Fifty Years Later: Anguish At Auschwitz-Birkenau
OSWIECIM, Poland (AP) _ Jews who stared out the gates of Auschwitz when they were liberated 50 years ago returned today to honor the 1.5 million people who died there at the hands of the Nazis.
On Jan. 27, 1945, stunned Soviet troops found only 5,200 starving and tortured prisoners alive, some barely able to move, others crumpled in the snow, breathing their last breaths even as freedom finally came.
About that many mourners gathered today: Survivors wearing imitations of the striped prisoners’ uniforms; others waving Israeli flags, silently weeping, praying and stamping their feet against the cold.
Leading the crowd, President Lech Walesa, Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel and Israeli Knesset speaker Shevah Weiss walked side by side under Auschwitz’s cruel entrance sign: ``Arbeit Macht Frei,″ or ``Work Shall Make You Free.″
``I came back because I’ve got this fantastic feeling that I can say to my driver, `Wait for me at the gate. I will be back in three hours, and we will go back to Warsaw,′ ″ said Noah Kleger, 69, a French Jew who survived Auschwitz with his parents. ``It’s a feeling I cannot explain.″
As mourners lighted candles on the railroad tracks that once brought hundreds of thousands in cattle cars for slaughter, Maurice Goldstein told about his 23rd birthday, the day the Red Army came.
``It was a freezing day, with a lot of snow,″ Goldstein, the chairman of the International Auschwitz Committee, told the mourners today.
``The fear about our lives, which accompanied us all the time at Auschwitz, became even greater. We could hear the sounds of freedom,″ he said.
Wiesel was not at the camp that day. He had left the camp with his father and 58,000 prisoners the Nazis forced to march westward after blowing up the gas chambers and crematoria in an attempt to hide their crimes from the approaching Red Army.
Most of the 58,000 were murdered by Nazi guards or died of cold and hunger on the way.
``Close your eyes and look, and you will see what we have seen, endless nocturnal processions are converging here at night, and here it is always night,″ Wiesel said.
``Close your eyes and listen to the silent screams that terrify mothers, listen to the prayers of anguished old men and women, listen to the tears of children,″ he said.
Wiesel read a statement from President Clinton that said: ``Jewish people were singled out for destruction during the Holocaust ... and have shouldered history’s heaviest burden,″
President Lech Walesa of Poland spoke of a ``factory of death.″
``Here where we are standing people were put to death in a carefully thought-over and dispassionate way, like one solves mathematical calculations,″ Walesa said.
``There was a kind of bureaucracy. A new kind of a criminal was created here ...″
Walesa apparently acknowledged that Jews were the main target of the Nazi genocide plan _ and, in the process, reconciled a dispute with Jewish leaders that had marred the anniversary commemmorations.
``The distance we have walked from the sign that says, `Work makes you free,′ to this death house, is a symbolic journey,″ Walesa said, ``A journey down the road that stands for the suffering of many nations, especially of the Jewish nation.″
Those words _ ``especially of the Jewish nation″ _ were missing from a prepared text of his speech, and Walesa hadn’t mentioned Jews during his public speeches Thursday marking the liberation.
Auschwitz was initially built for Polish opponents of the Nazis, and for non-Jewish Poles, it has become a symbol of martyrdom.
Feeling that Walesa’s government was organizing a nationalist remembrance that downplayed the Jews’ persecution, Jewish groups had held a separate religious service on Thursday at the Birkenau gas chambers, a mile from Auschwitz.
In a meeting of Nobel Peace Prize winners Thursday night, Wiesel had told Walesa it was very important to mention Jews and other nations, including Poles.
Poland’s chief rabbi, Menachem Jaskowicz, opened the anniversary ceremony with a plaintive memorial prayer that echoed over the gas chambers. He then recited the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
Following were prayers of Muslims, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Lutherans and Calvinists _ victims, too, at this concentration camp, initially built for Polish opponents of the Nazis.
The fact that the Kaddish had not been mentioned specifically in the program prepared by Walesa’s office had caused many Jews to fear it would not be said at all.
At the end of the ceremony, a roll of first names, from the lists of prisoners, was read. The roll call ended with the words: ``Peace to them all.″