“..Written by ..Sonderkommando ..Crematorium II August 5th. 1944 ..Zalman Lewental ..Ciechanow ..Poland. No one can imagine exactly how things happened ..for it is unimaginable that a precise account of our experiences can be given. ..We ..a small group of grey people ..will give historians a ..hard time ..also ..psychologists who want to know ..investigate ..mental condition of ..people who tackled this dismal ..dirty work. ..who knows whether these investigators will fathom ..truth ..whether anyone will be able to thoroughly.” Zalman Lewental.
Today in History, January 27th. we come together, though 76 years further down the line to remember those Jews of The Holocaust who were never intended to emerge from this particular Jewish Catastrophe. Historians attempt to capture an essence of the truth only the Jewish Survivor, and there are far too few of those today who can still afford us more of the incomprehensible detail of an atrocity against them that we need to at least attempt to understand. It is, accusingly though, that this was not the end of the Jewish suffering but a continuance of the pain inflicted upon them for being Jews.
“..By this time ..Nazis had plenty of experience ..they knew how to process mass murder efficiently and quickly. We were deceived continually and ..deception at that point was that they would take us somewhere to work.” Lily Ebert.
For every year of Hitler’s rise to power he spoke endlessly of the penalty he would exact upon the Jewish People as Jews. His ascendency to that power brokerage ensured that he would deliver on what he professed would be The Final Solution of The Jewish Question. With the passing of 12 years of Hitler’s dictatorial insistence the final resolve delivered on The Holocaust a shame so ingested, the most vicious, unprecedented and uniquely unparalleled slaughter in all of history was inflicted upon 6,000,000 Jewish People, as Jews. Here in Poland, where Hitler’s teutons had moved heaven and earth to the eradicate the very evidence which Poland and the World had known of, of the escalating genocide, and for over 5 years of its conduct, time was being called on the catastrophe’s enactment.
“..As one who survived ..infernos of Auschwitz Birkenau ..Buchenwald ..my eyes are still burning from ..vision of that nightmare ..my ears ..still ringing with ..agonizing sounds of Men ..Women ..little children ..lured ..driven into ..gas chambers ..solely ..exclusively because they were Jewish.” Mel Mermelstein.
What the World would then come to realise, which had always been true and yet hidden from most in the World, would enter into evidence the testimony of this enormous and flagrant move away from humanity. Though here at Birkenau the nazis were not quite finished with their resolve to complete Hitler’s effort for the destruction of all the Jews of Europe, and he had been counting on 11,293,300 to be annihilated, there was a further effort. On March 19th. Hitler’s forces occupied all of Hungary, he had dispatched an entire ss Army 13 days previously and with some 725,000 of Hungarian Jewry facing Hitler’s immediate and final resolve, no other consideration was given to what now confronted Hitler.
On April 5th. 1944 attempts are being made in an attempt of saving as many of Hungary’s Jews as possible, the basis of the Blood for Goods deal. It is clear though that the feint is blinding the Jewish attempt being sought and during the height of the effort some 84,000 Hungarian Jews are ‘resettled’ to Birkenau on a weekly basis. Here, with this as evidence there are many historians who cannot see in Hitler’s Weltanschauung, his World View, other than a dominance over a World he did often allude to. But, and here in Hungary, while Allied forces were pushing strategically toward Germany from the West, East and South of Hitler’s borders, the prize was and always had been the complete annihilation of the Jewish People.
“..From now on ..do not answer by your name. ..felt like ..not ..human person anymore. ..shaved our heads ..I felt so ashamed. And also when they told us to undress and to shower ..they made us feel like ..animals. ..men were walking around ..laughing and looking at us. And you take a young girl at that age ..who had never been exposed to a person ..to a man ..and you stay there naked ..I wanted ..ground to open ..and I should go into it. We were packed like sardines. ..beds were bunks ..3 layers. I was on ..top layer. If one person wanted to turn ..we all had to turn. They gave me ..little rations of hard ..dried up bread which was half mildew ..I could hardly eat it. ..a tin can of soup ..so rotten and vile ..when I tasted it I couldn’t eat it. .. I just ate ..bread and drank a little water ..which was just rust running out from ..sink that they had over there. ..finally ..got so hungry ..knew I had to eat ..soup ..so vile. ..so terrible. I never ate anything like that in my whole life. ..If I want to survive I have to eat ..soup. ..So I started eating ..soup. And I ..forcing ..soup down my throat ..big tears coming down my face. Eating ..crying ..eating ..crying ..this is how I was in Birkenau. Every day ..I woke up and I would find 1 ..2 people who wanted to end their lives and couldn’t take it anymore. ..throw themselves to ..electric wires ..make an end of it. ..every once in a blue moon ..couldn’t take it anymore. ..try to sneak out of ..barracks late at night and I would see ..sky. ..talk to myself ..can’t believe ..stars ..looking down at us in this Hell ..this camp ..same stars ..shining at ..outside of ..world. ..other people ..looking at ..same stars ..they are free. ..to do what they want to do. ..living a good life. ..we are ..in Hell ..human beings worse than animals. ..nobody is doing anything about it. ..young as I was ..asking myself these questions. ..Where is ..world ..Why isn’t ..world doing anything about this ..I would question God ..Where is God ..How can He let us be killed like that ..after I cried myself out real good ..I would go back to ..barracks.” Lily Appelbaum.
