Auschwitz survivors mark anniversary online amid pandemic

27 January 2021, 17:54

The railway tracks leading to the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Poland
Holocaust Remembrance. Picture: PA

Tova Friedman had hoped to take her grandchildren to the site of the former Nazi death camp in Poland but the coronavirus pandemic prevented the trip.

Auschwitz survivor Tova Friedman had hoped to mark Holocaust Memorial Day by taking her eight grandchildren to the site of the former Nazi death camp in Poland but the coronavirus pandemic prevented the trip.

At just six years old, she was instructed by her mother to lie absolutely still in a bed at a camp hospital, next to the body of a young woman who had just died. As German forces went from bed to bed shooting anyone still alive, she barely breathed under a blanket and went unnoticed.

Days later, on January 27 1945, she was among the thousands of prisoners who survived to greet the Soviet troops who liberated the camp.

Holocaust Remembrance
Polish-born Holocaust survivor Tova Friedman holds a photograph of herself as a child with her mother, who also survived the Nazi death camp Auschwitz (World Jewish Congress/AP)

Now 82, Ms Friedman had hoped to mark Wednesday’s anniversary by travelling to the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial site, which is under the custodianship of the Polish state. Instead, she was alone at home in Highland Park, New Jersey, in the US.

However, her message warning about the rise of hatred was part of a virtual observance organised by the World Jewish Congress.

Across Europe, the victims were remembered and honoured in various ways.

In Austria and Slovakia, hundreds of survivors were offered their first doses of a vaccine against coronavirus in a gesture both symbolic and truly lifesaving given the threat of the virus to older adults.

In Israel, some 900 Holocaust survivors died from Covid-19 out of the 5,300 who were infected last year, the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported.

Roses are placed on the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin
Roses are placed on the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Pope Francis warned from the Vatican that distorted ideologies can “end up destroying a people and humanity”.

Meanwhile, Luxembourg signed a deal agreeing to pay reparations and to give back looted art to Holocaust survivors.

Other institutions around the world, including the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial museum in Poland, Yad Vashem in Israel and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC also have online events planned.

The presidents of Israel, Germany and Poland were among those delivering messages of remembrance and warning.

A Holocaust memorial ceremony in Israel
Holocaust survivors wear face masks and keep a safe distance from each other while attending an annual memorial ceremony in Israel (Ariel Schalit/AP)

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in a message to a World Jewish Congress and Auschwitz memorial museum event, said the online nature of remembrance events takes nothing away from their importance.

“It’s a duty but also a responsibility, one we inherit from those who lived through the horrors of the Shoah, whose voices are gradually disappearing,” Mr Steinmeier said.

“The greatest danger for all of us begins with forgetting. With no longer remembering what we inflict upon one another when we tolerate anti-Semitism and racism in our midst.”

“We must remain alert, must identify prejudice and conspiracy theories, and combat them with reason, passion and resolve.”

The online nature of this year’s commemorations is a sharp contrast to how Ms Friedman spent the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation last year, when she gathered under a huge tent with other survivors and dozens of European leaders at the site of the former camp.

International Holocaust Memorial Day
Former prisoners attend a previous memorial service on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (Dave Thompson/PA)

It was one of the last large international gatherings before the pandemic forced the cancellation of most large gatherings.

Many Holocaust survivors in the US, Israel and elsewhere find themselves in a state of previously unimaginable isolation due to the pandemic. Ms Friedman lost her husband last March and said she feels acutely alone now.

But survivors like her also have found new connections over Zoom: World Jewish Congress leader Ronald Lauder has organised video meetings for survivors and their children and grandchildren during the pandemic.

More than 1.1 million people were murdered by the German Nazis and their henchmen at Auschwitz, the most notorious site in a network of camps and ghettos aimed at the destruction of Europe’s Jews.

The vast majority of those killed at Auschwitz were Jews, but others, including Poles, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war, were also killed in large numbers.

In all, about six million European Jews and millions of other people were killed by the Germans and their collaborators. In 2005, the United Nations designated January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, an acknowledgement of Auschwitz’s status.

Israel, which is home to 197,000 Holocaust survivors, officially marks its Holocaust remembrance day in the spring, but events organised by survivors’ organisations and remembrance groups also took place across the country on Wednesday, many of them held virtually or without members of the public in attendance.

While commemorations have moved online for the first time, one constant is the drive of survivors to tell their stories as words of caution.

Rose Schindler, a 91-year-old survivor of Auschwitz who was originally from Czechoslovakia but now lives in San Diego, California, has been speaking to school groups about her experience for 50 years.

Her story, and that of her late husband, Max, also a survivor, is also told in a book, Two Who Survived: Keeping Hope Alive While Surviving The Holocaust.

After Ms Schindler was transported to Auschwitz in 1944, she was selected more than once for immediate death in the gas chambers. She survived by escaping each time and joining work details.

The horrors she experienced – the mass murder of her parents and four siblings, the hunger, being shaved, lice infestations – are difficult to convey, but she keeps speaking to groups, over past months only by Zoom.

“We have to tell our stories so it doesn’t happen again,” she told the Associated Press. “It is unbelievable what we went through, and the whole world was silent as this was going on.”

Ms Friedman said she believes it is her role to “sound the alarm” about rising anti-Semitism and other hatred in the world, otherwise “another tragedy may happen”.

That hatred, she said, was on clear view when a mob inspired by former President Donald Trump attacked the US Capitol on January 6. Some insurrectionists wore clothes with anti-Semitic messages like “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE”, which stands for “6 million wasn’t enough”.

“It was utterly shocking and I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “And I don’t know what part of America feels like that. I hope it’s a very small and isolated group and not a pervasive feeling.”

Nevertheless, the mob violence could not shake her belief in the essential goodness of the United States and most Americans.

“It’s a country of freedom. It’s a country that took me in,” she said.

In her recorded message that was being broadcast on Wednesday, Ms Friedman said she compares the virus of hatred in the world to Covid-19.

She said the world today is witnessing “a virus of anti-Semitism, of racism, and if you don’t stop the virus, it’s going to kill humanity”,

By Press Association