Religious Leaders Mark Auschwitz Liberation Anniversary
'In all the long years since my liberation from these hells on earth, I have not stopped telling what I experienced then, what I was a victim of and an eyewitness to.'
Religious leaders gathered at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Thursday to mark the 77th anniversary of the death camp’s liberation.
Bishop Piotr Greger, auxiliary bishop of Bielsko-Żywiec diocese, southern Poland, took part in the live-streamed Jan. 27 commemoration at the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp where more than 1.1 million people died in 1940-1945.
He recited prayers at the Auschwitz II-Birkenau site, the largest of the camps that formed the Auschwitz complex, along with Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Polish Lutheran Bishop Adrian Korczago, and Hieromonk Aleksander Mokriszczew of the Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
The prayers were part of a program that focused on the beginning of the mass killing of Jews in gas chambers in 1942. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the commemoration was attended by a small number of guests, including survivors of the camp.
Former prisoners spoke during the ceremony, including the 92-year-old writer Halina Birenbaum.
“In all the long years since my liberation from these hells on earth, I have not stopped telling what I experienced then, what I was a victim of and an eyewitness to."
She expressed concern that new generations would not learn the historical truth about the Holocaust.
She said: “New generations are born and grow up for whom this history is distant, old, as if it did not concern them. Especially since these events are so nightmarish, and one would like to escape from the sorrows and tragedies rather than immerse in them.”
“One wants to forget, to belittle, to deny their existence — to falsify history. And to forget the criminal facts of this war and Holocaust is simply to rehash this terrible threat.”
Bogdan Bartnikowski, 90, who was sent to Auschwitz as a 12-year-old boy after the Warsaw Uprising, recalled a recent meeting with students.
“At the meeting, the question was asked, ‘Was there a school in Birkenau?’ I burst out laughing. Birkenau? A school? But after a moment I thought to myself: yes, there was a school. It was a school for survival,” he said.
“A school where they wanted to make slaves out of us, where they wanted to deprive us of hope for any kind of life, to prepare us to march in fives like animals to the gas chamber. In accordance with the purpose of this camp.”
Among those listening to the survivors’ testimonies in the auditorium of the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust were members of a French delegation led by Prime Minister Jean Castex, representatives of the Polish authorities, and ambassadors from many countries.
The commemoration concluded with the laying of candles at a monument in the Birkenau grounds.
The anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army on Jan. 27, 1945, is marked worldwide as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The commemoration, established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005, honors the six million Jews murdered by the forces of Nazi Germany during World War II.
Pope Francis marked the day with an hour-long meeting with the Holocaust survivor Edith Bruck.
He also highlighted International Holocaust Remembrance Day at his general audience on Jan. 26.
He told pilgrims: “It is necessary to remember the extermination of millions of Jews, and people of different nationalities and religious faiths. This unspeakable cruelty must never be repeated.”
“I appeal to everyone, especially educators and families, to foster in the new generations an awareness of the horror of this black page of history. It must not be forgotten, so that we can build a future where human dignity is no longer trampled underfoot.”
Bishop Rafał Markowski, chairman of the Polish bishops' committee for dialogue with Judaism, marked Holocaust Remembrance Day by paying tribute to the victims.
“We remember their tragic fates, firmly believing that God is the God of Life, and man lives forever in God,” he said in a Jan. 27 statement.
“We also commemorate the heroic actions of many people, known and unknown by name, who, like St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe, did not let themselves be overcome by evil, but overcame it with the power of good.”
“May their stories motivate us to responsibly strive for peace, for respect for life, dignity and freedom of every person and nation.”