On May 15th. 1944 the mass deportation of Hungary’s Jews toward Birkenau is underway and the speed and then swiftness of the destruction proves devastating for the last Great Jewish Community within Europe, as the ‘resettlement’ process begins the following day May 16th. 1944 and within Birkenau. It is clear that all that had been perfected for the destruction of the Jewish People at Birkenau was in readiness for this moment in Hitler’s final challenge and his dedicated resolve to act finally against the Jews. It cannot be denied that Hitler sought to pit his armed forces against those in the World, but his military view was subsidiary to that of his clamour for more Jewish blood.
Wednesday May 31st. 1944 “..destruction of all roads leading from Hungary to Poland.” Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandel.
By June 27th. 1944, with over 380,000 of Hungary’s Jews already sent to Birkenau, more than 250,000 of them have already been murdered. In the space of 5 weeks, 50,000 Hungarian Jews were processed through the extermination machinery of Birkenau on a weekly basis, at a working rate of more than 7,000 Jews Gassed, Cremated, Exterminated in any given day. It is essential to recognise here that, and though the vast majority of the 6,000,000 Jews of The Holocaust had already been Slaughtered, the bombing of the rail lines to Auschwitz and Birkenau might well have spared many of these 380,000 Hungarian Jews from arriving at the place of their annihilation.
Wednesday July 5th. 1944 “..Bomb ..railway lines from Hungary to Birkenau. Zero in on ..facilities of ..death camp.” British Embassy Telegram Bern.
On July 7th. 1944 when the Hungarian government of General Horthy halts the Jewish deportations, some 438,000 Hungarian Jews have already been murdered Birkenau. However on July 8th. 1944 a further 50,000 more Hungarian Jews are transported toward Birkenau in a week long action and a further move is made to ensure 14,491 more Hungarian Jews are then transported to Birkenau. Such was the crescendo of killing, the logistical structure to enable this, that no other consideration, political or militarily was being considered as a priority as seen by Hitler and his killing kommando operating in Hungary expelling Jews toward extinction.
Saturday July 8th. 1944 “..Our transport was among ..last ones ..from Hungary July 8th. 1944 ..and due to ..unusual number of arrivals ..SS were forced to change their customary procedures. ..gas chambers ..crematoria could not accommodate everyone judged unfit for work ..so 100’s were piled along ..railroad tracks to be immolated. ..due to ..heartless haste ..clothed in rags ..marked with ..painted red cross ..hardly any food or water ..also due to this haste ..escaped tattooing.” Judith Magyar Isaacson.
On July 9th. 1944 and with the final mass transport of 14,491 Hungarian Jews to Birkenau arriving Hitler’s planned elimination of the Jews of Europe was all but accomplished. What we contest in discovering all those who make up the atrocity that is 6,000,000 Slaughtered Jews of Europe, are their names lost to History. What we also have in this final push, and it is a devastating aktion as the walls of Hitler’s 1,000 Reich were crumbling around him, Hungary would be bled dry of more Jews than could be imagined. In total, some 502,491 of Hungary’s Jews were transported in just 147 Trains with different accumulations of carriage’s, but in just over a 55 day period, over 9,000 of Hungary’s Jews were Murdered on any of those given days.
“..Birkenau existed to suffocate hope ..annihilate logic ..provoke madness and death.” Giuliana Tedeschi.
In total 559,000 Hungarian Jews were fed through the destructive processes of The Holocaust, and enduring legacy of what History must untangle from what might have saved them from what did not save them. On November 26th. 1944, as orders are given for the destruction of the Birkenau Krematoria preparations commence to conceal further the evidence of what is known of the Genocide in Poland and the rest of the World. The truth of what this particular Death Camp at Birkenau, and the other 5 Death Camps that had been established within Poland had managed and accomplished was an open secret. The scope for the denial of this fact has been confronted by the truth which proves essential in holding the integrity of all History to account.
