Auschwitz refugees mark their online anniversary
in the midst of a pandemic
Amid the chaos of the extermination camp’s final days, Tova Friedman hid among the corpses at Auschwitz.
At that time, only six years old, Friedman, who was born in Poland, was instructed by her mother to lie absolutely still in a camp hospital bed, next to the body of a young woman who had just died. Friedman barely breathed under a blanket and went unnoticed as German forces preparing to flee the scene of their genocide went from bed to bed, shooting anyone still alive.
On January 27, 1945, a few days later, she was among the thousands of surviving prisoners to greet the Soviet troops who liberated the camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Now 82, by taking her eight grandchildren to the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial site, which is under the custody of the Polish state, Friedman had hoped to mark Wednesday’s anniversary. The trip was prevented by the coronavirus pandemic.
So, instead, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Friedman will be alone at home in Highland Park, New Jersey. A warning message from her about the rise of hatred will, however, be part of a virtual observance organised by the World Jewish Congress.
Other institutions around the world, including the Memorial Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, Yad Vashem in Israel and the Holocaust Memorial Museum of the United States in Washington, D.C. Online events have been planned as well. Among those delivering remarks of remembrance and warning will be the presidents of Israel, Germany and Poland.
The online nature of this year’s commemorations contrasts sharply with how Friedman spent last year’s 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, when she gathered at the site of the former camp under a huge tent with other survivors and dozens of European leaders. It was one of the last major international gatherings before the pandemic forced most of the large gatherings to be cancelled.
In the United States, Israel and elsewhere, many Holocaust survivors find themselves in a state of previously unimaginable isolation due to the pandemic. Last March, Friedman lost her husband and said she now feels very alone.
But survivors like her have also found new ties through Zoom: during the pandemic, World Jewish Congress leader Ronald Lauder arranged video meetings for survivors and their children and grandchildren.
The German Nazis and their henchmen killed over 1.1 million people at Auschwitz, the most notorious site in a network of camps and ghettos aimed at destroying the Jews of Europe. The vast majority of those killed at Auschwitz were Jews, but large numbers were also killed by others, including Poles, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war.
In all, the Germans and their collaborators killed about 6 million European Jews and millions of other people. The United Nations designated Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005, an acknowledgment of the iconic status of Auschwitz.
Israel, which counts 197,000 Holocaust survivors today, officially marks its spring day of Holocaust remembrance. But events will also be held by survivors’ organisations and remembrance groups across the country on Wednesday, many of which will be held virtually or without attendance by members of the public.
One constant is the drive of survivors to tell their stories as words of caution, while commemorations have moved online for the first time.
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 storey, 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 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 of Auschwitz — the mass murder of her parents and four of her seven siblings, the hunger, being shaven, 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,” Schindler told The Associated Press on Monday in a Zoom call from her home. “It is unbelievable what we went through, and the whole world was silent as this was going on.”
Friedman says she thinks it is her role to “sound the alarm” about the world’s rising anti-Semitism and other hatred, otherwise “another tragedy may occur.”
That hatred, she said, was on clear view when a mob inspired by former President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. “Some insurrectionists wore clothes with anti-Semitic messages such as “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE,” meaning “it wasn’t enough for 6 million.”
“It was utterly shocking and I couldn’t believe it. 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,” Friedman said Monday.
Still, the mob violence could not shake her belief in the essential goodness of America and most Americans.
“It’s a country of freedom. It’s a country that took me in,” Friedman said.
In her recorded message that will be broadcast Wednesday, 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.”