By Joseph Millis in Oswiecim (Auschwitz)
Auschwitz is, says survivor Zofia Posmysz, “the land where the departed are the most present”.
And as more than 600 people – including 54 Israeli politicians, a Knesset Guard, several Israeli soldiers in uniform, parliamentarians and survivors from around the world – marked Holocaust Memorial Day at the site of the most industrialised mass-murder in history, it is easy to see why.
The remains of crematoria hurriedly destroyed by the Nazis as the Red Army advanced to liberate the camps, stand next to empty watch towers and menacing barbed wire. It is a huge reminder of brutal murder and human beings’ capability for evil.
The event was the brainchild of British-born Israeli Jonny Daniels, 28, who together with his cousin Joe Tankel, form the nucleus of From The Depths – a reference to Psalm 130 – a non-profit organisation devoted to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and “connecting the Jewish past with the Jewish future”.
As we walked the snow-covered accursed land, an eerie mist descended on Auschwitz-Birkenau while the temperature hovered around minus 8°Centigrade, and a freezing breeze swept through leafless, lifeless trees and the former death camp’s blue-and-white-striped flags.
Standing in the mind-numbing, freezing weather as frail survivors in their mid-80s and 90s place memorial candles on the memorial at Birkenau, three British Parliamentarians, former Home Secretary Lord Howard – whose grandmother perished at the camp and for whom it was his fourth visit – Hendon Tory MP Matthew Offord and Labour’s Anne McGuire, the MP for Stirling – watched on with a mixture of horror and admiration.
Lord Howard told the Jewish News: “I feel desolate, but I take away a determination to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”
He expressed the hope that the current school curriculum which contains Holocaust studies would “continue. It is vitally important.” The parliamentarians’ visit was also “hugely important. It enables legislators from all over the world to come here and see for themselves what happened.”
Ms McGuire told the JN that she had been to Auschwitz before “with a group of school children. On this occasion, though, it was much quieter. I got a greater sense of awe and how awful this all was. And it is very emotional to see the number of survivors and hear them tell their stories.”
For Mr Offord, too, it was a return visit – he had also been on a trip with the Holocaust Educational Trust. “Having spoken to other Parliamentarians from across Europe, I got the sense that we must work together to ensure that the Holocaust is not forgotten – and to make sure it never happens again.”
He said he was “very proud that British schoolchildren are the second largest group to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau in all Europe. Only Poland sends more children. I am proud that the previous Labour government and indeed the current Conservative-led one fund these trips.”
For the Israelis, the visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau carried with it a stark message; we can rely only on ourselves.
Economics Minister Naftali Bennett told the JN: “This is my first time in Poland and Auschwitz and I lost my grandmother’s family, my grandfather’s family and our people are buried here. The one thing I take away is never again will we allow ourselves to depend on anyone else. Only we can defend ourselves.”
In the absence of Knessset Speaker Yuli Edelstein – who had fully embraced Mr Daniels’ project and whose wife Tatiana passed away last week – the Israeli Parliament was represented by Labour and Opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog.
He said: “We came from the land of life to the sea of death, to evil, to the lowest place in the world.” Mr Herzog – the son of the late Irish-born Israeli president Chaim Herzog told the JN: “Every human being who goes through the notorious Arbeit Macht Frei [Work Liberates] gates feels shock and pain. It is simply incomprehensible, inexplicable. How could humans treat other humans like that? How vile, how violent. The remnants of the camp show that Auschwitz was here; Auschwitz happened. We must remember this and make sure it never happens again.”
He was moved by the survivors. “They are a source of strength. I am so impressed by them. It is amazing how they came through this hell and are still with us and are able to tell their stories.”
Among those hardy survivors was Alexander Fried, who now lives in Prague and is a professor of Renaissance studies – he also lectures in London – who joined our mainly British group on the coach which ferried us from Krakow to Oswiecim (half of whose pre-war population was Jewish, but none of whom remain).
Walking through the notorious camp gates, and with tears in his eyes, Professor Fried, who lost many family members in the camps, told the JN: “This is very painful to me, even though I speak a lot about my experiences.”
Although not religious himself, he added: “I try to explain the spiritual side of the events, not just the cold, hard numbers.”
After the emotionally fraught day, an “exhausted” Jonny Daniel told JN: “Despite all we have been through today – and perhaps because of what we have been through today – I feel elated and tremendously good inside. People have been coming up to me all day, especially congratulating and thanking me for arranging this. While it was a huge challenge, it has been inspirational and worthwhile.”