“To forget the victims means to kill them a second time.”
Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor and author of “Night”
OSWIECIM, Poland — Lest we forget. So many do, or never have known.
A national survey, recently released, showed that two-thirds of Americans, ages 18-34, cannot identify what Auschwitz is. What are the consequences of not remembering, and heeding, the lessons of Auschwitz and the Holocaust? The Anti-Defamation League just reported a 57 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States last year, the highest total in more than two decades.
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My wife, Roberta, and I should have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau years ago, supplementing all we have read over the years about this most infamous of Nazi death campus. We knew that 1.1 million Jews died here, in addition to non-Jewish Poles, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet POWs and others.
While we knew the enormity of the crime, we did not the enormity of the place. It is far bigger in size than we had imagined, far more intimate in its horrors. We stood in the “showers” where hundreds of thousands were gassed to death, and stood in the yard where thousands more were shot or hanged. We walked where so many were ordered to go left or right — one way death, the other way life for days or months, or even survival. We witnessed thousands upon thousands of shoes, many with laces tied together by parents who thought their children would wear them again, thousands of suitcases emptied by the Nazis of anything they could use and — literally— tons of human hair to be used for weaving into German uniforms.
We heard the story of horror directly from Eva Mozes Kor, now 84 and a survivor of Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments on twins. She was 10 then. Her mission in life, based from Terre Haute, Indiana, is for all of us to never forget. “I am trying to save other little children from what happened to me,” she says. (More than 1.5 million children died in the Holocaust.)
The two days of our visit were fittingly bleak — overcast skies, cool in summer, drizzling.
Agata Wotwina, a young woman who grew up nearby, was also our guide. She knew so much. Not Jewish, she does this work because “We’re all human.”
Back home in America, you would find in our living room the 1935 work of fiction “It Can’t Happen Here,” signed by the Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis. It’s about a fascist takeover of these United States. My reading of history says it can happen — that our liberty is in no way guaranteed.
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” the abolitionist Wendell Phillips told us more than a century and a half ago.
David Lawrence Jr., the retired Miami Herald publisher, chairs The Children’s Movement of Florida.