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Shrinking Group of Survivors Commemorate Auschwitz

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The numbers at this year’s gathering at Auschwitz for International Holocaust Remembrance Day are troubling – and underscore why we must continue to remember and raise our voice against anti-Semitism in any form.

A decade ago, 1,500 Holocaust survivors traveled to Auschwitz to mark the 60th anniversary of the death camp’s liberation. On Tuesday, for the 70th anniversary, organizers are expecting 300, the youngest in their 70s.

“In 10 years there might be just one,” said Zygmunt Shipper, an 85-year-old survivor who will attend the event in southern Poland to pay homage to the millions killed by the Third Reich. In recent years, Shipper has been traveling around Britain to share his story with school groups, hoping to reach as many people as he can while he has the strength.

“The children cry, and I tell them to talk to their parents and brothers and sisters and ask them ‘Why do we do it and why do we hate?'” he said. “We mustn’t forget what happened.”

But as the world moves inevitably closer to a post-survivor era, some Jewish leaders fear that people are already starting to forget. And they warn that the anti-Semitic hatred and violence that are on the rise, particularly in Europe, could partly be linked to fading memories of the Holocaust.

But, thankfully, the outlook isn’t entirely bleak.

Despite the troubling trend, there are also reasons for hope. Mainstream society has become more vigilant, and Holocaust educators say that interest in the Holocaust keeps growing. Also, anti-Semitism remains a huge taboo for most politicians and mainstream societies in the West. Political opposition to anti-Semitism will be underlined by the presence Tuesday of the presidents of Germany, France and Poland, along with many other European leaders and royalty.

. . . Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev also laments that the world will be a poorer place without the survivors and the moral example they set. By and large, he says, they are individuals who saw the worst of humankind but still mustered the energy after the war to rebuild their lives, putting their faith again in humanity’s best side.

“The most astonishing fact for me and many others is that the heritage of the survivors is a very optimistic one,” Shalev said. “They didn’t come out of the war desperate and bitter human beings who wanted to take revenge.”

That optimism, Shalev says, gives many of them hope that the world will continue to remember what happened to them “maybe not for eternity — but for a long time.”

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