Seventy-five: It’s the average lifespan of an American male and, as of this week, also the number of years that have passed since soldiers from the 100th Infantry Division of the Russian army marched through Auschwitz’s infamous Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work Sets You Free”) gates to behold a sight few of them would ever forget.
Meeting them on the morning of Jan. 27, 1945, were 7,000 prisoners, barely alive, and hundreds of corpses spread out as far as the eye could see. Among the evidence the Russians found were 837,000 women’s garments, 370,000 men’s suits, 44,000 pairs of shoes and 15,432 pounds of human hair, bearing evidence of the poison gas Zyklon B.
In the words of survivor and author Primo Levi, as the first soldiers approached Auschwitz III, they “shot strangely embarrassed glances at the sprawling bodies, at the battered huts and at us few still alive.”
Lidia Maksymowicz vividly recalls the moment of liberation. Though only 4 years old at the time, during her months in Auschwitz, she’d been tattooed with the number 70072 (her mother Anna was marked as 70071), was a victim of medical experiments and had been left alone after her mother was sent on a death march.
“I remember soldiers entering in completely different uniforms,” she said through a translator. “I remember sitting at this large stove in a wooden barracks and getting a cup of coffee with milk and a slice of bread with margarine. And I heard this language — Russian.” Assuming her family was gone (it wasn’t until 1962 that she was reunited with her mother, who had survived the death march), Maksymowicz was adopted by a local Christian family and is now a great-grandmother living in Krakow, Poland. “I admire them to this day that they took this small skeleton (me), full of lice, dirty with frostbitten legs. I looked scary. After three years, they adopted me and gave me their name.”
Agi Geva was 13 when, after the degradation of Auschwitz, she and her mother and sister were liberated during a death march from a work camp near Stuttgart, Germany. “Our strength had been spent. … If I would have had to march for one more day, I would not have remained alive,” says Geva, who spent more than a half century in Israel before joining her daughter in the United States. She now lives in the Washington area and speaks regularly to groups at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum there. “We knew we had made it in spite of all that we had gone through, in spite of the Nazis’ intentions and efforts,” she recalls. When they encountered a group of American soldiers, “they told us they had never before seen such a group of weird-looking, emaciated, ugly, bald women.”
Geva and Maksymowicz are among the very few alive today who can remember Jan. 27, 1945. Seventy-five later, nearly all of them — the skeletal prisoners on one side of the barbed wire and their liberators on the other — are gone. The world remembers the date thanks to the United Nations, which designated it as International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005.
Auschwitz: International site
for the mass murder of Jews
Of the six major Nazi mass-murder centers on occupied Polish soil, Auschwitz-Birkenau has the terrible distinction of being the largest and the place of the most killing: Of the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz (and the 1.1 million who died there, the vast majority upon arrival) between 1940 and 1945, 90 percent, or roughly 1 million, were Jews; 75,000 were Poles; 21,000 were Roma (gypsies); 15,000 were Soviet prisoners of war; and some 15,000 were other Europeans. These numbers mounted quickly beginning in the spring of 1942, when the adjacent and much larger Birkenau camp was built, expanding the killing operation many times over. For the vast majority, from arrival until death took under 30 minutes.
Unlike other camps that focused on local Jewish populations, Auschwitz became “an international site for the mass murder of Jews from all over,” says Luckert. “It’s a place that, more than any other, captures the enormity of the crime.”
And because the Nazis were so determined to document their crimes, even though they blew up the gas chambers when they realized their defeat was imminent, they could not erase the evidence, adds Luckert. “In their methodical way, they’d collected warehouses full of their murdered victims’ hair, teeth, clothes, suitcases and much more. For the Soviet troops who entered, it was horrifying.”
Today, much of this is on display for the 2.3 million visitors a year who tour the camp through the auspices of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 80 percent taking a guided tour in one of 21 languages.
“The story we tell is a difficult one, a painful one. Statistics you can protect yourself — from photos and stories, hair and baby shoes you can’t,” says Sawicki who has led more than 30,000 visitors around the site in the last 12 years. “That’s why we shape each tour to the people who come and don’t do audio tours because the human story is the most important part of the visit, not the architecture.”
