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Sept. 7, 2022: Polish-Jewish Auschwitz survivor Marian Turski, 96, was re-elected president of the International Auschwitz Committee at its 16th General Assembly in Oswiecim/Auschwitz. Photo: Bernd Oertwig
Sept. 7, 2022: Polish-Jewish Auschwitz survivor Marian Turski, 96, was re-elected president of the International Auschwitz Committee at its 16th General Assembly in Oswiecim/Auschwitz. Photo: Bernd Oertwig 

Reportage from the 16th General Assembly of IAK in Auschwitz Birkenau

The Ascend of the Second Generation

Michaela Rozov, member of the delegation of the Auschwitz Committee of the Czech Republic. Photo: Bernd Oertwig
Michaela Rozov, member of the delegation of the Auschwitz Committee of the Czech Republic. Photo: Bernd Oertwig 

Don´t be indifferent, indifference kills

At the assembly of the oldest organization uniting Holocaust survivors, lessons from the Holocaust pertaining to today´s Ukraine and calls to fight for liberal democracy in Europe were sounded.


An observation by Michaela Rozov, member of the delegation of the Auschwitz Committee of the Czech Republic

I am heading to Auschwitz together with the Czech Auschwitz Committee for the 16th Congress of the International Auschwitz Committee (IAK-Internationales Auschwitz Komitee), the oldest organization uniting Auschwitz survivors founded in 1952, which coordinates dozens of organizations and institutes dealing with the legacy of the Holocaust from Europe. This year delegations from 11 countries are participating in the assembly, which is taking place at the International Youth Meeting Center in Oswiecim.

On the way, we stop in the North Moravian town of Loštice, with a synagogue and a cemetery - all of this represents a picturesque reminiscence of the good old days of the Moravian village Jews under Francis Joseph II. Strengthened by the famous local cheese, we continue on our way to the terrifying scene of the greatest genocide in history. Six years have passed since the last assembly in 2016, and in our delegation, we are sorely missing Felix Kolmer, Asaf Auerbach and Michal Salomonovič, from among the last Czech survivors of the Holocaust.

We arrive in the evening and check in at a beautiful hotel in the center of historic Oswiecim. I feel inappropriate here, after all, we are only less than two kilometers from the extermination concentration camp, in which one and a half million people perished, the vast majority of them European Jews, along with political prisoners, Russian prisoners, communists, homosexuals and Roma, in gas chambers, but also by hunger, cold and terror. Together with the people, the last hope for a normal, progressive Europe perished here, when Hitler shook hands with Stalin, the last Enlightenment plans were definitively ruined. II. The World War ended 73 years ago, but its negative geopolitical consequences are still felt today, after all, a war is raging in Europe right now, just a few hundred kilometers away, people are dying again, hiding in bunkers from bombings, suffering from fear and lack. Including the last survivors of the Holocaust in Ukraine.


Today's Oswiecim is a picturesque and prosperous town, with a beautiful square with a fountain, cafes and shops, the population is about 40,000. Behind the pseudo-Gothic church is a small synagogue built in the beginning of the 20th century, Jewish houses and a cemetery, which are a reminiscence of the Jewish community in Oswiecim, which normally lived here for several centuries before the war. But the shadow of the Holocaust is omnipresent. I find out that the hotel we are staying in was built on the grounds of the distillery which belonged to the Jewish Haberfeld family. Simon Haberfeld, who came to Auschwitz from Slovakia, founded the distillery as early as 1804, and his son Yaakov built it into one of the most important vodka and wild cherries schnaps distilleries in all of Poland. The family thus fundamentally contributed to the general well-being in pre-war Poland. Still, no one was spared. Those members of the Haberfeld family who did not manage to escape in time were murdered in a concentration camp during the war. Another story demonstrating the perverse logic of murderous Nazi anti-Semitism.

