from over 40 countries gathered at Auschwitz and in Krakow, Poland to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, joining Holocaust survivors and liberators in what may be the last anniversary to be attended by so many survivors as well as the veterans who opened the camp’s gates in 1945.
The official state ceremony was held at the site of the Birkenau death camp, in an emotional commemoration to the some 1.5 million who perished there. On the morning of the 27th the European Jewish Congress, Yad Vashem and the Polish Ministry of Culture organized an international forum in Krakow, paying tribute to the victims, survivors and liberators, as well as formulating a vision for the future teaching and remembrance of the Holocaust.
“Let My People Live” Forum
This forum, entitled “Let My People Live!” brought together 25 Heads of State, governmental representatives, Auschwitz survivors, veterans who took part in the liberation of the death camp, and an international youth delegation. Over 500 guests crowded Juliusz Slowackiego Theatre in Krakow for the three-hour forum. Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko, Israeli President Moshe Katsav and U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney were among the world leaders present.
The event was unprecedented in scope and composition. Survivors of Auschwitz in their original striped prison uniforms were numerous in the theatre, along with veterans of the Red Army that liberated Auschwitz on January 27th, 1945, proudly displaying their large range of medals on their coats. At the very front of the theatre, just in front of the Heads of State, the international youth delegation were seated as a demonstration of the forum’s goal of educating the next generation, and preparing them for the task of remembrance.
Various dignitaries addressed the symposium, while in-between the speeches, the audience watched multimedia presentations on Auschwitz, and listened to stirring testimonials from the Holocaust, read aloud on stage.
The unifying themes of the speeches were education, memory and the fight against anti-Semitism, a topic addressed fervently by all speakers. The forum also secured strong commitments from all world leaders to press harder in creating formalized and shared methods to teach the Holocaust. President Kwasniewski stressed the need to “make an appeal to young people” in order to “remember this lesson and go through it over and over again.”
Vice-President Cheney also addressed the importance of remembrance, stating “We are bound by conscience to remember what happened, and to whom it happened,”while Nobel laureate and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel questioned the audience, “How can you go away with the knowledge you gathered here and remain the same? If you will be the same after this we will be lost.”
Heads of State from the former Soviet Union noted the sacrifice paid by the Soviet Army in freeing the camps and defeating Nazi Germany, but also committed their countries to the fight against anti-Semitism. President Putin remarked that his own country, which had lost so much to defeat Nazism, also gave rise to manifestations of anti-Semitism, “that are cause for shame” according to him. The President Yushchenko, whose father was a Soviet Red Army prisoner in Auschwitz, stressed that his new Presidency will mark a new era in the combat against anti-Semitism in Ukraine.
The commander of the Red Army unit that captured the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex Anatoly Shapiro, who is 92 and was too ill to travel to the ceremonies, spoke to the Forum through a recorded video, beseeching the world to never allow horrors such as Auschwitz be committed again. Polish President Kwasniewski, recognizing the few liberators that were able to travel to the forum, awarded medals on stage to the veterans present, praising their role in the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Rabbi Yona Metzger, Chief Rabbi of Israel, Waldermar Dabrowski, Minister of Culture of the Republic of Poland, and Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate announced the launch of the Forum’s new program, entitled the “European Education Programme for Teachers on the Holocaust and its Lessons”to be developed by Yad Vashem in Israel and in Holocaust educational centres throughout Europe
Chairman of EJC Board of Governors Moshe Kantor closed the forum with high hopes that such a symposium could be institutionalised, and become a regular event.
Official State Ceremony
After the international Forum, guests were brought to the official state ceremony at the Birkenau death camp. There, over the rail sidings where hundreds of thousands were selected for immediate extermination, survivors and world leaders joined together in a solemn memorial to what President Katsav called that day, the dead who “still cry out”from that spot. In the freezing cold and under falling snow, several speakers addressed the 7,000 gathered there as well as the world at large, through live television coverage.
The almost 1,000 Auschwitz-Birkenau survivors sat huddled together in front of the memorial, wearing camp uniforms, photos of their lost loved ones and badges displaying their camp numbers, listening attentively to the speakers. As in the forum earlier that day, the dignitaries spoke of the need to increase education and memory of the Holocaust, also using it as a tool to combat the disturbing rise of anti-Semitism around the world. Among those present were Vice President Cheney, French President Jacques Chirac, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, German President Horst Koehler and President Yushchenko.
Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, former Polish Foreign Minister and an Auschwitz survivor who was among the first group of inmates – mostly non-Jewish Poles – to be brought to the camp, spoke of the importance to pass down the experience of Auschwitz to the next generation; “Seeking to fulfil the last will of the former inmates who are passing away, here and now we must take a decision on the launch of the Centre for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust,”he said.
