Today marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex. In April 2005, shortly after the 60th anniversary of the liberation, the United Nations General Assembly designated this date as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, urging each member state to regularly and properly honor the victims of the Nazi genocide . . . the approximately seven million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, mentally and physically challenged individuals, and other opponents of the Nazi regime. Over 1 million of these victims, most of them Jews, were murdered at Auschwitz. Their fates should be remembered by all people for all time, knowing that what happened to the Jews could easily happen to the rest of us if we do not remain vigilant to the long specter of evil in this world. A memorial to these Nazi crimes might prevent future genocides. We can only hope and pray.
It is regrettable and not a little shameful that neither President Obama, Vice President Biden, nor Secretary of State Kerry are scheduled to attend the 70th anniversary commemoration in Poland tomorrow. Instead, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will lead the small US delegation. Among those heads of state attending are French President Hollande, Austrian President Fischer, German President Gauck, Belgium King Philippe of Belgium, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, as well as the leaders of many other nations. After admitting it was a mistake and diplomatic fiasco for neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Biden to attend the solidarity march against terrorism in Paris two weeks ago, the Administration has once again failed to recognize the symbolic importance of such a visit to Auschwitz. Mr. Obama will spend today paying homage to the new Saudi king on his way home from India. His time would be better spent in Poland among more steadfast allies. Add to this that Mr. Obama joins Russian President Putin in choosing not to attend the commemoration at Auschwitz. It was, after all the Soviet Red Army that liberated Auschwitz, but Mr. Putin claims his schedule is too busy to permit a trip to Poland. The fact is, given the current geopolitical debacle in Ukraine, Mr. Putin is not the most popular person in Europe these days. And now Mr. Obama is apparently too busy to attend. Certainly such a comparison with his Russia counterpart is not something Mr. Obama would particularly cherish.
As I raised these concerns it was suggested to me that American presidents seldom attend these anniversary events, and therefore there is no reason for Mr. Obama to attend this one. If there is some reason the President cannot attend, why did he not choose to send Mr. Biden or Mr. Kerry? Is this yet one more example of American exceptionalism? Heads of state and high-ranking leaders from dozens of countries find it important enough to go. Yes, there have been other such commemorations in past years, so I was also asked why this particular anniversary is such a big deal? President Obama has visited other camps before. Isn’t this commemoration nothing more than “just another photo op?” Yes, a few months after his inauguration in 2009, Mr. Obama visited the former Buchenwald Concentration Camp. The story is his great-uncle helped to liberate Ohrdruf, a subcamp in the Buchenwald camp complex. If this is the case, how is it possible for the President not to see the significance of this year’s commemoration at Auschwitz? My questioner rebutted. “Anniversary ceremonies aren't meaningful . . . Why 70th? Why not 69th? It's just a number.” I cannot disagree more strenuously. This will be perhaps the last commemoration including camp survivors, who were not so numerous in the first place. About 300 survivors are expected to attend today’s ceremony, most of them well into their 90s or older. If they have the courage to return to this place of personal horror, surely our leaders can find the time to share in this commemoration. To call it a simple photo op is an insult; it diminishes the very memory of those who perished there . . . and those who were lucky enough to survive. Auschwitz is NEVER a photo op.
My father’s US Army unit played a role in the liberation of the Gusen subcamp of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp at the end of the war. I spent over three decades of my professional career conducting historical research while investigating and participating in the prosecution of Nazi-era war criminals who escaped justice after the war. The United States Government has stood at the forefront of the world community insuring that justice is meted out to the perpetrators of the Holocaust. I am left with the lamentable impression that the United States does not really understand history very well, or think it all together important to commemorate among the family of nations. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. We have seen it happen. It can happen again.
Can it possibly be time to stop remembering, to forget what happened at Auschwitz and at the numerous Nazi camps whose main gates were festooned with the most ironic of ironies . . . “Arbeit macht frei” [work will make you free]? We must never forget, we must never stop commemorating what we know, what history has taught us. “Wahrheit macht frei” . . . the truth shall set you free.
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