The UN General Assembly has designated January 27 – the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration and Extermination Camp – as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this yearly commemoration to honor the six million-plus victims of the Holocaust and Nazism, the UN also urges all member states to develop educational programs that may help prevent future genocides.
I think many of us have read or heard about Hitler’s ascension as chancellor starting in 1933 Germany and how he immediately became obsessed with doing harm against those he considered to be inferior, mostly Jews although among them were intellectuals, educators, artists, and other professionals of different ethnicity. Also bundled with that crowd were the suspected communists, the gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped, and others. Hitler mandated that they didn’t deserve assimilation in German society. He popularized the notion that Germans were the superior Aryan race. Then the non-Aryans got hounded from their homes and businesses. They were forced to live in ghettos. Those holding civil service positions were dismissed from their jobs, professionals lost clients, and increasingly the difficult situations the “undesirables” were in escalated into hellish ones.
Hitler was not satisfied with merely oppressing and dehumanizing the Jews and others. Even as World War II was heating up, the dictator conceived a policy known as the Final Solution. Objective: the complete elimination of Jews not only in Germany but anywhere else in the world.
Diony and I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland a while back and my chest still tightens and my eyes get moist visualizing in my mind the rooms with piles of discarded shoes, eyeglasses, bags, and other personal items left behind by those who were herded into gas chambers soon after arriving onboard cattle trains from various points in Europe. Even in death their bodies were not respected. There were burial details called sonderkommandos who were directed to chisel out and collect the gold in the victim’s mouths as well as the crowns and the hair shorn to be disposed of later for profit. I can still hear the muffled sobs of fellow visitors inside chambers that witnessed the fear and agony of hundreds of thousands being murdered. So real yet surreal.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of six extermination camps or killing centers in Central Europe that systematically murdered over 2.7 million people – mostly Jews – during the Holocaust. The other camps were the Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Majdanek. Auschwitz and Majdanek death camps also employed cruelty and backbreaking work under starvation conditions in order to increase the killings.
There are memorials in some other places to honor and remember the murdered victims. Diony and I had also visited Krakow’s Empty Chairs Memorial that defines the city’s emptiness after the Nazi’s had done away with its Jewish population. In Berlin, Germany, there’s the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (see photo).
Sixty pairs of shoes made of iron and set into the concrete of the Danube river embankment in Budapest, Hungary is a remembrance of the 3,500 people who were killed there and their bodies carried away by the water. The Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, Israel, is a huge one. In Amsterdam, the Netherlands, we visited the house-memorial of Anne Frank and in this part of California, there’s the Museum of Tolerance. One time I attended a forum there in connection with a Holocaust class I used to teach to senior students in world literature.