We want to dedicate the anniversary to the youngest victims

Int’l Holocaust Remembrance Day to focus on 1.5 million children killed by Nazis

Global commemoration that marks Auschwitz-Birkenau’s liberation by Soviet forces on January 27, 1945, increasingly important as Holocaust denial rises

Reporter at The Times of Israel

A Holocaust memorial created in the 'sauna' facility of the former German Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland, with photographs of people deported there, October 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
A Holocaust memorial created in the 'sauna' facility of the former German Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland, with photographs of people deported there, October 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

As countries around the world observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Wednesday, online events will replace large gatherings at the Jewish genocide’s major sites of remembrance.

Started by the United Nations in 2005, the commemoration marks the day that Auschwitz-Birkenau — the largest of Nazi Germany’s death camps — was liberated by the Soviet army on January 27, 1945. One million Jews from all over Europe were murdered in gas chambers there, in addition to 100,000 victims from Poland, Russia and elsewhere.

With many countries reeling from COVID-19 deaths, some organizations are focusing on the plight of the Holocaust’s youngest victims: the 1,500,000 Jewish children murdered by Nazi Germany. Another theme shared this year is combatting “denial” of the genocide, which — along with anti-Semitism — is on the rise globally.

At the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, commemorations will focus on the nearly quarter-million children murdered on-site by German Nazis. At least 216,000 of those victims were Jewish children, many of them deported to the death camp without family.

Ruins of a gas chamber-crematorium facility at Auschwitz-Birkenau, known as Krematorium II, Poland, November 2015. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

“The adult world — after all, so often unjust and cruel — has never demonstrated so much of its heartlessness, its evil,” said Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński, director of the state museum.

“This [murder of children] cannot be justified by any ideology, reckoning or politics. This year we want to dedicate the anniversary of liberation to the youngest victims of the camp,” said Cywiński.

In Paris, a city through which thousands of Jewish children were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, photographer Luigi Toscano has been displaying 200 of his Holocaust survivor portraits at UNESCO headquarters. The indoor/outdoor exhibition, called “Lest We Forget,” will run through mid-February.

Holocaust survivor portraits on display in Paris outside UNESCO headquarters, January 2021 (courtesy)

Nearly all of the children brought to Auschwitz-Birkenau were murdered upon arrival in gas chambers. Slightly more than 700 children (of all nationalities) survived until liberation, most of them because they were chosen by “doctor” Josef Mengele and other SS men for “experiments.”

Not far from where many “experiments” took place, Yad Vashem will be hosting a virtual tour of Auschwitz’s Block 27, where the Israeli museum opened a permanent exhibition in 2013.

Slightly more than 700 children of all nationalities survived until liberation

Called “SHOAH,” the galleries are intended to help people sense what was lost in the genocide. In one immersive room, film montages of pre-war Jewish culture fade in and out while evocative music builds to a crescendo. There is also a room whose walls are covered in children’s drawings recreated by artist Michal Rover.

Artist Michal Rover works in the Israeli exhibition at Block 27 in the State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland (Yad Vashem)

In Israel and online, Yad Vashem will also focus on children with presentations on the post-Holocaust “Children’s Homes” created in Europe. Often run by Zionist youth activists, the homes became places of recuperation for children orphaned in the genocide.

Yad Vashem will focus on seven of the homes in countries ranging from Poland to the Netherlands. The presentations were informed by diaries some children kept about their post-war transformation.

‘Some bastard will get up and say this never happened’

With Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism at a post-war high, the United Nations and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum are focusing on combatting denial and distortion of the genocide.

Wednesday’s commemoration at the Washington, DC, museum will focus on US president Dwight Eisenhower’s determination to “protect the truth of the Holocaust.” The legendary Allied commander’s granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, will speak about her grandfather’s efforts to document Nazi atrocities as the first step of remembrance.

In the spring of 1945, Eisenhower’s tour of the Ohrdruf concentration camp in Germany included encounters with corpses “piled like wood” and “living skeletons” struggling to survive. Immediately, Eisenhower foresaw a day when people would deny these horrors took place.

Allied Commander Eisenhower at the liberation of Ohrdruf in Germany, April 4, 1945 (public domain)

“Get it all on record now,” said Eisenhower. “Get the films, get the witnesses, because somewhere down the road of history some bastard will get up and say this never happened,” said the commander, who invited media to film a parade of German townspeople brought into the camp to bear witness.

This week, for the first time, the United Nations and UNESCO will jointly organize a series of events for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The organizations will launch a social media campaign — #ProtectTheFacts — to make people aware of “the dangers of Holocaust denial and distortion.”

According to statistics released by UNESCO, 47% of Germans surveyed in 2020 responded that Germany was “not particularly guilty” for the Holocaust. Two-thirds of young Americans do not know how many people were murdered in the genocide and — in Sweden — more than one-third of social media statements referencing Jews contain anti-Semitic stereotypes or violence-laden comments.

A gas chamber in the former German Nazi death camp Majdanek, in Poland, October 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Also on Wednesday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Director-General Audrey Azoulay, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will pay tribute to victims of Nazi persecution in a ceremony, followed by an online panel on Holocaust denial and distortion with historian Deborah Lipstadt.

“By transmitting the history of this event, we uphold the principles of justice by refusing the hateful logic of National Socialism, and by challenging those who deny the Holocaust or relativize the crimes committed against Jews and other persecuted groups, because they seek to perpetuate the racism and anti-Semitism that caused the genocide,” said Azoulay.

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