Holocaust survivors return to Auschwitz to mark 70 years of liberation

(L-R): Johnny Pekats (U.S.); Mordechai Ronen (Canada); Ronald Lauder; Rose Schindler (U.S.); Joseph Madrowitz (U.S.) (Courtesy Shahar Azran)
(L-R): Johnny Pekats (U.S.); Mordechai Ronen (Canada); Ronald Lauder; Rose Schindler (U.S.); Joseph Madrowitz (U.S.) (Courtesy Shahar Azran)

AUSCHWITZ, POLAND– Fifteen Auschwitz survivors, aged 80-94, returned this morning, Monday January 26, to the infamous death camp, Auschwitz, some for the first time. Ahead of the 70th anniversary celebration of the Auschwitz liberation on January 27, the World Jewish Congress (WJC), the USC Shoah Foundation, organized the historic visit of the survivors and their offspring, who came from across the world.

“When I arrived in Poland, the tall trees made me immediately anxious. They reminded me of my arrival to Auschwitz — the same day my mother and little sister were gassed,” said Johnny Pekats, 80, one of the American survivors who returned to the death camp for his first time.

“For years I refused to return to this horrible place, but I finally decided to come back with my son. I wanted to say Kaddish with him there,” said Pekats.

“This is my first and last visit to Auschwitz and my message for the word is that it’s not enough just to remember; we have to make sure that this never happens again.”

More than 100 Auschwitz survivors from at least 19 countries arrived in Polandon Monday as part of the World Jewish Congress’ delegation to participate in the upcoming ceremony and events. From the United States, 21 American survivors of Auschwitz will participate in the January 27 observance of the 70thanniversary of the camp’s liberation for the International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Given the age and conditions of the survivors and the heavy emotional experience, the WJC also arranged a special medical team of 12 doctors, psychologists and nurses who will accompany the survivors throughout the visit.

“I deeply admire the courage of these survivors,” said Ron Lauder, WJC President, who joined the survivors today at Auschwitz. “For some of them, this was the first time they returned to the place of their nightmares. Each survivor is a living testament to the triumph of good over evil, of life over death, and they are my heroes.”

Lauder has been involved in the restoration and preservation of Auschwitz-Birkenau for more than 20 years and has helped to raise $40 million from 19 countries to ensure that the camp forever be preserved for future generations. He also financed the creation of the conservation laboratory at the Auschwitz Memorial, which preserves every shoe, every document, and every building that remained at the site.

“The World Jewish Congress is humbled and honored that so many of these aging survivors will travel with us to Auschwitz,” said Robert Singer, Chief Executive Officer of the WJC. “This may be the last major anniversary we will be able to remember with those who experienced the Holocaust firsthand. From this historic event, their voices will echo across the generations.”

The ceremony will host state leaders from Poland, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, The Netherlands, Croatia, and other countries. Other notable guests will include film director Steven Spielberg, founding chair of the USC Shoah Foundation; Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban; and other Auschwitz 70th anniversary committee members.

During the Holocaust, Auschwitz was the largest site of extermination of Jews in Europe since 1942. The Nazi Germans killed at least 1.1 million people there, most of whom were Jewish but also Poles, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war and prisoners of other ethnicities.
On January 27, 1945, the death camp was liberated by Soviet troops.