Reflections on Auschwitz at 70

By Robert Israel

Flashback, to the first decade after the end of World War II: As a youngster growing up in a Jewish enclave in Providence, Rhode Island, many survivors of the Nazi death camps were my neighbors, immigrant Jews who attended the synagogue with my family, who shopped at the kosher markets, and who, in summertime, their sleeves rolled up, displayed the blue numbered tattoos of their imprisonment on their arms.

I knew the liberators of those death camps, too, soldiers who served in the U.S. Army like my father. The soldiers and the survivors had a special bond, they had both lived through and had witnessed carnage and cruelties. Yet, during these years, both groups focused instead on healing. They chose never to discuss or to share what they had seen and endured overseas in the killing fields and in the killing camps.

In our home, a tenement on the third floor of an industrial street, we never discussed the war, the survivors, or their plights. There was no community-wide Holocaust remembrance day. There were no silent vigils. There were no Holocaust memorials. The only remembrances that took place were in the synagogue itself, on the wall of memories that greeted all worshipers upon entering the sanctuary, where names of those that were lost were inscribed in bronze and, beside these plaques, small light bulbs that were illuminated when the appropriate time of their yortzeit, or the anniversary of their deaths, arrived.


Flash forward, thirty years later, to when I was working as a newspaper editor for a Jewish weekly: I was told that a young woman, from the press bureau of the Government of Austria, was waiting for me in the lobby. She did not have a previous appointment. Yet this was a common occurrence: I was frequently approached by aggressive representatives of Austria, Poland and Germany and implored by these representatives to travel to their countries, to see the death camps for myself, to meet the survivors, and to draw my own conclusions as to how these countries were restoring normalcy to their citizenry.
The Austrian representative grew tired of the wait, despite being told I was in the midst of a particularly frantic deadline scramble in the newsroom. She made her way over to my desk. Finding an empty chair, and amidst the clamor of telephones and reporters filing copy, she sat down and unfolded a sheaf of documents.

“First of all,” she declared, “I am here to personally apologize for what happened to Jews in Austria.”
She then revealed an itinerary, prepared for me without my previous knowledge or consent, of an upcoming trip she insisted I take to Austria, all expenses paid, to meet with government representatives and survivors. And then she exited.

I finally made one of several trips as a newspaper reporter to Europe, and I visited the death camps. At Dachau, which is in a modern suburb a short train ride from Munich, I toured the camp and adjacent barracks. They had all been scrubbed clean and re-painted battleship gray. But the new coats of paint and repaired rooftops of these buildings could not disguise the fact that they were haunted by the souls who had once suffered there, ordinary citizens who had been rounded up and sent down the same train tracks I had traveled to this, their final and horrific destination.

Standing in the courtyard with a translator and a guide from the government press office, I found it necessary to block out their rambling dialog about the history of the place, which I knew only too well from having met, as a youngster thirty years before, survivors who had been imprisoned there. I wandered away from them to a small stream that gurgled just past the iron gates. It was spring, and growing around the stream were flowers, tall grass, and, just beyond the camp, the first buds of apple blossoms. This was the only sign of normalcy I recorded.

Seventy years have passed since Auschwitz was liberated. The small gathering of Jewish survivors who returned there sobbed upon arrival. One elderly man recalled the horrors amidst his tears, declaring that he was a victor, he had made it out alive, he had borne witness and he was returning to declare what he had witnessed so that no one would ever forget.

I bore witness to the aftermath of that war. Unlike when I was a youngster, the stories are now shared, discussed and archived. The voices of those that are gone, who witnessed far more than I, are locked in my memory. I hear them again. I hear their voices anew admonishing me to share with others what they once shared with me.


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