And the Free World did not react (On the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau)
On this 65th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp Auschwitz, we publish the speech made by Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, then Head of the International Auschwitz Council on this same day 5 years ago.
For a former prisoner of Auschwitz it is an inconceivable and truly moving experience to speak at Europe’s largest graveyard without graves.
It is inconceivable since when I, an 18-year-old Pole, in September 1940, first stood at the camp roll-call at Auschwitz-1, as Schutzhäftling [prisoner] No. 4427, among five and a half thousand other Poles – students, harcery [Polish Scouts], teachers, lawyers, doctors, priests, officers of the Polish Army, figures active in various political parties and trade unions, it didn’t enter my head for a second that I would outlive Hitler and the Second World War, just as I never imagined that Auschwitz – as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Monowitsa – would become the place where they carried out the single plan for the biological destruction of European Jews without distinction of gender and age.
In the first 15 months of the existence of this terrible place we Polish prisoners were alone. The free world was not interested in our suffering and our death despite the huge efforts of the secret camp Resistance aimed at passing information beyond the barbed wire.
In late summer 1941 they brought 15 thousand Red Army prisoners of war and in September 1941 they tried out the poison gas Zyklon-B on them, as well as on sick Polish political prisoners. None of the prisoner could have imagined that this was merely a criminal experiment, criminal preparation for genocide, carried out through industrial methods. However this was to come in 1942, 1943 and 1944.
The construction of the gas chambers and crematoria, their regulated work, were only technical elements of that Satanic undertaking. In Poland, in the native land of David Ben-Gurion, Shimon Perez, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Arthur Rubinstein, Menachem Begin, at Berlin’s decision a centre was built for the destruction of hated Jews.
If Poles and Russians in Auschwitz-Birkenau were unterMenschen for the Germans, Jews from France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Austria, from the countries of the then Yugoslavia, from Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia were not even seen as people, but as pernicious insects. The Polish Resistance movement informed the free world, tried to raise the alarm. The governments of Great Britain and the USA were already in the last quarter of 1942 well aware of what was happening in Auschwitz-Birkenau, in the first instance thanks to the Polish emissary Jan Karski, as well as though other channels.
Not one country in the world reacted as the seriousness of the situation required to the note of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Polish Government in Exile in London from 10 December 1942 to the governments of the League of Nations, calling on them to not only condemn the crimes being committed by the Germans and to punish the perpetrators, but also to find ways of preventing Germany from continuing to use methods of mass murder.
They found no effective means, and in fact didn’t try to find them. And that was at a time when more than half of the future victims were still alive. The only result of the Polish initiative was a brief declaration by 12 states published on 17 December simultaneously in London, Moscow and Washington. In that declaration, where incidentally the name “Auschwitz-Birkenau” was not mentioned, the governments of Belgium, Great Britain, Greece, Holland, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland the USA and USSR, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the French National Committee signal that they are aware of the terrible fate of Jews in Poland which the Nazis have made their main torture chamber, and promise to punish the perpetrators.
The last surviving prisoners of Auschwitz-Birkenau, present here today, will probably not be able to honour the memory of the victims in the coming decades. However they have the right to believe that their suffering and the death of their close ones was of real significance for a better future for all people in Europe and even in the whole world, regardless of their ethnic origin or religion.
We want to believe that the memory of the so inconceivable fate of the prisoners and victims of the place on which we stand will bind new generations to a shared life in respect for the dignity of each person and active countering of all manifestations of hatred and contempt for human beings, in particular of any form of xenophobia and anti-Semitism, even when that is fraudulently passed off as anti-Zionism.
I have in my life taken part in hundreds of regional and international anniversaries but I think there will never be another like this one. We must ask ourselves and the world a question, how much truth about the horrible experiences of totalitarianism did we manage to pass on to younger generations? I think a lot, but not enough. Here and now, as the last will and testament of the prisoners who will no longer be among us, we must make a decision about the opening of the International Centre for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust.
Graves force any normal human being to stop and think. Yet here there are no graves. That means that on the place where an unthinkable crime was perpetrated, reflection must be transformed into particular responsibility, into enduring remembrance of what happened. I will end with the words from the Book of Job, equally important for Jews and Christians: “"O earth, do not cover my blood; may my cry never be laid to rest!.