At Holocaust ceremonies in Auschwitz, ‘never again’ more than a slogan

A view of Birkenau, the site of the memorial ceremony. (Toby Axelrod)
A view of Birkenau, the site of the memorial ceremony. (Toby Axelrod)

The anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on Jan. 27 was a cold, snowy, windy day. The slush surrounding the former concentration camp was frozen into icy slurry when I arrived by bus from Krakow in the early morning. It was on this day 70 years ago that Red Army troops ended the torture and murder of the Jews at Auschwitz, and it’s the day that the United Nations established as Holocaust Remembrance Day.

This may be the last time many survivors are able to return. I felt privileged to be here. It was a painful and powerful experience, conveying a sense of responsibility to the survivors in my own Temple Emanu-El and in our Tucson Jewish community.

The cold, miserable day suited this place. By all accounts, the anniversary seems to fall on the coldest day of the year, and in the past, people sat and froze. For the 70th anniversary a giant tent was erected — right over the railroad tracks used to bring prisoners into the camp.

The bitterness of the day, actually mild for southern Poland in January, made it even more unfathomable that anyone survived wearing muddy clogs and striped pajamas through such winters.

My tour of Krakow the day before was energizing. Jonathan Ornstein, director of the Krakow Jewish Community Center, has 50 young, incredibly inspiring non-Jewish volunteers working there. I’m proud that Ornstein received the Cohon Memorial Foundation Award at Temple Emanu-El last month.

The cold, solemn anniversary was a mirror-image of my joyous Krakow JCC experience.

We had to arrive at Auschwitz by 8:30 a.m. The ceremony finally began at 3:40 p.m. It started like every Holocaust memorial ceremony. Larger, better produced, more widely televised, but there was the same somber music, thoughtful speeches and remembrances of Holocaust survivors. Each of the survivors rose to speak an individual narrative of systematic destruction, brutal cruelty, sadistic torture and murder, loss, mourning and memory. Of all the excellent speakers, Roman Kent, author of “Courage Was My Only Option,” was particularly eloquent. He urged tolerance and respect for all people, saying that among the greatest lessons of Auschwitz, “Hate is never right and love is never wrong.”

Kent also spoke of holiness, which struck a chord with me. “The heroic deeds of the non-Jews who saved the lives of strangers, the righteous Gentiles … were truly holy. A few thousand people in the face of tens of millions, but they acted with true moral courage, endangering their own lives to save Jews.

“They lit a moral torch in the face of oppression by darkness,” he said.

“I would add an 11th commandment after the universally recognized 10: Thou shalt never be a bystander,” Kent concluded.

Steven Spielberg also attended the Jan. 27 ceremony and showed his elegant 15-minute film “Auschwitz.” The film illustrated how a little Polish town with unused barracks grew to swallow up surrounding villages and encompass 48 sub-camps, becoming the largest and most efficient death camp in the Third Reich. Between 1.1 and 1.5 million people were slaughtered here. Most were burned to smoke in the crematoria.

World Jewish Congress President Ron Lauder’s speech came toward the end. Lauder began, “I’m here simply as a Jew… If I had been born in Hungary in 1944 instead of New York … I would have died like the 460,000 Hungarian Jews who died here in this terrible place, Auschwitz.”

Lauder said that he changed his speech following the horrible attacks in Paris last month. “Jews are being targeted again in Europe and around the world simply because they are Jews.” As Spielberg did the night before in Krakow, Lauder spoke about the return of anti-Semitism in Europe. “The lies that are continually told about Israel are poisoning the world. In our world, if you tell a lie three times and no one contradicts it, it becomes the truth.”

Lauder concluded, “World indifference led to Auschwitz. Do not let this happen again…”

Auschwitz Museum Director Piotr Cywiński, Ph.D., recalled Primo Levi’s famous saying, “It happened, therefore it can happen again … It can happen anywhere.”

Cywiński concluded, “‘Never again’ is not a political program, but a personal decision. It means — never again because of me, never again in me, never again with me. I believe that never again with all of us.” We all pray that he is right.

Samuel M. Cohon, senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, is on a sabbatical trip around the world, visiting the holiest sites on earth. He blogs at www.travelpod.com/travel-blog/samcohon/1/tpod.html.