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The Voices of Auschwitz

Today, January 27, marks Holocaust Remembrance Day around the world, as well as the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi death camps. With each anniversary, fewer and fewer survivors remain to remind the world of the Holocaust. In a compelling piece, The Washington Post gives some of these remaining survivors a voice, two of which we share below:

There are fewer and fewer of those who still remember.

The Soviet army entered Auschwitz — the network of extermination camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland — on Jan. 27, 1945, liberating the most notorious site of the Holocaust. In the decades since, groups of survivors have gathered to honor that day — including an annual remembrance at Auschwitz itself. This year, they mark the 70th anniversary of liberation on Tuesday — a day that, for a significant portion of remaining survivors, may be the last major remembrance of their lifetimes. The numbers themselves tell the story.

A decade ago, 1,500 survivors traveled to Auschwitz in southern Poland to mark the 60th anniversary. This year, organizers are expecting 300 or so. “This is the last big one for many of the survivors … By the time we reach the 75th anniversary, there may be almost no survivors left. But they are coming now, because they want to bear witness, to stand there and say, ‘we outlasted Hitler. We made it.’”

The survivors partly carry a legacy of horror, memories of the brutality of a labor prison that, by September of 1941, became an assembly line of death where more than 1 million would perish at the hands of the Third Reich …

The survivors carry another legacy as well, one even more relevant: The power of human will to persevere …

There are few people alive today who can recall the ominous grin of the notorious “Angel of Death,” Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. Marta Wise is one of them.

“When he smiled you knew it meant danger, because when he was smiling, that was when he was at his most sadistic,” said Wise (nee Weiss), an 80-year-old from pre-war Czechoslovakia who lived for two months in Mengele’s experimental barracks in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp …

Wise, a mother of three, grandmother of 14 and great-grandmother of five, immigrated to Israel with her husband in 1998. She is warm and friendly, but what she has to say is not soothing.

“I used to be an optimist until a few years ago, but the situation in the Middle East has changed and the world does not notice anything,” she said, speaking days after the terror attacks in Paris. “Reading the newspaper in the past few days is just like reading the newspaper in the 1930s.”

“The world has not changed at all,” Wise said. “The bottom line is it can happen again and it is happening again in many places, not necessarily to the Jews, but to anyone…”

On the subzero night of Jan. 18, 1945, the Soviet army was fast approaching the gates of Auschwitz. A few minutes after 11 p.m., Raphael Esrail, then 19, was forced into line with thousands of Jewish prisoners under the light of a full moon.

The bright night brought an unearthly clarity to a moment of dread. Shouting Nazis separated emaciated prisoners, some barely able to move, into smaller groups of 500. For a fleeting moment, he thought, they might all be killed right there.

A French Jew hauled to the camp in a cattle car after his arrest in Lyon 11 months earlier, Esrail had made a solemn pact with himself to survive the ordeal. The things he’d seen up until that point had already tested his will to live. But what came next, he recently recalled in a lengthy interview, was a different kind of horror …

“I saw so much, remember too much of it. The three days of the Death March were the worst.”

In the many decades since, this time of year has always been the hardest — the days around the anniversary of liberation that still bring back the worst of the memories. The 70th anniversary has suddenly become particularly symbolic for French survivors. It comes amid worries of rising anti-Semitism in France, fears punctuated by the Jan. 9 attack at a kosher market in Paris by an Islamist extremist who killed four hostages before being killed by police …

Although he has been back more than a dozen times since the war’s end, he has opted to sit out the 70th anniversary.

“I am old. I am sick,” he said. “And I do not want to die in Auschwitz.”

Tags: Holocaust , History

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