It was on January 27, 1945 that the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz. The United Nations has since designated this date International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
When Soviet soldiers entered the camp, where at least a million Jews had been killed, they found only 7,600 prisoners left to liberate: As the Soviets had neared Auschwitz, approximately 60,000 Jewish survivors had been forced by the Nazis to embark on the infamous death marches.
By the end of 1944, it was clear that the war was all but over and that the Germans were in steady retreat from the countries they had occupied. Still, they viciously insisted on taking the surviving Jewish inmates of the death camps with them.
The sadistic SS guards marched the Jews through the bitter cold, keeping them moving aimlessly, torturing and shooting them — doing all they possibly could to keep them out of the path of the liberating Allied armies.
Therefore, few Auschwitz survivors mark this date as the day of their liberation. They choose instead to observe the Hebrew anniversary of the day they were actually freed.
Nonetheless, the commemorations on International Holocaust Remembrance Day do serve an important purpose.
Nine years ago, on the 60th anniversary of the liberation, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Lehrer, z”l, the venerable Rosh Hakahal of the Antwerp kehillah, personally traveled to Auschwitz to participate in the commemoration. In a subsequent interview with Hamodia, he recalled being asked during the event why he had undertaken the trip.
“I told them it was in order that the younger generation should learn and know about what had happened to us.
“The non-Jews told me that this was the reason they were there as well — so that the younger generation should know that such a thing can happen; that learned, intelligent people — among them doctors and professors — should be capable of committing such barbaric atrocities.
“In fact, non-Jews today are sending their youth to visit Auschwitz. Even from Poland itself, hundreds of youths from various towns are being sent to Auschwitz to learn about the Holocaust, for their parents realize that it will be a danger for them as well as for us if their youth are not shown that such things can occur; that people can do such horrible things to other, innocent people.
“They told me, ‘You won’t forget what happened to you — but for us, we must do something in order that we should remember.’ They are doing this — these gatherings and the speeches — so that their own youth should know. They are not doing it for us.
“It was very cold in Auschwitz last Tuesday. I described to the people who had gathered there how the concentration camp inmates would work in far colder temperatures, without sweaters or coats. They asked me how I survived. I told them that we Yidden have a great G-d, Who wished me to survive so that I could raise a family. …”
For much of the world, Holocaust education serves as a vital reminder of just how barbaric seemingly intelligent people can become, and how anti-Semitism and other forms of baseless hatred must be fought at every level .
As Torah Jews, we are obligated to remember — and to educate ourselves and our children about Churban Europa in keeping with the obligation of “zachor mah she’asah lecha Amalek — Remember what Amalek did to us.”
We must talk to our children not only about how the Kedoshim were killed, but also about how they lived — and how they were moser nefesh to perform mitzvos — under the hardest circumstances imaginable.
It is a great merit for our generation that we have, surviving among us, spiritual heroes who lost everything, yet strengthened themselves with emunah and bitachon not only to rebuild their own lives, but to build Torah-true communities, and thereby transmit our glorious mesorah to a new generation.
The poignant words of Rabbi Lehrer, “We Yidden have a great G-d, Who wished me to survive …” which echoed the sentiments of so many survivors, is the most important lesson we can learn from these great spiritual beacons. We must do all we can to ensure that the needs of the dwindling number of survivors are being met, and that their stories of emunah are heard first-hand and are documented for the generations to come.