Lessons Unlearned

Sixty years ago today, the liberation of Auschwitz and Birkenau — the infamous Polish Nazi death camps — began. Israeli President Moshe Katsav, paying tribute to those lost at a ceremony in Brzezinka today, called Auschwitz “the capital of the kingdom of death,” and I can’t think of a better way to describe the site. It was there, after all, that about one and a half million human beings were exterminated in the name of hatred and intolerance, among them Jews, Soviet prisoners of war, gays, Catholics, Poles, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and people with the good sense to oppose the Nazis.

The former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau - photo by AP

Canada’s Globe and Mail reports on today’s commemoration at Auschwitz.

Snowflakes swirled around the crematoriums and barbed wire of Auschwitz, and a shrill train whistle pierced the silence as frail survivors and humbled world leaders remembered the victims of the Holocaust on Thursday, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp. …

The haunting commemoration was held at the place where new arrivals stumbled out of cattle cars and were met by Nazi doctors who chose a few to be worked to death while the rest were sent immediately to gas chambers. Others died of starvation, exhaustion, beatings and disease.

“It seems if you listen hard enough, you can still hear the outcry of horror of the murdered people,” Mr. Katsav said. “When I walk the ground of the concentration camps, I fear that I am walking on the ashes of the victims.” …

The 30 [visiting world] leaders, including US Vice-President Dick Cheney, Presidents Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Jacques Chirac of France, placed candles shielded in blue lanterns on a low stone memorial. Soldiers of a Polish honor guard stood stiffly in the freezing wind. New Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko gently set down his candle and made the sign of the cross.

Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson was representing Canada.

Germany’s President Horst Koehler placed a candle but didn’t speak, in recognition of his country’s responsibility for the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler’s attempt to wipe out Europe’s Jews. In all, some 6 million Jews died in the network of camps, while several million non-Jews also perished. …

Mr. Putin compared the Nazis with modern terrorists. “Today we shall not only remember the past but also be aware of all the threats of the modern world,” he said. “Terrorism is among them, and it is no less dangerous and cunning than fascism.”

Earlier in Krakow, Mr. Cheney noted that the Holocaust did not happen in some far-off place but “in the heart of the civilized world.”

“The story of the camps shows that evil is real and must be called by its name and must be confronted,” he said.

(Did you hear that, dissidents? Call evil by its name and confront it.)

The story of the camps shows us something else: Human beings can and still do horrid, unspeakable things when confronted by people they consider “different.” This can range from “racial profiling” and denying legal equality to GLBT people in the US and many other countries to the ongoing genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region and the continuing slaughter in the Congo.

Has the world really learned any lessons from the millions of Jewish people and others who perished in Hitler’s death camps? Very little, it would appear. Auschwitz survivor Nate Leipciger, interviewed by the Globe and Mail, seems to share my pessimistic view.

[H]ow to explain far more recent mass atrocities, such as occurred in Rwanda, Cambodia, Nigeria’s Biafra province and the former Yugoslavia? Why do certain groups get singled out for extermination? …

“Because they are different,” Mr. Leipciger said. “When we left the concentration camps and we survived, we thought that would be the end of all discrimination.”

He was wrong, he concedes. Human memory is short.

“We’ve already forgotten the killing fields of Cambodia.”

Pessimism aside, the world’s citizens can and should look at events such as the 60th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation with an eye toward creating a more just, loving, and peaceful world. Mr. Leipciger offers some valuable advice in this regard: “We have to take this as an opportunity — a wake-up call to the world. …The only way to break the cycle of hatred is through education. To educate our young people and future leaders that hatred leads to hatred. Or even to Auschwitz.”

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