But how can one prepare for such a tour? Though school groups typically structure curriculum to learn about the Holocaust in advance to ready the students, others may arrive at the sight unprepared for what they are to experience.
Begin by asking yourself a few questions, advises Sawicki. “Why am I going? What am I searching for? What is the meaning of Auschwitz?” Then read, he adds. Books by Primo Levi, by Elie Wiesel, by the many other memoirists who’ve committed their Auschwitz waking nightmares to print.
Testimonies in word and video are also available on the Auschwitz museum website, as well as the USHMM and Yad Vashem ones.
“I can see the difference in people when they start the tour and how they are three-and-a-half hours later,” says Sawicki. “They need a way to process this place.”
Jewish pride among the ashes
For the Jews who come, “it’s typically as a pilgrimage, whether or not they lost close family members here,” says Sawicki. “For them, it’s more like a cemetery visit.” This is often especially felt in the large quiet expanse of Birkenau rather than the bustling Auschwitz I with its exhibits, he adds. “Everyone feels the loss but for the Jewish groups, it comes down to Auschwitz being intimately important to their people and to them.”
Indeed, it’s long been a tradition to bring Israeli high-schoolers and members of the Israel Defense Forces to Auschwitz (in fact, Sawicki reports that it’s only these groups who are permitted to bring their own tour guides, who are also accompanied by museum ones; everyone else must use the ones on the museum staff).
That’s how Israeli Yochi Gabai went, as a chaperone with her teenage daughter’s class in 2007. Named after her grandmother Yocheved — her father’s mother from Pinsk who was killed by the Nazis along with most of the family — Gabai says the trip affected her deeply.
Says Luckert: “We are a people who remember—whether it’s what happened to us in Egypt or ancient Persia. And we need to remember what happened to us here.”
“Auschwitz forever shaped my worldview,” says Annael Brown who, as a Miami high-school student was among the 360,000 Jewish teens who, since 1988, have visited Auschwitz as part of the March of the Living trip each spring. Thirteen years later, she says the tiny plant springing up between the Auschwitz train tracks remains for her a potent symbol of Jewish survival.
But most impactful, she notes, was something that didn’t even happen in the camp. “Each March of the Living bus has a survivor to share their stories which makes it all the more real,” she recalls. “I remember watching ours help himself to a bottle of water the bus. As he drank, I realized all the years when he had no clean water to drink, no food to eat, and how he must appreciate these things in ways we never can.”
She learned then never to say “I’m starving” because “I really don’t know how that feels.”
Having accompanied more than 1,200 Jewish teens, including his own five children, during 22 trips, March of the Living leader Joel Katz comes by his devotion to telling this story naturally — his father was one of the American GIs who liberated Dachau.
“Each time we go, I see this place again through the eyes of these young people,” he says. “And I realize again and again that there is nothing more important than educating our children about our people’s story.”
One key lesson of the annual trip is ending it in Israel, he adds. “Going through these camps first and then arriving in Israel sends a powerful message that, even though our brothers and sisters had nowhere to run during the Holocaust—no one would let them in — now we have a safe haven, our own homeland.”
And the trip is becoming more urgent, maintains Katz. “With BDS spreading on campuses where these kids will soon be students, with [the] Poway, Jersey City and Monsey [attacks on Jews], it’s hitting home. They need to really see and understand Jewish history, and be proud that they are Jews. So when the deniers say it didn’t happen they can say, ‘I was there … I walked through the bunks. I saw the ashes. It happened’.”
Auschwitz: The tourist trap?
When a place becomes a symbol and attracts millions of people each year, the challenge, according to Auschwitz Museum’s Sawicki, is “not to oversimplify what happened here because it’s easy to forget how complicated it was.”
Indeed, Auschwitz is easily Poland’s largest tourist draw. And on a recent visit, one grinning man posed on the running board of an old train for his wife to snap his photo. Until a tour guide shooed him off.
