Auschwitz Trip: Remembering Not to Forget

WFIU's Stan Jastrzebski has spent the last week touring concentration camps in Poland in advance of the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Barbed Wire at Auschwitz

Photo: Stan Jastrzebski

Though it no longer courses with high voltage, barbed wire fencing at Auschwitz serves as a stark reminder of the camp's days as a deadly prison.

For the last week,  a group led by Holocaust survivor Eva Kor — founder of Terre Haute’s CANDLES Holocaust museum — has gathered in Poland.    The group has toured concentration camps and on Wednesday witnessed the ceremony commemorating the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the infamous Auschwitz camp by Russian soldiers.

Listen closely enough here and you can almost make out the footsteps of the hundreds of thousands who perished here.  Eva Kor survived until Russian troops liberated the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps on January 27, 1945.  But each time she returns to this place – a strip of land straddled by two sets of railroad tracks known as the “selection platform,” she remembers those who were not so fortunate.

“I always remember seeing my parents for the very last time,” Kor said.  “In 30 minutes, we no longer had a family.  And we never knew what would happen to us and why they kept us alive at that time.  And so I always  say that this was the beginning of the end.  Once we arrived here, there was no escape.”

So Kor brings groups to Auschwitz every few years to teach — and to remember.  She takes them into a crematorium, where corpses were burned after emerging from gas chambers. And in a place where such unholy fires used to burn, members of the group take turns igniting small fires of their own on the wicks of symbolic candles.

Indianapolis resident Marv Hershenson led the group in a recitation of the Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead.

And on Wednesday, dignitaries from around the world gathered to mark the day the camps were liberated.  But, speaking through a translator, Polish President Lech Kaczynski had his own spin on what it means to remember the tragedy of the land on which he was standing.

“But as one of the former prisoners of this camp said, ‘If it happened, it means it can happen again,’” Kaczynski said.

The ceremony closed with a reading of a list of the names of those who died here, arranged by family. But throughout it all, Eva Kor’s message to her charges is one of forgiveness – a message crystallized for her following a meeting with a German physician who chose not to attempt to deny the suffering and death and medical experiments carried out by himself and those like him, but rather to admit to them and seek penance.

“I struggled with the idea of ‘I want to thank this Nazi doctor,’” she said. “And after ten months, a simple idea — how about a letter of forgiveness?  And once I realized that this would be a  meaningful gift for him, I also realized it was a life-changing event for me.”

Kor often leads groups not only in renditions of the song The Impossible Dream, from the musical Man of La Mancha, but on a march between two rows of barbed wire at Auschwitz – the same track she traveled as a girl in January of 1945, as shown in two photos now hanging at the camp’s museum.

And as a solitary trumpeter played on the Birkenau monument which now honors the Holocaust dead, it’s clear remembering is not the same as not forgetting.  The latter is a passive task undertaken by those without first-hand knowledge.  The former is more difficult – a job requiring effort and dedication.  Eva Kor hasn’t forgotten being experimented on by Doctor Joseph Mengele, but what she wants those who know her to remember is something entirely different.

“I want you to remember that in spite of what you see here, the human spirit could not be defeated,” she said.  “What kept us alive?  That unbelieveable human spirit that kept saying ‘Don’t give up.  Fight one more day, survive one more day and go on.’”

Stan Jastrzebski

WFIU/WTIU News Senior Editor Stan Jastrzebski spent time as a reporter with WGN Radio in Chicago and as an editor at Network Indiana, an Indianapolis news service. Stan is the winner of awards from the Associated Press, the RTDNA, the Indiana Broadcasters Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. He hosts WFIU's Ask the Mayor and anchors WTIU's InFocus.

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