The next morning, the entire delegation goes to the Stammlager, a base camp that was founded in 1940 and expanded over the years into an extermination colossus, a "death factory", as the Czech Holocaust historian and Auschwitz survivor Erich Kulka aptly defined this place. It consisted of three main camps – Auschwitz I (Stammlager), Auschwitz II – Birkenau and Auschwitz III – Monowitz, which were joined by another 40 smaller camps in the immediate vicinity. The first prisoners there were Poles and Russian prisoners, then Gypsies, prisoners from all over Europe, gradually almost exclusively European Jews (after the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, where it was decided on the so-called final solution of the Jewish question -- extermination). In order for the Nazis to hide their outrageous activity in Auschwitz and expand the field of their murderous activity here, the SS occupied 40 km2 /Interessengebiet/ in the vicinity of Auschwitz. During 1940 and 1941, almost all the locals were removed from here. Nazis and their families and concentration camp personnel then lived in Polish houses. With the slave labor of the captives, a pseudo-economic complex was built under their command, at the core of which genocide took place. Many prisoners of slave labor died under the batons of the “Kapos” or were shot, but most were murdered in gas chambers (there is one in Stammlager that has been in use since 1941; at Auschwitz Birkenau there were four gas chambers in operation, one chamber had the capacity to kill with Zyklon B up to 6000 people at once). The world knew about the genocide, but nobody did almost anything. The bombing of the gas chambers was paradoxically excluded for so-called humanitarian reasons (sic!). Auschwitz was liberated on 27/1/1945. At that time, there were about 7,000 of the last prisoners, who were so weak and exhausted that the Nazis left them in place. The rest - roughly 56,000 people - were sent on a so-called death march a few days before the arrival of the Red Army, during which many prisoners died of exhaustion. As the Russian front approached, the Nazis obliterated the methods and documentation of the genocide as efficiently as possible, but the testimony and evidence clearly establish the shocking scale of the Holocaust.


At the welcome dinner before the opening of the assembly, I look in vain for the faces of the survivors, the excellent leaders of this politically progressive international committee, whom I remember from the past and who, 6 years ago, when I was last here, still stood at the head of this forum - apart from our Czech delegate Felix Kolmer, missing is Roman Kent, Esther Bejarano. It is sad, and although there are still survivors among us, for example the indomitable dancer and great writer Eva Fahidi from Hungary and her husband, it is clear that the time has come when the second and next generations must take responsibility for the remembrance and legacy of the Holocaust.

There is a place for me at dinner with the Austrian delegation, I meet old acquaintances. Recently, the Austrians have excelled in commemorating the Holocaust, this is mainly thanks to the great energy of Hanna Lessing, director of the General Compensation Fund for Victims of Nazi Persecution in Austria, who is the driving force behind the most important activities in the field of Holocaust commemoration and the defense of human rights in Austria. During her tenure at the fund, a key project by survivor Kurt Yakov Tutter, stonemason and sculptor, was completed, a memorial to the victims was erected in the center of Vienna - a stone wall with carved names of approximately 65,000 murdered Austrian Jews. And here in Auschwitz, in the Stammlager, a new exhibition about the Holocaust of Austrian Jews was created. I saw it later and will return to it later in the text bellow.

Tired of the journey and a hearty Polish dinner, most of the delegates return to the hotel, but the always cheerful Austrians still go to the square in Auschwitz, where a music festival is currently taking place. Auschwitz is alive, and although it's actually normal, it's hard to accept, I feel ashamed, I could never live in that place, besides, even a simple visit here is decimating for me. Three members of my father's immediate family died here, two survived, but the price was terrible. Father's aunt Věra Platovská-Berlinerová saw with her own eyes the murder of her child born in Auschwitz (an SS man grabbed the hidden three-month-old baby and slammed his head against the wall), father's uncle Milan Platovský lost his mother Růžena and younger brother Jirka here. I hear in my ears their terrible stories, as they were told to me, and the stories of other Auschwitz survivors whom I know personally. I feel sad. The laying of wreaths in Stammlager and Birkenau only brings back these painful memories. The only thing that reassures me is that there are young people in the delegation who deal with the commemoration of the Holocaust very professionally and seriously. After the Kaddish (Hebrew prayer for the dead) in Birkenau, the delegations return to the venue of the assembly.