“Has Auschwitz become Poland’s Disneyland?” asks Dr. Matthew Zizmor of Boston, a dentist who visited the camp with his two sons last year. His chief concern: Jewish history is being objectified and interpreted by non-Jews. “Who is telling our story? No matter how well-meaning, they can’t tell Jewish history without Jews; they can’t see it through our eyes,” he says.
Polish guides try to universalize the Nazis’ damage, says Zizmor. “But they lost 75,000 Christian Poles here; we lost over a million Jews the Nazis brought in from all over the world. So when it comes to telling our story in the future, when all the survivors are gone, who will do it — the Poles? We have to be part of that conversation.”
Who is recommended to go?
An Auschwitz visit is also not for everyone, insist observers. Many survivors, in fact, have no desire to return. “I know I can’t go back, although my daughter recently did,” says Geva who looks forward to turning 90 this June.
What is the recommended age for visiting? Because of the emotional force of the experience, the museum restricts group tours to those 14 and over, says Sawicki, although parents can bring their children if they deem it appropriate.
There are advantages of having this powerful, formative experience during the years of adolescence, believes Brown, though “being there at 18 was perfect for what we needed to learn. We were still teenagers and open to new ideas, but also mature enough to have some context for what we were seeing.”
March of the Living also made a powerful impact on Joe Basrawi, a teen from Allentown, Pa., who made the trip in 2017. “When we made that turn in Birkenau and I saw the line of brick building after brick building, I broke down, knowing this is where my family perished,” says Basrawi, now 21, and a pro-Israel advocate who speaks on North American campuses and hosts a radio show to promote Jewish pride and Zionism among college students. “It’s something I will never forget.”
But there are also advantages to making this trip later.
“March of the Living is very important, but when you bring some life experience, you appreciate it from the depths of the crematoria,” says Zizmor, who was 69 when he traveled there last year for the first time.
Something Zizmor says was especially moving: Saying the Kaddish prayer there on Tisha B’Av, the traditional day of mourning. “I strongly believe it was healing for the souls of the departed and for us.”
The U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Luckert believes that it’s impossible to leave Auschwitz unchanged. “When you see the enormity at Birkenau and you realize how many people were murdered there, when you see where they did the medical experiments and the torture, it stays ingrained in you forever,” he adds. “And you then share the important job of making sure other people don’t forget what happened there.”
Another lesson of a visit is gained by understanding how easily prejudice and hate can manifest as mass murder.
At the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, says Poland’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich, “we have to ask ourselves what we need to do to ensure that we never forget, that world never forgets what happened to us, the Jewish people. Perhaps only then can we help ensure that genocide will never happen to us again or to anyone else.”
Zizmor puts it this way: “Yom Hashoah is not enough. As hard as it was to see this, to be there, I think I am a better Jew for it, to be able to process this high dose of evil and be able to speak to other Jews about what I saw there.”
And Brown maintains that this experience is even more crucial for teens today. “This generation of young Jews absolutely needs to go, to have their eyes opened,” adds Brown, who now lives in Israel with her husband and children. “As hard as it is, hard isn’t always bad, and learning how important it is to live a Jewish life is the best thing we can do for the Jewish souls who died there.”
Israeli minister Katz believes that Israel itself is the answer to the Jewish people’s prayers: “Since those dark days, we have defended and developed our homeland, ensuring that the Jewish people will never again stand defenseless against its enemies.”
In fact, Basrawi remembers crying on the Birkenau train tracks when he looked up and “noticed a bunch of kids carrying an Israeli flag and singing ‘Am Yisroel Chai.’ I thought of the millions of Jews buried there, how tiny we are in numbers, especially when you realize how many people my age are disappearing from the Jewish people and how we’re the number 1 victim of hate crimes. But also how we’re still alive and strong. And I made myself a promise to marry Jewish and have Jewish kids.”
Indeed, Polish survivor Maksymowicz has a message for the young: “The future of this world is in your hands,” she says, “so that you don’t let what happened here in Auschwitz and other German camps ever happen again. You can study, travel, make your dreams come true. This was all taken away from the entire generation living in Europe during the wartime. This message is for everyone, but especially for young people.”