The last time Trudy Spira was in Auschwitz, she was 12 years old. The day of liberation “is my second birthday — I was reborn on that day,” said Spira, who came from Venezuela with her son, Ernesto, 48, to show him the place that robbed her of her childhood.
Ziggy Shipper, 75, and his grandson, Elliott Stern, 16, arrived together from London.
“He will never forget till the day he dies that he came here with his grandfather,” Shipper said.
Ted Lehman came from the United States, wearing the cap he was wearing when he was liberated 60 years ago.
“How does a 16-year-old boy explain that in one moment I was all of a sudden alone?” he asked.
Spira, Shipper and Lehman were among about 1,000 survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp who returned for ceremonies Jan. 27 marking the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, in what may be the last major ceremony to include significant numbers of survivors.
Close to 40 heads of state and foreign ministers attended, together with liberators of the camp from the former Soviet army. Some 7,000 people attended the memorial — about the same number still imprisoned there when Soviet soldiers liberated the camp six decades ago.
Despite the presence of so many dignitaries, it was the survivors who took center stage.
Israeli President Moshe Katsav praised the survivors “for returning to life, for daring again to feel that you belong to the world, for finding the inner strength to again raise families, for again believing in man.”
After he spoke, an unidentified woman took the microphone in an unscheduled move and spoke briefly. The woman said she was born in Poland and had been imprisoned in Auschwitz.
Taking off her jacket despite the frigid weather, she showed the number on her arm. The Nazis had taken away her name and given her a number, she said, and they had brought her to Auschwitz naked. But now she has her name back, she has a country and she has a president.
The ceremony ended with Cantor Joseph Malovany of New York singing the El Malei Rachamim prayer.
Other speakers at Auschwitz included Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski; Russian President Vladimir Putin; survivors Wladyslaw Bartoszewski of Poland, a Righteous Gentile; Simone Veil of France, president of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah; and the Jewish-born Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of France, who read an address from Pope John Paul II.
Romani Rose, chairman of the Central Council of Germany Sinti and Roma, spoke on behalf of the 220,000 to 500,000 Gypsies killed in the Holocaust.
Guests included Vice President Dick Cheney, French President Jacques Chirac, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Polish Culture Minister Waldermar Dabrowski and Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
The nearby city of Krakow was full of formal and informal conversations, press conferences and receptions dedicated to anniversary events. Education was a key theme at all events connected with the memorial.
Before the Auschwitz ceremony, an educational program for teachers on the Holocaust’s lessons was launched in Krakow at the “Let My People Live!” forum organized by the Polish Ministry of Culture, the European Jewish Congress (EJC) and Yad Vashem, together with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.
“The fact that so many leaders of the world are gathered here today demonstrates the continued importance of keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive and offers the promise of a better tomorrow,” said Moshe Kantor, chief organizer of the forum and chairman of the EJC’s board of governors.
The forum included speeches by Cheney; Nobel laureate and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel; Israel Singer, World Jewish Congress governing board chairman; and Yona Metzger, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi.
The official ceremony at the camp began with the symbolic blast of a train’s horn.
“May today our common cry sound from this place,” Kwasniewski said, “the cry for a world without hatred and contempt, without racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, for a world in which the word ‘human’ will always ring with pride.”
Putin, remembering “the immortal heroic deed of the allied armies that broke the backbone of the fascist beast,” turned to the memory of more than 1 million victims whose ashes were buried or scattered at the site.
“We must ensure that everything that happened here will never repeat again,” he said.
By many accounts, Poland has undergone a major transformation in its view of its role in the Holocaust since 1995, when survivors gathered for the 50th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation. Today, Poles not only celebrate the heroism of citizens who risked their lives to rescue Jews but have begun to accept that some Poles participated in the killing — and that most Auschwitz victims were Jews.
Approximately 1.3 million people died in Auschwitz, about 1 million of them Jews. In 1995, however, the Polish government was still so uncomfortable about stressing Jewish suffering at the camp that at first it barred a group recitation of the Kaddish, recalled Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
This year, the program was organized by Jewish groups and included prayers. Moreover, Baker said, “10 years ago, there was no Israeli president here.”
He also called Kwasniewski, the Polish president, “one of the most eloquent voices on Polish-Jewish relations.”
Kwasniewski publicly apologized for the events at Jedwabne, Poland, where Poles helped Germans murder the local Jewish population. The story of Jedwabne was uncovered in 2001 and threw Poland into turmoil.
“Jedwabne opened up a very bad wound in Polish society with regard to their share in the murders,” Yad Vashem’s Shalev told JTA. “President Kwasniewski believes that coming to terms with the truth is an essential part of building a democratic society.”
From the time they arrived in Krakow from points around the world, survivors were gripped with a fever of remembering something that most had tried hard to forget.
Not all were liberated here. Some were sent on death marches to other camps, where they worked as slaves until the end of the war. But all shared a profound need to return to Auschwitz — and then to walk out again.
“How is it possible that such a maddening system like this worked so well?” asked Mel Mermelstein, 78, who was sent on a death march from Auschwitz on Jan. 18, 1945. Standing in front of the former crematorium, his son, David, at his side, Mermelstein said, “The civilized world should come here and see what man can do to man.”
David Hermann, who had come from London with Shipper and Berek Obuchowski, 76, recalled arriving at Auschwitz when he was 16.
“The train came to a standstill,” he said. “It was silent. Suddenly, I heard soldiers marching and dogs barking. They pulled the doors apart, and it was pitch black.”
“The cold air hit us,” Hermann continued. “And then the lights came on. I saw SS men lined up all along the platform with dogs, and guns pointing at us. Everybody was frozen. Nobody wanted to move.”
A Jewish prisoner advised Hermann in Yiddish to lie about his age and to say he had a trade, so Hermann told camp doctor Joseph Mengele that he was 18 and a carpenter. Hermann and his four siblings all survived the death camp and found each other after the war.
Toward the end of the ceremony, a small elderly man stood alone, singing a mourning prayer along with Malovany. With shaking hands, he took a small prayer book from a zippered pouch.
“I am a Jew, and so I pray,” said Chaim Ziderer, 86, of Bytom, Poland, whose family died at Auschwitz. He was spared their fate because he was in the Polish military. Putting the prayer book back in the pouch, he said, “Today I am alone.”
“[Nazi Germany] gave prizes to scientists and engineers for finding a better way to kill people, and faster,” Spira said. “It never happened before, and we hope it will never happen again.”
She said people asked her “how come I was willing to come to the place where my childhood was robbed.”
“I am coming of my own free will,” was the answer she gave.
“I brought my son,” Spira explained, “because before, no one had the chance to walk out of their own accord. And today we can.”