Marian Turski (96), Polish historian and journalist, the extremely educated and enlightened president of the International Auschwitz Committee, survivor of Auschwitz, gives the opening speech. It begins with a minute's silence for the deceased surviving members of the International Auschwitz Committee. A lot more of them than I could remember at the dinner the night before. Noah Klieger, a survivor of Auschwitz, Dora and Ravensbruck, an Israeli journalist who wrote about the trials of Nazi criminals passed away in 2018; Kazimierz Albin, a Polish fighter against Nazism, who was one of the longest imprisoned people in Auschwitz Birkenau (number 118) died in 2019, the writer Judith Kerr, who fled the Nazis to England with her family died in 2019, the doctor and prominent activist Dorota Flug who survived the ghettoization in Lodz, Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen died in 2020, Justin Sonder, who survived 17 selections in Auschwitz and then transport to Gleiwitz and the Death March left in 2020, we also lost the legendary Roman Kent, a long-time President of IAK, an ardent and highly successful fighter for compensation for the victims of the Holocaust worldwide, he died in 2021. The brave voices of the German survivors, Esther Bejarano and Erna DeVries, also passed away, Liliane and Raphael Esrail, well-known scouts (died this year), or survivor's rights fighter Leon Schwarzbaum (died this year), the last named was our Felix Kolmer, for those who did not know him - a top acoustician and a Scout who negotiated for Czech Jews and other victims of Nazism within the framework of the Czech delegation compensation in the amount of 8 billion CZK and devoted the entire end of his life to spreading awareness about the Holocaust among German youth, Kolmer died at the beginning of August this year.

Greetings from top politicians were then read out, Andrzej Duda, President of Poland highlighted the importance of the engagement of the second and third generations now that the vast majority of survivors are no longer alive, and praised the Polish government for the support they provide to the memorial and museum at Auschwitz Birkenau (to the current situation of the memorial I will return below). In her address to the assembly, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, noted the generational shift that we have to deal with in the field of Holocaust commemoration and stated that this is precisely why the EU has now made the fight against anti-Semitism and the support of Jewish life in Europe one of its priorities, especially recently when Jews are again emigrating from Europe mainly because of anti-Semitism. "Anti-Semitism is poisoning our lives, history is being revised, distorted, war is raging in Europe and Jews are being blamed again. In Ukraine, we are witnessing how helpless old people who survived the Holocaust are dying along with others," writes von der Leyen. Specifically, she names Boris Romanschenko, a Buchenwald survivor who devoted his entire life to spreading the legacy of the Holocaust among young people. In his statement German Prime Minister Olaf Scholz called Putin's claims about his denazification of Ukraine the height of cynicism. Christoph Heubner, executive Vice President of IAK, mentioned a combination of circumstances - the congress is held on the days when the Speaker of the German Parliament Bärbel Bas receives in the Bundestag Israeli President Yitzchak Herzog, whose father, as an English soldier, liberated Bergen Belsen. Even at this level, the topic of the Holocaust is discussed, top politicians warn against trivializing the Holocaust, and that is good.

In addition to the loss of a generation of survivors and its consequences, however, the topic of Ukraine dominates this social context as well. From the mouth of the last survivors, the analysis of the current situation is particularly terrifying. Marian Turski declares that the massacre in Bucha, Ukraine, where, according to open sources, 1,300 people were murdered, including several dozen children, is "the current face of Auschwitz." "It cannot be assumed that the past will repeat itself in the same hideous guise as 80 years ago, there are variations, but the totalitarian evil remains the same in principle," explains the renowned historian, drawing similarities between Hitler and Stalin; both tyrants who defend their war from the position of perceived injustice, which Germany experienced after World War I, due to unbearable reparations, and Russia after the end of the Cold War, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when NATO moved to Russia's border. According to Turski, in both cases it is irrational populist bullying, an attempt to take advantage of a complicated situation and get to power in the case of Hitler, in the case of Putin it is an attempt to stay in power at all costs. Has the world learned from the Holocaust? asks the born rhetorician Turski and answers: I hope so, because the free world is now massively supporting Ukraine. Biden is not acting like Chamberlain. The free world has united against Putinism, but the old coalitions are not stable, including NATO - pointing to Turkey's problematic support for Putin.

What is the role of the survivors and their descendants in this world? To be the conscience of the free world, the voice of liberal democracy, says Turski, against racism, against xenophobia, including Russophobia, he emphasizes. What to do when the generation of direct witnesses of the genocide is leaving? The descendants of the witnesses become the witnesses of the witnesses, creating a collective memory. After all, this is already happening. Most of the delegates are members of the second, but also the third generation. Turski recalls again the importance of speaking out against indifference, indifference kills, so says the motto of the International Auschwitz Committee.