“..Up to January 18th. 1945 ..a total of about 5,000,000 were burned in ..crematories of Oswiecim and Birkenau. ..more than 3,000,000 were Jews poisoned by gas or ..victims of epidemics.” Seweryna Szmaglewska.”
On January 18th. 1945 as the Auschwitz Camp itself is being abandoned, for the Jewish People, these remnant of the over 1,100,000 Slaughtered Jews of Birkenau, they were not clear of danger. Together with those Jews holding up in Auschwitz and inextricably, the still living Jews of Birkenau, would all be force marched West and away from the Russian forces wo were closing in on the site. Now begins a Death March beyond others with some 66,000 Auschwitz and Birkenau Survivors steadily moving toward a rail junction at Wodzislaw. Tragically for some 16,000 of these Jews they died or were Mordred along the way.
“..Our family was sent to Auschwitz. ..My sister and I ..sent to one side ..my mother ..my little brother to ..other. ..it all happened so fast ..I looked around ..they were already gone. To Birkenau. ..where gas chambers where. My little brother was 15.” Fela Drybus.
When, on January 20th. 1945 the ss had dynamited the remaining Krematoria in Birkenau, and with this effort a tentative step had been taken to disguise further the truth, the Jews could rebuild upon a hope they had long held. But, and while it was a wish that all the evidence of the atrocity would be buried alongside the memory of the destruction of 1,100,00 Jews, the memory poured forth from the survivor was not complimentary of those who could have saved more of them. As we know, that effort to secrete the evidence of this most shameful episode in human evolution would fail as those who Survived such a murderous experience have delivered their evidence to us.
“..This is where they load freight for Birkenau ..supplies for ..construction of ..camp ..and People for ..gas chambers.” Tadeusz Borowski.
It is a shocking testimony to the inhumanity that was to be witnessed by more than 6,000,000 Jewish Men, Women and Their Children that such places as Auschwitz and Birkenau were constructed. In that it is a cumulative accusation of how debased the human being can be and how hope can then become a beacon, a lucky talisman which can deliver back to humanity some of those Jews never supposed to recover from their death sentence. As liberation for the Jews, and others, came at Auschwitz on January 27th. 1945, Russian forces of the 322nd Rifle Division were a welcome sight as this was only a beginning of the Survival for some of the Jews for whom Hitler had not Murdered.
“..Dear finder of these notes ..I have one request of you ..which is ..in fact ..practical objective for my writing ..that my days of Hell ..that my hopeless tomorrow will find a purpose in ..future. I am transmitting only a part of what happened in ..Birkenau ..Auschwitz Hell. You will realize what reality looked like. ..From all this you will have a picture of how our people perished.” Zalman Gradowski.
That deception of Survival however, which continued for the Survivor as they emerged into a flux of hate and disbelief that any Jew had or could have survived, would manage to kill further the Jews in their weakened and hopeful state. As we look to the period in the hope that any remaining Jewish survivors now liberated, along with many non-Jews, could return to their former lives, we know that was not to be so. While there are estimates as high as 2,500,000 Jews to 4,000,000 Jews having been murdered at Auschwitz and Birkenau, we live with the threat to civilisation that such inhumanity presents to us.
“..What I put down on paper ..must be perfect straight away.” Etty Hillesum.
We know too that within Poland and many other Country’s the Jewish survivor was not welcomed back to their homes, as they had already been taken from them and neighbours moved themselves in. So today we celebrate the lives of those we have lost, and those who have Survived against all the odds that was aimed to confront them. I am certain here that this is no celebration though, as how can there be when 6,000,000 Jews have been forced to miss what we might choose to celebrate on their behalf. There are times when in the language of literature, we cannot come to an adequate source of words that deal with such an awful tragedy that is The Holocaust without seemingly lessening is somehow. But we best endeavour in a way that ensures Always to Remember, Never to Forget.
“..My Israel. ..Coming from a Europe that historically had cast out most Jews in certain roles ..denying them others. I saw for ..first time free Jews ..I was very proud. Finally ..we were like other People ..not just a minority. ..This was my Country ..I vowed ..I would do everything ..to preserve it for ..Jewish People. How often had I had to knuckle under in Europe ..how often was I reviled because of my Jewishness. Holding my head high ..I ..swore never again to bow down to anyone.” Ruth Elias.
As I step into the position of Acting and Deputy Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, I fathom the weight of this role not only for Yad Vashem, but also beyond. I am honored to take the reins of Yad Vashem at this critical time and feel privileged to be part of such an esteemed institution. I wish to take this opportunity to introduce myself, with some background into my close personal connection with the history of the Shoah.