Simone Veil of France, President of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, who was deported with her family from Paris 60 years ago, urged that “new commitments be made”in the struggle against anti-Semitism, racism and intolerance. Romani Rose, Chairman of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, also voiced his desire that new obligations are taken up in the fight, particularly concerning the appalling racism that Roma communities in Europe presently live with.
Cardinal Lustiger delivered an address from Pope John Paul II, stating, “No one is permitted to pass by the tragedy of the Shoah.”
President Katsav of Israel concluded the speeches, noting that the “Jewish people have risen from the death camp as a brand snatched from the burning fire. We have returned to our homeland.”This sentiment was powerfully echoed just after President Katsav’s speech, when Auschwitz survivor Merka Shevach, who now lives in Israel, passionately addressed the ceremony in an unplanned speech.
“I was here naked as a young girl, I was 16,” Shevach shouted. “They brought my family here and burnt them, they stole my name and gave me a number.”
“Now,” she said, I have a country, I have an army, I have a president, I have a flag and this will never happen again.”
Cantor Joseph Malovany of New York concluded the speeches by chanting the mourning prayer, “El Malei Rachamim.”
At the very end of the ceremony, after nightfall, all of the Heads of States and other world leaders present at the commemoration solemnly placed candles at the memorial constructed in-between two of Birkenau’s subterranean gas chambers.
The European Jewish Congress organized other events in Krakow within the context of the 60th anniversary.
On the Wednesday the 26th, the European Jewish Congress organized a “Holocaust Memorial Program and Youth Forum”at the “Tempel Synagogue”in the former Jewish quarter of Krakow, Kazimierz. Moderated and led by the Chief Rabbi of Moscow Pinchas Goldschmidt, this ceremony was both a religious service for survivors and other guests attending the forum, and an opening to the dialogue between generations that the Forum envisioned. Chief Rabbi of Israel Meir Lau addressed those present at the synagogue and Auschwitz-Birkenau survivors Maks Privlet and Trudi Spira spoke frankly about their emotions surrounding the commemoration, both expressing hope that the young generation assembled there could learn from history. Israeli student leader Hanan Rapoport also spoke, confirming the duty younger generation to ensure memory of the Holocaust.
The program ended with a memorial kaddish recited by the survivors and a Maariv prayer by Rabbi Aba Dunner, secretary general of the Conference of European Rabbis.
Following the memorial program, the EJC organized a dinner for all participants of the “Let My People Live Forum”at the National Museum in Krakow. Addressing the participants were Israeli President Moshe Katsav, President of the Austrian Jewish Community Ariel Muzicant, President of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress Alexander Machkevitch and Chairman Kantor.
Among the many commemorative events for the 60th Anniversary in Europe, was a special session at the European Parliament, where 617 Members of the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the Holocaust and combating anti-Semitism, almost unanimously, on January 27th in Brussels. The resolution followed a moment of silence and an oral debate on how to combat anti-Semitism and ensure the memory of the Holocaust. The resolution was submitted and drafted by the European Jewish Congress.
European Jewish Congress Representatives
President Cobi Benatoff, Secretary General Serge Cwajgenbaum, Treasurer Pierre Besnainou, Vice President Roger Cukierman Vice-President Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, Presidium members Gideon Bolotowsky, and Ariel Muzicant represented the European Jewish Congress at the 60th anniversary. EJC and EAJC affiliate Community presidents and leaders who were present included: Jakob Finci (Bosnia), Emil Kalo (Bulgaria), Ognen Kraus (Croatia), Tomas Kraus (Czech), Cilja Laud (Estonia), Gideon Bolotowsky (Finland), Solomon Korn (Germany), Benjamin Albalas (Greece), Andras Heisler and Gustave Zoltai (Hungary), Arkady Sukharenko (Latvia), JosÌ© Hertz (Luxembourg), Viktor Mizrahi (Macedonia), Piotr Kadlcik (Poland), Szimon Szurmiej (Poland), Ossy Lazar (Romania), Vladimir Sloutsker (Russia), Aca Singer (Serbia and Montenegro), Fero Alexander (Slovakia), Silvio Ovadyia (Turkey), Lord Janner and Flo Kaufmann (United Kingdom), Jackie Jakubowski (Sweden), Alfred Donath (Switzerland), Chief Rabbi of Moscow Pinchas Goldschmidt, Alexander Machkevitch (Kazakhstan), Roman Spektor and Michael Chlenov (Russia) and Joseph Zissels (Ukraine).
By Ilan Moss