The committee was founded seventy years ago to spread awareness of the Auschwitz Birkenau extermination camp and to fight for the rights of survivors to compensation and social assistance. Currently, it is a voice supporting liberal democracy, in Germany it is involved in cases of racial violence and intolerance. For example, it led a campaign against the trivialization of the Holocaust in contemporary culture, specifically in rap ("Nie wieder rappen über den Holocaust" in 2018). After the German Christian Democrat Walter Lübcke fell victim to a neo-Nazi in 2019, the committee got involved in honoring his memory, and subsequently one of the streets was renamed, bearing Lübcke's name. The committee also opposes the involvement of extremists in the public administration and justice system in Germany, but also internationally - the IAK delegation also went on a brave protest mission against Orbán to Hungary.

In the context of information confusion and fear of the pandemic, the committee spoke out against the depraved attempts of anti-vaxxers to abuse the symbolism of the Holocaust. The committee also organizes exhibitions and presentations, including supporting the publication of the German version of the Czech documentary book Felix Kolmer: The Promise, published by the Positif publishing house and which recently received the award for the most beautiful book of the year from the Literature Memorial. The committee also awards a symbolic award to personalities who make a significant profile against racism and xenophobia and for the defense of human rights. It is the letter "B" but with a smaller lower belly, as the prisoners in the Stammlager carved it in protest in the notorious "Arbeit Macht Frei" inscription above the main entrance to that hell. The most recent awardees include Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier or in 2017 Prince Charles, now King Charles III.

In recent years, IAK has embraced the idea of ​​inclusion and supports, for example, the struggle of Armenians for the recognition of the genocide of the Armenian nation, and has also accepted the organization of German Sinti and Roma - Zentralrat der Deutschen Sinti und Roma - into its ranks.

Reports on the activities of national delegations continue. In the spirit of Hannah Lessing's statement about the need to "sow the bitter seeds of the past into the soil of the future", they represent an extensive activity from research, archival work, documentation, education and political activism. Poles are calling for the spread of The Daffodil Project to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the first-ever uprising against Nazism in Europe. Italians are raging about the danger of fascism in Italy, is it possible that Giorgia Meloni will become the Prime Minister of Italy exactly one hundred years after Mussolini?

Andrzei Kacorzyk, deputy director of the Auschwitz Birkenau Memorial and Museum, describes the poor financial situation after the protracted period of the coronavirus. The times when the monument was visited by a million people a year are over. Visitors do not come any more from the far ends of the world, from Asia and from America, with a few exceptions – there are Americans because the US military personnel in Europe comes here compulsorily, but there are also much fewer Israelis, 40 to 50 percent of visitors today are Poles, followed by Germans. Czechs and Slovaks arrive in more or less constant numbers.

The critical economic situation of the monument is also evidenced by Kacorzyk's response to the German delegate Karl Forster's question as to whether they plan to present the art that is in the local depositories. "Art is not a priority," Kacorzyk replies bluntly, preoccupied with the construction of a massive new entrance to the museum and the maintenance of the decaying architectural relics at Birkenau. There were plans to display artwork (they even have a Picasso) in the camp kitchen building, but those are on hold. In addition to the physical maintenance of the crumbling camp, the management of the memorial is primarily trying to "change the language" in order to more effectively penetrate the young generation, whose knowledge of the Holocaust is only fragmentary. In addition, the museum aims to present historical artifacts to visitors in their authentic location. And the barracks in the camp were not really a place for art, Kacorzyk concludes this debate. IAK Executive Vice President Heubner counters that art offers huge educational opportunities and is the key to understanding the past for young people.

The Slovak delegate summarizes the aspects of Holocaust commemoration in Slovakia, the Holocaust Museum in Sered, the Holocaust Documentation Center, the Milan Šimečka Foundation, Postbellum and ICEJ Slovakia, as well as the Slovak Academy of Sciences, work in this field. Work is being done on a database of Slovak victims, specialist conferences are being held, e.g. on Sobibor or the infamous 80th anniversary of the declaration of the Slovak state.

