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“Not one country reacted”: 71 years since the Liberation of Auschwitz

“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" - Władysław Bartoszewski

Remembrance ceremonies are taking part in many countries, including Ukraine, today to mark the 71st anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

There are every fewer survivors of the death camp among us, and the seventieth anniversary on January 27, 2015 was an occasion for the world’s leaders to remain silent while the voices of some of those survivors were head.  300

One of the earliest prisoners was Władysław Bartoszewski, who later became an active member of Żegota - the Polish Council to Aid Jews which is believed to have helped around half of the Jews who survived the Holocaust in Poland.  One of the members was Jan Karski, who tried in vain to get the reaction of western governments to the Holocaust.  Another – Irena Sendler, who saved 2, 500 (yes, two thousand, five hundred) children from the Warsaw Ghetto. 

On the eve of last year’s anniversary, Władysław Bartoszewski wrote:

 “This year in the world’s largest cemetery without graves, Polish prisoner No. 118 Kazimerz Albin and Polish Jew, and Israeli citizen, Halina Birenbaum will speak on behalf of the prisoners. They will speak in Polish, on Polish soil remembering which people – of which nationality and ideology – prepared this fate for other people.

For us a fundamental question is: how much truth about those terrible experiences has already been taken in, and how much truth about the crimes of any totalitarian regimes we can managed to pass to younger generations. I think a lot, but not enough. It’s never enough!”

Five years earlier, he had spoken words that in 2016 seem terrifyingly relevant:

“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.”  (the full speech can be found here)

Władysław Bartoszewski’s passing on April 24, 2015 was mourned by people throughout the world.  The words he had spoken in a recent interview apply just as well to him. 

You can expect bravery, heroism, from people, you even should expect it, however you also need to allow for the fact that they’re people. The Catholic Church expects holiness from believers, yet what percentage fulfils those expectations?  I don’t know.  However I know that there were and are such people. There are few of them, but they exist. And I’m glad of that.

Please view the video here and hear the words spoken by Jan Karski that the world once preferred not to hear

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