I was born on 27 January 1955, which was the 10th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet Red Army. My late father, David, who lost his leg fighting the Nazis, viewed my birth as a victory of life. For him, I was living, irrefutable proof of the enduring survival of the Jewish people and the establishment of its state from out of the ashes of the Shoah.
My birthdays, as celebrated by my parents, were loaded with meaning. On the one hand, my mother would bake me a birthday cake decorated with colorful candles; on the other, we lit memorial candles. The joy of the day was interspersed with sad wartime accounts and my father’s battlefield legacy, which he insisted on recounting in minute detail, on the great day of liberation that was also my birthday. How at 9:00 AM the first soldier from the patrol unit of the Red Army’s Infantry Division reached the gates of Auschwitz, a half hour before the entry of the entire Division, and how they suffered heavy losses from the retreating German forces. I knew the entire tale of the battle by heart; I swallowed every word and adulated my father.
My historic date of birth, my complex birthday celebrations and my father’s battle stories instilled in me at an early age a sense of mission, a personal moral obligation to remember the Holocaust and to tell others about it. Since then, throughout my public service career, I have been accompanied by the spirit of my amputee father and the imperative of my mission, as indicated by my birthdate and encapsulated in two words: Never again.
Fifteen years ago, something changed in this world. The United Nations designated 27 January, the day in 1945 that Auschwitz was liberated, as the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. A day on which the entire world should unite in commemoration of the Shoah, to remember, to study and to commit to the fight against antisemitism and hate crimes. This designation does not detract from the power of the original anniversary, but rather has provided it with a global platform which actually reinforces the imperative of Holocaust remembrance.
In my previous position as Director General of the Knesset, I took upon myself to organize our Parliament’s largest-ever delegation to Poland. We traveled 60 Knesset Members, Cabinet Ministers and senior parliamentary officials – on a journey of life, to declare “We, citizens of the vigorously empowered Jewish State, are here to stand above the valley of slaughter and death.” During that journey in Auschwitz-Birkenau, I marked my 60th birthday. Facing the remnants of the smoking furnaces, in front of the survivors – human embers that emerged from the very fires of death which they had confronted, I stood with my head bowed and with great pride to represent our people, who rose from the inferno and established a glorious State.
When, approximately one month ago, it was suggested that I take on the position of Acting and Deputy Chairman of Yad Vashem, the sanctuary of generations-long memory, faith and hope, I perceived it as yet another dimension of the mission that was placed upon me on the day of my birth. With reverence, I have accepted this position, which is particularly challenging this year, during which all of humanity is grappling with the daunting, complex and burdensome COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, it has also been a year during which Yad Vashem has generally been closed to visitors and may not host large commemorative events with survivors, heads of state and dignitaries, other than virtual ones.
It is precisely at this time, a year devoid of trips to Poland, conferences and large-scale ceremonies, that we are presented with an opportunity to make Holocaust remembrance more accessible to the young TikTok generation across the globe. According to surveys, many of them do not know nearly enough about Auschwitz and its horrors. Through digital media platforms, social networks and Zoom, International Holocaust Remembrance Day must and can be present in the world’s consciousness. It is important that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter post messages of remembrance, and world leaders must commit to never again permit genocide.
On this day, 27 January 2021, as our world order is threatened by an inhuman virus, hopefully now in early stages of containment, we must recall and call out against antisemitism – the cruelest epidemic of hatred that human beings have ever perpetrated. It is a plague which led to the extermination of a third of the entire Jewish people. Even after our national rebirth, antisemitism continues to raise its ugly head, and we are witness to its horrible manifestations, even the preposterous blaming of Jews for the outbreak of COVID-19.
I pledge on behalf of the second generation of Holocaust survivors and in the name of future generations that we will do everything in our power to fortify Israel and to pass on to our children and grandchildren, here and in the Jewish world, a torch of remembrance and heroism that can never be extinguished.
As I enter my new role at this juncture, I am filled with a sense of responsibility towards Yad Vashem, towards the entire Jewish people and towards our global society to perpetuate Yad Vashem’s mission. In doing so, I am strengthened by the record of remarkable leadership and the enduring legacy forged by Chairman Avner Shalev. Together with you, Yad Vashem’s loyal partners and supporters, I am committed to enhancing Yad Vashem’s ability to foster Jewish continuity worldwide and to ensure that Holocaust remembrance forever inspires the Jewish people and humankind.
Warm regards, Ronen.