More than 200 survivors are to gather at the former Nazi extermination camp of Auschwitz, many probably for the final time, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of its liberation.
As rows over the make-up of the international guest list at the memorial ceremony threatened to overshadow Monday’s event, survivors who drew on harrowing memories of their incarceration warned the lessons from the atrocities sanctioned by Adolf Hitler’s administration and carried out often by ordinary Germans were in danger of being forgotten.
“The Holocaust was sponsored and was okayed by a government. Not only did they allow it to happen but they enforced it and encouraged regular people to become killers,” said Benjamin Lesser, a 92-year-old Polish-born Jew whose family was sent to Auschwitz in 1944. More than 1.1 million people were murdered at the camp, most of them Jews.
“I have returned so that I don’t forget any of the details of what happened to me, so I can keep the memories alive, and stop the world from acquiring amnesia,” he added, emphasising widespread concern over the rise in antisemitic attacks, in particular in Europe and North America, which is expected to be a major theme at Monday’s ceremony.
Presidents, prime ministers and royalty from around the world will attend the commemorations, but not top world leaders, who visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem earlier this week for another high-profile anniversary event.
Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), which has funded the return of more than 100 survivors and their families, said: “The emphasis here is on the survivors, as it should be, not on political leaders. There will probably not be another major anniversary as we’re losing so many of them.”
The survivors in attendance are aged between 75 – a woman who was born in the camp – and 101. They have travelled from all over the world, mainly North America and across Europe, Israel, South and Central America and Australia. Organisers said the precise number of attendees would not be confirmed until the actual ceremony on Monday afternoon, due to their often fragile health conditions, and the psychological strain of returning, which had already led to some cancellations. A large team of 50 therapists and medics are on hand to attend to the survivors and their also often elderly offspring.
The survivors and their families were due to gather at an old indoor tram station in Kraków’s Jewish quarter on Sunday night for a meal hosted by the WJC, at which they will be thanked for rebuilding their Jewish communities around the world after the Nazis’ attempts to wipe them out.
David Lenga, 92, from Los Angeles, was among about 20 survivors to return to Auschwitz on Sunday, walking silently through the notorious entrance gate bearing the words Arbeit macht frei (work sets you free) on a cold, sunny morning, taking his daughter Berta Kaplowitz with him for the first time on a tour of his former prison.
Lenga, who was 14 when he entered the camp in summer 1944, survived in part by making woollen jackets for SS guards out of camp blankets, for which he received extra food rations. He later went on to become a successful tailor in Beverly Hills. He said he had refused to let the Holocaust define his life, despite the fact it claimed 98 members of his family, with him and his father the only two to survive.
“I wanted to be better than that,” he said. “I’ve let my past go and concentrated instead on being a role model for my family, and have been helped by being blessed with a wonderful marriage, three beautiful daughters, seven grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren.”
Angela Orosz, 75, from Montreal, stood in front of former red-brick barracks and recalled her mother’s account of giving birth to her in secret on a top bunk in Auschwitz-Birkenau in December 1944.
“I have little choice but to come back, as the youngest survivor,” she said, clutching a bright pink shawl around her shoulders. “I grew up looking at photographs of relatives, and when I asked about them was told “he’s dead, she’s dead”. When I was older they told me the truth, that they had been murdered.
“I always claimed to my kids that I had suffered no trauma from having been here, until my daughter asked me why then, unlike other families, did I never throw potato peelings away? Because my mother had probably survived because of the peelings she had eaten and the goodness in them, she had been able to give birth to me and so I had survived, so of course the survival instinct I inherited from her made me always do the same.”
The Polish president, Andrzej Duda, will be among the speakers on Monday. Last week he hit out at the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, for falsely claiming Poland had colluded with Hitler in starting the second world war. Duda refused to travel to Jerusalem, after being denied permission to speak there.