OSWIECIM, Poland — Standing on stage in front of the infamous “Gate of Death” at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazis’ most notorious concentration and extermination camp, Marian Turski, a 93-year-old survivor from the Polish city of Lodz, spoke passionately about the meaning of the place 75 years after its liberation, and the indifference that enabled it to exist.
“Auschwitz did not fall suddenly from the skies,” he told the crowd, describing the gradual way prejudice led to murder. “It was all tiny steps approaching until what happened here behind me did happen.”
Turski spoke about how history, including the Holocaust, can still be politically instrumentalized. “Do not be indifferent when you see historical lies,” he said. “Don’t be indifferent when you see that the past is stretched to fit current political needs.”
Other survivors also spoke movingly about their experiences and the importance of remembrance during Monday evening’s event, but Turski’s speech perhaps best represented the many political undercurrents at play as aging survivors returned to Auschwitz, perhaps for the last time: Rising anti-Semitism and intolerance. Ascendant right-wing populist parties. Attempts by politicians and governments to distort history. A dwindling number of firsthand witnesses.
Those developments imparted a sense of added urgency to the messages during the gathering to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau—where approximately 1.3 million people were killed, 1.1 million of them Jews.
“Do not be indifferent,” Turski concluded. “Otherwise you won’t even notice when you and your heirs suddenly see an Auschwitz falling down from the sky, straight on them.”
The commemoration brought approximately 200 survivors together with elected officials, journalists and other guests. The presence of the last remaining survivors—most in their 90s—and efforts to educate people about their concrete experiences have been central to Holocaust remembrance. But memorial sites like Auschwitz are already looking toward a future in which no one will be able to tell their stories firsthand.
As an international symbol of the Holocaust, Auschwitz often finds itself at the nexus of discussions about the history of the Holocaust and World War II—both within Poland and elsewhere.
Elsa Baker, who spoke on behalf of the Sinti and Roma people imprisoned and murdered at Auschwitz, had someone else read her speech because she is blind. Batsheva Dagan, a survivor born in Lodz in 1925, stopped twice to ask for sips of water. The visible signs of frailty made their warnings feel all the more urgent.
“I hope you will all try to preserve the memory of this place and other places where innocent people died,” Dagan said. “I hope that… you’ll bear this responsibility, so that this terrible thing will never happen again.”
At a news conference with survivors the previous day, many questions to survivors sought to address their imminent absence. A survivor named Ben Lesser explained the stakes: “If I forget, it’s like six million of my people are dying a second death,” he said. “I can’t allow that to happen.” He added that he founded the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, which his children plan to take over after he’s gone, to continue telling his and others’ stories.
In addition to evolving memory culture, Turksi’s speech drew attention to another issue looming over the event: Disputes over the facts themselves. As an international symbol of the Holocaust, Auschwitz often finds itself at the nexus of discussions about the history of the Holocaust and World War II—both within Poland and elsewhere.
Although Turski didn’t state it explicitly, his mention of attempts to “stretch” history was a clear reference to a recent argument caused by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and to the Polish ruling Law and Justice Party’s own attempts to reshape the historical narrative.
During a speech last month, Putin asserted Poland’s responsibility in starting World War II, a claim roundly denounced by leaders across the West, including in the European Union. In response, Polish President Andrzej Duda boycotted a parallel Holocaust remembrance event in Israel, where Putin gave a speech. Poland’s government, for its part, has sought to emphasize Polish suffering during the war and even passed legislation in 2018 to penalize the merest suggestion of Polish complicity in Nazi crimes.
But speaking at Monday’s event in Auschwitz, Duda directed blame for historical revisionism elsewhere, clearly rebuking Putin. “Distorting the history of World War II, denying the crimes of genocide and the Holocaust as well as an instrumental use of Auschwitz to attain any given goal, is tantamount to desecration of the memory of the victims whose ashes are scattered here,” he said.
Disregard for the facts is hardly limited to Europe. Piotr Cywiński, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, referred to events elsewhere to emphasize how dangerous lack of action remains today.
“We are becoming increasingly indifferent,” he said. “The majority were silent when the Syrians drowned. In silence we turned our backs on the Congolese. We did not utter a word when the Rohingya were murdered two years ago. And today with silence we conceal the tragic fate of the Uighurs.”
“Seventy-five years after Auschwitz, it is in fact in memory that we must search for sources for our responsibility today,” he continued. “So, when will Auschwitz become a reality that has been overcome and liberated? In the very essence of the cry ‘Never Again,’ the liberation of Auschwitz also continues today.”