The United Nations General Assembly designated January 27—the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau—as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
This year will mark the 76th Anniversary of the day that the notorious Auschwitz Concentration Camp was liberated by the Red Army.
Auschwitz is about 40 miles west of Krakow, Poland. Over 1.1 million people were murdered at Auschwitz, most of whom were Jewish. When the Soviet Red Army arrived most of the prisoners had already been evacuated from the camp by the Germans, led on the now infamous death marches. According to historians, only around 7,000 of the weakest prisoners remained. Soviet soldiers were shocked at what they found.
Last year, for the 75th anniversary, more than 200 survivors gathered at the camp, with each passing year we lose more survivors. It is so important to remember the events of the Holocaust and honor the survivors.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic I was fortunate enough to do some travelling, and in the fall of 2019, I had the opportunity to visit the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. It was an amazing trip, and the entire time I was there I wondered about my family’s history. I had always known that my relatives were from Poland, although at the time they lived there it was still part of Russia, but I knew little else. As my tour bus rolled through the forests and fields, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of my family members had hidden in just those woods? How many had escaped, and how many had been killed at one of the many concentration camps?
On that trip I was able to visit both the Auschwitz and the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps. The iconic images of the entrance sign, with ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ and the train tracks leading into Auschwitz-Birkenau were as powerful as you would imagine.
Walking around the grounds was surreal, it was a beautiful day, and the sun was shining, but the well-preserved fences and barbed wire were a constant reminder of what had occurred there.
In carefully preserved rooms lay the evidence of all of those who died at the camp. Piles of discarded luggage and shoes were a visceral reminder of the people who perished.
Visiting one of the remaining crematoriums highlighted the true horrors of that place.
My visit was so powerful. I felt profound sadness and I felt angry, so very angry about what had happened there. In those moments I have never felt closer to the Jewish side of my family.
This past year I discovered some of my family history, thanks to my daughter and some research on Ancestry.com. I learned that my great grandmother was born in a town called Oświęcim, Poland. Oświęcim is also known in German as Auschwitz, yup – my great grandmother was born in the town that would become known for the most infamous concentration camp of the war.
My great grandmother emigrated to the United States in the early 1900’s but there is no doubt that had she stayed, she and her whole family would likely have perished in the very town she was born in.
The realization that I had been there, in the town where my Great-Grandmother was born, and where one of the worst horrors in history had occurred was incredible.
The Baltic countries are beautiful, and once it is finally safe to travel again, I highly recommend this trip to everyone, but for me this trip was also incredibly emotional. The reality of the Holocaust was apparent everywhere we went.
In Lithuania I learned that before war over 40 percent of population was Jewish with over 100 synagogues. During the war Lithuania lost 90 percent of its Jewish community. Only one synagogue remains.
Prior to the war over 93,000 Jews lived in Latvia, but only 14,000 members of the Latvian Jewish community survived.
In Poland the numbers were truly staggering. Jews had been living in Poland as early as the 11th Century.
There were over 350,000 Jews in Warsaw before the war. Mostly in the north district. This became the infamous Warsaw ghetto. Today there are only about 7000 Jews left in Warsaw. There were 68,000 Jews living in Kraków before the war. Today there are around 700. There are similar numbers all over Poland.
There are only about 35,000 Jews living in Poland today, there were over 3,000,000 Jews in Poland before the war.
On Holocaust Remembrance Day we all must take the time to remember what happened, to remember the lives lost, to remember the horrors that occurred, because if we fail to remember these events, we will be in danger of allowing them to happen again.