WARSAW – A Jewish prayer for the souls of the people murdered in the Holocaust echoed Wednesday over where the Warsaw ghetto stood during World War II as a world paused by the coronavirus pandemic observed the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Most International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorations were being held online this year due to the virus, including the annual ceremony at the site of the former Auschwitz death camp, where Nazi German forces killed 1.1 million people in occupied Poland. The memorial site is closed to visitors because of the pandemic.
In one of the few live events, mourners gathered in Poland's capital to pay their respects at a memorial in the former Warsaw ghetto, the largest of all the ghettos where European Jews were held in cruel and deadly conditions before being sent to die in mass extermination camps.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in a message to a World Jewish Congress and Auschwitz memorial museum event, said the online nature of remembrance events takes nothing away from their importance.
“It's a duty but also a responsibility, one we inherit from those who lived through the horrors of the Shoah, whose voices are gradually disappearing,” Steinmeier said. “The greatest danger for all of us begins with forgetting. With no longer remembering what we inflict upon one another when we tolerate anti-Semitism and racism in our midst."
“We must remain alert, must identify prejudice and conspiracy theories, and combat them with reason, passion and resolve,” Steinmeier said.
From the Vatican, Pope Francis said remembering was a sign of humanity and a condition for a peaceful future while warning that distorted ideologies could lead to a repeat of mass murder on a horrific scale.
In Germany, the parliament held a special session to honor victims. In Austria and Slovakia, hundreds of survivors were offered their first doses of a vaccine against the coronavirus in a gesture both symbolic and lifesaving given the threat of the virus to older adults. In Israel, some 900 Holocaust survivors died from COVID-19 out of 5,300 who were infected last year.
Israel, which counts 197,000 Holocaust survivors, officially marks its Holocaust remembrance day in the spring. But events were also being held across the country, mostly virtually or without members of the public in attendance.
Meanwhile, Luxembourg signed a deal agreeing to pay reparations and to restitute dormant bank accounts, insurance policies and looted art to Holocaust survivors.
Survivors and many others joined a World Jewish Congress campaign which involved posting photos of themselves and #WeRemember. They were broadcast at Auschwitz on a screen next to the gate and a cattle car representing the way camp inmates were transported there.
The online nature of this year's commemorations is a sharp contrast to events marking last year's anniversary, when some 200 survivors and dozens of European leaders and royalty gathered at the site of the former camp. It was one of the last large international gatherings before the pandemic brought normal life to a halt.
Due to the pandemic, most survivors today live in “isolation and loneliness,” said Tova Friedman, 82, a Poland-born Auschwitz survivor who attended last year's event and had hoped to return this year with her eight grandchildren. Instead she recorded a message of warning from her home in Highland Park, New Jersey.
“Today, as anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head again, the voices of protest are not many and not loud enough,” said Tova, who at age 6 was among the thousands of prisoners to greet the Soviet troops who liberated the camp on Jan. 27, 1945.
Piotr Cywinski, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, also warned of worsening anti-Semitism, populism and demagoguery.
“Our world is suffering (from) our own incapacity to react, our own passivity,” Cywinski said. “We are the bystanders of our times.”
The vast majority of those killed at Auschwitz were Jews, but Poles, Roma, homosexuals and Soviet prisoners of war were also murdered there.
In all, about 6 million European Jews and millions of other people were killed by the Germans and their collaborators. In 2005, the United Nations designated the anniversary of Auschwitz's liberation as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Of the 6 million Jewish victims, some 1.5 million were children, and this year's commemorations included a special focus on them. All living survivors were either children or still young during the war that began more than 81 years ago.
While commemorations have moved online for the first time, one constant is the drive of survivors to tell their stories as words of caution.
Rose Schindler, a 91-year-old survivor of Auschwitz who was originally from Czechoslovakia but now lives in San Diego, California, has been speaking to school groups about her experience for 50 years. Her story, and that of her late husband, Max, also a survivor, is also told in a book, “Two Who Survived: Keeping Hope Alive While Surviving the Holocaust.”
After Schindler was transported to Auschwitz in 1944, she was selected more than once for immediate death in the gas chambers. She survived by escaping each time and joining work details.
The horrors she experienced — the mass murder of her parents and four of seven siblings, the hunger, being shaven, lice infestations — are difficult to convey, but she keeps speaking to groups, over past months by Zoom.
“We have to tell our stories so it doesn't happen again,” Schindler said in a Zoom call from her home Monday. “It is unbelievable what we went through, and the whole world was silent as this was going on."
Friedman said she believes it is her role to “sound the alarm” about rising anti-Semitism and other hatred in the world; otherwise, “another tragedy may happen.”
That hatred, she said, was on clear view when a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Some insurrectionists wore clothes with anti-Semitic messages like “Camp Auschwitz.”
“It was utterly shocking, and I couldn’t believe it. And I don’t know what part of America feels like that. I hope it’s a very small and isolated group and not a pervasive feeling,” Friedman said.
Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.