“On January 27, 2015, delegations from around the world, including some 100 former prisoners, will travel to Auschwitz-Birkenau to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the most infamous Nazi killing center by Soviet troops. They will honor the memory of the more than 1.1 million people, primarily Jews, but also Poles, Roma (Gypsies), Soviet prisoners of war, and others, who were killed there from 1940 to 1945.
As we remember these victims, we also honor the survivors, soldiers, reporters, and others who bore witness to Nazi crimes and reflect on the challenges we face 70 years after liberation.”
“The World Must Know”
“In the months prior to the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, an elderly French inmate urged Jewish prisoner Olga Lengyel to observe everything that transpired, telling her, “When the war is over the world must know about this. It must know the truth.” Auschwitz prisoner Seweryna Szmaglewska recalled yet another powerful impulse to speak out: the eyes of her expiring comrades, “the last testament of the dying.” Like Lengyel, she penned her memoirs in the years immediately following the war to give voice to those who could no longer speak.”
“General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, also understood the need to witness. In a cable to General George Marshall in Washington, he wrote about his experiences at the recently liberated Nazi camp of Ohrdruf:
The things I saw beggar description. . . . The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were . . . overpowering. . . . I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in [a] position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to “propaganda.”
Following up on his visit, Eisenhower urged Washington to send Congressional delegations and prominent journalists to these newly discovered scenes of Nazi crimes. US Army Signal Corps cameramen rushed to the camps to document the atrocities for the public and for war crimes trials. Allied military commanders also forced German civilians to become witnesses, albeit reluctant ones, by ordering them to visit the liberated camps and to bury the thousands of dead prisoners. The experience was disturbing and eye-opening.”
“Norman Chandler, the editor and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, recalled that during their flight across the Atlantic the group wondered “if the atrocity stories had been exaggerated.” They quickly discovered that the “actual sights in such political prison camps were worse than any account we had read.”
“For those who witnessed first-hand the evidence of Nazi crimes at the camps, seeing was believing. Yet they had to contend with a skeptical public that balked at fully accepting stories of Nazi mass murder. Ben Hibbs, the editor of the popular Saturday Evening Post, indicated that even after his visits to Buchenwald and Dachau and the wide publicity given to the liberation of the Nazi camps, “many people” asked “if the concentration camps were as bad as the newspapers have been saying.” To this, Hibbs responded they were “worse.”
“The war correspondents did a good job of factual reporting,” he wrote, “but there is a limit to what can be said in words and pictures. You have to walk into one of those places and smell the unspeakable stench, not only of the dead but of the living.”
All who encountered the Nazi camps emerged asking how to ensure that it will never happen again.
The Responsibility of Bearing Witness
On the 70th anniversary of liberation, with the last eyewitnesses in their twilight years, the responsibility of witness falls to us. We who have had the privilege of hearing directly from survivors and liberators must now ensure that future generations learn of this watershed moment in human history. Our responsibility assumes an increased urgency as Holocaust denial and distortion rise around the world, including in the lands where Jews were targeted for genocide.
The Holocaust teaches us the dangers that unchecked hatred can pose for society—dangers that we must continue to guard against if we are to fulfill the survivors’ vision of “Never Again.”