On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz

On January 27, the world commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz–Birkenau concentration camp in southern Poland by the Soviet armed forces. Seventy years is a long time in terms of human memory, and today there are only few survivors who have memories of Auschwitz. Soon there will be none. This makes it all the more important that the memory of what happened there is preserved, in part through commemorative events such as those on January 27 each year.

What happened at Auschwitz was that the German Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler killed more than 1 million people in cold blood as part of the calculated campaign of extermination that is now called the Holocaust. In Hebrew we call it the Shoah, or catastrophe. On 30 January 1939, Hitler told the Reichstag:

“If the international finance-Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations into a world war yet again, then the outcome will not be the victory of Jewry, but rather the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!”

We now know that he meant what he said. The overwhelming majority of those killed at Auschwitz were Jews, transported in freight cars to the site from almost every country in Europe, to be exterminated in gas chambers or worked to death in nearby mines and factories, their bodies incinerated and their ashes thrown into a lake.

The dead at Auschwitz included 150,000 non-Jewish Poles, 23,000 Gypsies or Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and more than 10,000 other non-Jewish prisoners of many nationalities. I do not wish to deny the scale of their suffering. But the fact remains that Auschwitz and the other six death camps in Poland and Belarus were built and operated by the Nazis for a particular purpose, namely the utter extermination of the Jewish people, beginning with the Jews of Europe. Because Auschwitz was in part a labour camp (Monowitz), survival was possible for a limited number of inmates. Almost no one survived the pure extermination camps such as Treblinka, Belzec (436,000 dead), Majdanek (300,000) or Sobibor (260,000).


The total number of those killed in the seven extermination camps was at least 3.2 million and possibly 3.8 million. These camps thus accounted for about half the total number of Jews killed in the entire Nazi Holocaust. Virtually the whole Jewish population of Poland died there. To them were added Jews from Germany and Austria, from the Czech and Slovak lands, from France and Belgium and the Netherlands, from Greece and Italy, Romania and Serbia. Finally, in late 1944, 400,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz following the German occupation of Hungary. In addition, in the occupied Soviet Union, more than 1 million Jews were killed on the spot by the
Einsatzgruppen, the SS’s roving killing squads, often assisted by local collaborators.

By the end of 1944, the SS and its collaborators had killed most of the European Jews they could get at. SS leader Heinrich Himmler, aware that Germany was losing the war and fearful for his own neck, ordered an end to the killing. Local commanders continued to kill Jews and to shuttle them from camp to camp by forced “death marches” until the last weeks of the war.

At Auschwitz, as the Red Army approached, the SS evacuated the camp on January 17 and 18, 1945. Tens of thousands of prisoners were marched westwards through the freezing landscape to other camps, such as Gross-Rosen, Mauthausen, Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald in Germany. Thousands of freezing, half-starved prisoners died in the snow in these futile marches.

On January 27, 1945, soldiers of the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front, under the command of Marshall Ivan Koniev, reached the town of Auschwitz. Only about 7000 prisoners were still in the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps, whose barracks had once housed 200,000 prisoners at a time. Most were Polish forced labourers rather than Jews sent to the camp for extermination. The Jews were almost all long dead and reduced to ashes. The Soviets thus gained a very misleading impression of what had gone on at Auschwitz and it was some years before the full truth emerged.

Among those who died in the Nazi camps were my paternal grandparents, Bruno and Margarethe Danziger. Both my grandfather, a decorated German officer, and my grandmother died in Auschwitz. This is a heritage shared by a high proportion of Australian Jews.

I don’t say this to claim a special status of victimhood for myself or for Australian Jews. I meet people every week, people from Cambodia or Iran or Kurdistan, whose families also suffered appalling persecution. I point it out to emphasise that the Holocaust is not ancient history. Seventy years later, the Holocaust, or Shoah, still casts a shadow over the family history of many people in Australia—for some of them it is still a living nightmare.

The Nazis did not succeed in their attempt to kill all of Europe’s Jews. Some governments, such as those of Bulgaria and Finland, refused to co-operate. In some countries, such as Denmark, the Jews were saved through swift action by the non-Jewish population. In the Netherlands, there was a general strike in protest against the deportation of Jews. In France and Italy and Greece, the resistance tried to save Jews and many more were hidden by courageous non-Jewish families. Even in the heart of darkness in Poland, many brave Catholic Poles, including Karol Józef Wojtyła (later Pope John Paul II—see…/1115-condolence-motion-for-his-hol…), risked their lives to help and rescue Jews.

Nevertheless, the Holocaust killed 55 per cent of the 11 million Jews in Europe (including the Soviet Union) in 1939 and 35 per cent of all the Jews in the world. The heart of the Yiddish-speaking Jewry of central and eastern Europe was destroyed, bringing to an end centuries of Jewish history and culture in the region.

The repercussions of these terrible events have echoed through post-war history. The Holocaust gave a powerful impetus to Zionism, the belief that the Jews could only live in security in a state of their own. The state of Israel came into existence because there were hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees, survivors of the Holocaust, languishing in camps in Europe with nowhere else to go, and because the experiences of the Holocaust gave the Zionist movement a determination to prevail over the British, and the Arab states, in the creation and subsequent defence of the Jewish state—Israel.

Twenty years ago, one of the best known survivors of Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel, spoke at the site of the camp. “As we reflect upon the past,” he said then, “we must address ourselves to the present and the future. In the name of all that is sacred in memory, let us stop the bloodshed in Bosnia, Rwanda and Chechnya; the terror attacks against Jews in the Holy Land. Let us reject and oppose more effectively religious fanaticism and racial hate.”

Today we could add Syria and Iraq and Sudan and Nigeria to that list. It is sometimes difficult to be optimistic about the future when we look back over the bloodstained history of the past century.

Nevertheless, I do not believe that the 6 million victims of the Holocaust died in vain. Their memorial is the prevailing post-war system of international law, justice and democracy, created to ensure that such a horror was never revisited on the people of the world. Imperfect though it is, this system has gained new vitality since the end of the Cold War, and has succeeded in putting Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein in the dock, in rescuing East Timor from oppression, in placing peacekeepers in many places of conflict. We owe it to all those who died in all the genocides of the past century to continue building this system of law and justice.