The head of the Czech delegation, Marta Malá, member of the presidium of the International Auschwitz Committee and director of the Endowment Fund for Holocaust Victims in our country, continues. She reports on project work in the Care, Renewal, Reminder and Future programs, with an annual value of almost 20 million crowns. The fund is fundamentally politically active and mediates influence for survivors at the government level. The foundation supports care projects for the most fragile seniors as well as the smallest children (in the Our Future program), including refugees from Ukraine. Zuzana Pavlovská gave a well-founded presentation on the educational programs of the Prague Jewish Museum, she summarized the facts about the Czech activity in EHRI. On an emotional note to the child survivors, mother and father, in the style of an old Prague gentleman, Michal Stránský spoke on behalf of the Terezín Initiative, which continues to bring together three hundred survivors of the Holocaust in our country.

From Luxembourg, a delegate of the Comité Auschwitz Luxembourg, founded in 1965, protested not only against the forgetting of the Holocaust, but also against its use for the promotion of inappropriate topics. He listed the difficulties with the commemoration, even the case of the main monument, the Monument de la Solidarité Nationale, which eventhough magnificent, is historically somewhat misleading. The large Hamburg and Frankfurt organizations founded by survivors report on educational trips to the German concentration camps, the interest is huge, they have completely filled their capacities. A pleasing fact.

The conference is again closed by the brightest brain of the entire operation - Marian Turski. He evokes the spirit of Wladislav Bartoszewski, a Polish political prisoner in Auschwitz No. 4427, and Israel Guttmann, an Israeli historian who survived Auschwitz, author of the seminal Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust, and recalls that they were the first to point out that the historical narrative presented earlier, under the influence of the ruling ideology, was "de-Judaized". Now it needs to be objectively rewritten. This is an ongoing mission, and this approach will be reflected in the new exhibition planned at Auschwitz to reflect the whole truth. For this purpose, the International Auschwitz Council, a renowned forum of experts, politicians and donors (among them Tomáš Kraus, currently director of the Terezín Initiative Institute) has been established.

The shift to the better is also evidenced by the concept of the new Austrian exhibition in the Stammlager in Block 17. The architecturally brilliant solution encourages not only reading about the exhibits, which are presented with their entire context and very specific destinies, but also allows for quiet pieta. Esthetic elements are minimal, dominated by philosophical, great quotes about the essence of genocide. No noise, although of course the audio archive is available. An exposition that brings closer not only the victims, but also the perpetrators from among the Austrian nation, and that is a novelty. The museum in Auschwitz is not just a memorial, it is primarily a museum that strives for objectivity. The Austrians excel in this and the Czechs should take a lesson from their outdated exhibition.

Turski also mentions the voices of the Internet and calls for the correction of inaccuracies on Wikipedia and the monitoring of anti-Semitism and xenophobia on social networks. To stimulate and support further academic research on the Holocaust.

At the end, however, Turski again appeals that the most urgent task is to spread true information about the war in Ukraine and to correct the behavior of the European majority towards migrants. Indifference kills. Don't be indifferent. So says the motto of the International Auschwitz Committee, which survivors call the 11th commandment.

As if it wasn't enough for me, a haunted third-generation descendant of Holocaust survivors and war refugees from Vienna, just before my needed bed-time, Marios Soussis from Greece comes to sit with our Czech delegation in the lobby of the hotel, holding his book of memories in Greek, his face reminds me of the artifacts of Antiquity, I say to myself, as the elegant gentleman in a green sweatshirt, hair white, face wrinkled, orders a small Campari and begins to tell his story. He is a Romaniote, a Roman Jew, a member of the oldest the Jewish community in Europe, which is very small and unknown, having lived in Greece for a very long time on the edge of the dominant communities of Sephardic Jews who arrived later, perhaps this is also why during the Gestapo hunt for Jews in Greece his mother managed to escape with her children to the countryside. The father however was captured and deported to Auschwitz where he was forced to work in the so-called Sonderkommando in Auschwitz. The worst place in the death factory. Poor Marius! He is here with his son and grandson, thank God, yet in his eyes I see immeasurable sadness, the final imperative for me to continue and remind everyone possible that in the heart of Europe only 80 years ago, six million people were murdered in an inhumane industrialized way for ethnic and religious difference.

Michaela Rozov
Member of the delegation of the
Auschwitz Committee of the Czech Republic