Alex Brummer – Vice President
Wrapped in narrow striped blue and white scarves the survivors some ancient and frail, others upright, chests forward and proudly strong made their way out through the gate of death into the dark the snowflakes falling.
They made the trudge through the crisp snow, in path dug alongside the railway that carried some 1.1 million people, in rough cattle trucks, to the mass mausoleum that is Auschwitz Birkenau.
Survivors were followed by the serried ranks of dignitaries kings and queens from the Low Countries, Presidents from Poland and France and delegations from dozens of countries including Britain with our group headed by the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles. The commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz were solemn, meaningful and had a Hollywood touch about. At the main ceremony, on a bleak day when the snow never stopped falling, those of us present were housed giant white, heated tent adjoined to the ‘death gate’ of Birkenau that was backlit like a film set. It was against this backcloth that a procession of survivors told their stories to the world.
The 300 or so survivors and companions, including a small group of four or five from Britain, were flown to Krakow for the commemorations from every corner of the world: Europe, Latin American, Australia and a full chartered El Al plane from Israel. They were brought to the terrible place by the World Jewish Congress, all flying business class for an emotional farewell, to place and events that left terrible scars on their lives.
Over coffee and sweet rolls at the Holiday Inn in Krakow Eric Pickles and I heard first hand of some of the terrible experiences as the memories tumbled out. Zigy Shipper told of the thin clothes and the clogs that provide scant protection from the bitterness of the freezing temperatures. Arik Hersh described the scene on a three day march where most of his fellow prisoners died. He survived by eating grass, waiting for the 48-hour ration of a small piece of bread. Before eating the rough breads he would vomit up the grass which the human stomach cannot properly digest.
The star presence at the Auschwitz was that of the survivors, it was their time and their day. But the history of what they had endured was carefully captured in a short new film Auschwitz, produced by Stephen Spielberg, which traced the brutal history of the town and the camps from when it first opened in 1938. It began as an army camp at the turn of the 20th century, became place of torture and death for Polish political prisoners and dissidents in 1938 and gradually morphed into 38 adjoining work and death camps with the continuously burning crematorium. It was here that Jews from every corner of Europe were to die.
A lachrymose Spielberg, sat in the front row as the film showed, tears streaming down his face surrounded by the survivors whose lives his Shoah Foundation has captured for posterity.
The theme of remembrance the ‘Past is the Present’ formed the substance of the speech by World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder. His words were more trenchant than those of the survivors as he related the events of Shoah to those of the second decade of the 21st Century.
Lauder feared the new anti-Semitism across Europe: tragic shootings in Paris, attacks on Jewish businesses, a young man in a kippa beaten up in the streets of Stockholm. Some observers thought it inappropriate a warning going too far at time of remembrance for survivors. It was seen as an American view of something far from home. He was mourning not just the six million but the loss of tolerance on modern day Europe, issuing a robust warning against complacency.
It may have sounded a little shrill during a day of soft tones broken only by the plaintive sound of the Shofar and the haunting rendition of memorial prayer for the slaughtered performed by a veteran Chazan, himself a former inmate of Auschwitz, wearing the tall velvet hat of lost generation of cantors.
My own remembrance, for my dead grandparents and three uncles (my paternal grandparents) was to light a candle beside the railway tracks which had brought them from trans-Carpathia in Hungary to this dreadful place. There I quietly swayed in the bitter cold, and allowed myself a tear as I recited the Kaddish.
Standing on the snow encrusted mud and grass, where the ashes of millions fell, it felt exactly the right thing to do.
Alex Brummer travelled to Auschwitz at the invitation of the WJC and on behalf of the Board of Deputies as part of the British delegation to the Holocaust Memorial Day remembrance Poland.