Survivors mark Holocaust remembrance under shadow of October 7, surging antisemitism

In Auschwitz, nonagenarian says southern Israel massacre a ‘painful’ extension of her death camp experience; pro-Palestinian activists in Italy refuse to delay rally, fight cops

People light candles by the monument at the Birkenau Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)
People light candles by the monument at the Birkenau Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

OSWIECIM, Poland (AP) — A group of survivors of Nazi death camps marked the 79th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp during World War II in a modest ceremony Saturday in southern Poland.

About 20 survivors from various camps set up by Nazi Germany around Europe laid wreaths and flowers and lit candles at the Death Wall in Auschwitz, where the Nazis executed thousands of inmates, mostly Polish resistance members and others.

Later the group, along with state officials and other participants, gathered for a ceremony by a brick women’s barrack at Birkenau that has recently undergone conservation. Next, they prayed and lit candles at the monument in Birkenau, near the crematoria ruins. They were memorializing around 1.1 million camp victims, mostly Jews. The memorial site and museum are located near the city of Oswiecim.

Observances were also held in many other countries Saturday for the 6 million European Jews killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

The UN in 2005 set January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the day in 1945 that Soviet Red Army troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau. Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day on the Hebrew calendar anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but also supports and participates in events for the international day of remembrance.

The survivors Saturday were accompanied by Polish Senate Speaker Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, Culture Minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz and Israeli Ambassador to Poland Yacov Livne.

Holocaust survivors and relatives arrive at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024.(AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

Halina Birenbaum, a 94-year-old survivor, was moved to speak beside barrack 27, where she spent part of August 1943 until the forced evacuation of camp inmates on foot on January 18, 1945.

She said the suffering and tragedy of people in contemporary wars and from the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel was “painful” for her and an extension of her Auschwitz experience.

Livne, the ambassador, defended Israel’s massive retaliation in Gaza.

“We hoped that the lessons of the Holocaust have been learned. Yet, today we are astonished by accusations of genocide against the Jewish state while we fight for our existence,” he said.

The theme of the observances was the suffering of the individual human being, symbolized in simple, hand-drawn portraits of the camp’s inmates that were beamed on a screen during the observances in Birkenau.

In Germany, where people laid flowers and lit candles at memorials for the victims of the Nazis, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said his country would continue to bear responsibility for this “crime against humanity.”

Tourists visit the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Germany, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

He called on citizens to defend Germany’s democracy and fight antisemitism as the country marked the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

“Never again’ is every day,” Scholz said in his weekly video podcast. “January 27 calls out to us: Stay visible! Stay audible! Against antisemitism, against racism, against misanthropy — and for our democracy.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whose country is fighting to repel Russia’s full-scale invasion, posted an image of a Jewish menorah on X, formerly known as Twitter, to mark the remembrance day.

“Every new generation must learn the truth about the Holocaust. Human life must remain the highest value for all nations in the world,” said Zelensky, who is Jewish and had family members who were lost in the Holocaust.

In Italy, Holocaust commemorations included a torchlit procession and official statements from top political leaders.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni said her conservative nationalist government was committed to eradicating antisemitism that she said had been “reinvigorated” by the Israel-Hamas war. Meloni’s critics have long accused her and her Brothers of Italy party, which has neofascist roots, of failing to sufficiently atone for its past.

Pro-Palestinian activists went ahead with rallies, ignoring a police order to postpone the marches to another day. There were brief clashes with police in Milan and activists at a sit-in in Rome insisted they weren’t protesting Jews, just what they called the “genocide” in Gaza.

People clash with police during a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Milan on January 27, 2024. (Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP)

Italy’s Jewish community has complained that such protests have co-opted the memory of the Holocaust and been used against Jews.

In Rome, Italian-Palestinian student Amr Shahin said it was appropriate to protest what he called “the genocide” in Gaza on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“Unfortunately it is happening again, in Palestine, so precisely because it happened before we must learn from our mistakes, and reinforcing this concept today is even more important,” he said.

Holocaust survivor, Stanislaw Zalewski (back, L) as well as visitors and other survivors and their families pay their respects at the Auschwitz-Birkenau former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp during events marking the 79th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Oswiecim, Poland on January 27, 2024. (BARTOSZ SIEDLIK / AFP)

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jews and Muslims from the country and from abroad gathered in Srebrenica to jointly observe Holocaust Remembrance Day, and to promote compassion and dialogue amid the Israel-Hamas war.

It was organized by the center preserving the memory of Europe’s only acknowledged genocide since the Holocaust — the massacre in 1995 of more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks in Srebrenica in Bosnia’s interethnic war.

The event underscored the message that the two communities share the experience of persecution and must stay united in their commitment to peace.

Ceremonies on the eve of the 79th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, at the Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto, in Warsaw, Poland, on Jan.26, 2024 (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Menachem Rosensaft, a lecturer in law at Columbia Law School in New York, told The Associated Press on the eve of his participation in the Srebrenica commemoration that this year’s observances were especially important. He said that’s because the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel was the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust.

“We need to bring people together and find common ground,” said Rosensaft, the son of Holocaust survivors. “To make sure it doesn’t happen again, this has to become the conscience of the world.”

He said the international commemoration day is important to ensure the world remembers the Holocaust long after the survivors and their forbears are gone.

The gate with “Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free) written across it is pictured at the Auschwitz-Birkenau former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp during events marking the 79th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Oswiecim, Poland on January 27, 2024. (BARTOSZ SIEDLIK / AFP)

Preserving the camp, a notorious symbol of the horrors of the Holocaust, with its cruelly misleading “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Makes One Free”) gate, requires constant effort by historians and experts, and substantial funds.

The Nazis, who occupied Poland from 1939-1945, at first used Auschwitz to hold and kill Poland’s resistance fighters. In 1942, the wooden barracks, gas chambers and crematoria of Birkenau were added for the extermination of Europe’s Jews, Roma and other nationals, as well as Russian prisoners of war.

Since 1979, the camp site has been on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites.

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