The Nazis killed more than 1.1 million people in the gas chambers and execution grounds of Auschwitz alone. When the Red Army arrived at the abandoned camp 75 years ago, they found around 7,000 survivors left to die by a retreating Nazi army. The haunted look in their eyes, recalled a Soviet soldier years later, “betrayed their ordeal.”
For some survivors who returned to Auschwitz to speak before its “gates of hell,” the betrayal was that of an international community that looked away as the Third Reich embarked upon its monstrous, systematic campaigns of ethnic cleansing. “Where was everybody?” said Batsheva Dagan, 95, in her speech. “Where was the world, who could see everything and yet did nothing to save all those thousands?”
In the shadow of a lingering spat between Polish and Israeli officials over the historical memory of World War II, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin lamented how Nazi Germany was “greatly assisted in its murderous acts” by collaborators “throughout Europe.” Rivlin also warned of old specters once more looming over the West: “Our duty is to fight anti-Semitism, racism and fascist nostalgia — those sick evils,” he said.
In the buildup to the ceremonies this week in Auschwitz and Jerusalem, there has been a great deal of focus on the lessons that are not — or are no longer — being learned. Throughout the West, anti-Semitism is on the rise, including a deadly spate of attacks on Jews in France, the United States, Germany and elsewhere. The success of illiberal nationalist parties in Europe has heightened concerns over how the memory of the horrors of the Holocaust (and the circumstances that created it) is slowly fading from the global imagination.
For the survivors at Auschwitz, that seemed to be the chief message. “We would like that the next generation know what we went through, and it should never happen again,” said 91-year-old David Marks, in remarks transcribed by the Associated Press. He lost 35 members of his Romanian Jewish family in Auschwitz. “A dictator doesn’t come up from one day to the other,” he said, adding that it happens in “micro steps.”
“They know that a postwar world order constructed in the shadow of Auschwitz — an architecture of international institutions and supposedly universal human rights — is in peril, the conscious and deliberate target of populist nationalist governments in Europe and beyond,” wrote the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland. “More simply, they fear that the taboo on bigotry and prejudice — deemed unacceptably toxic after the liberation of 1945 — is receding.”
Critics say nationalists such as President Trump are giving encouragement to forces long kept at bay. “Since taking office, President Trump has empowered racism and extremism as a mainstream view by refusing to condemn the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, and accusing American Jews of disloyalty,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) wrote for the Forward, a liberal Jewish American publication. “The President has undermined our social fabric by pushing hateful rhetoric against not only the Jewish community, but also Muslims and others, adding fuel to the fire of division that is rotting our nation at its core.”
Others argue that figures on the left, in their criticism of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, also shade into dangerous forms of anti-Semitism. Even in Germany, where Holocaust denial is a crime and shame over Nazi misdeeds is still at the center of national culture, an influx of Muslim immigrants over the years has shifted the focus to newer divisions. “What we see in Berlin schools in general is that, because the atmosphere is so tense, sometimes teachers shy away from educating about the Holocaust,” Remko Leemhuis, the acting director of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, said to my colleagues. “For a lot of children, when they hear Jews and the Holocaust, they automatically think about Israel and about the conflict with the Palestinians. And this is very charged.”
There are other blind spots, too. The commemorations at Auschwitz offered a chance to remember the millions of non-Jews also slaughtered by the Nazis and their allies. These include the Roma, an estimated quarter of whose population was wiped out in death camps and mass executions during World War II. Yet for decades, even as they came to terms with the evils visited upon their shattered Jewish communities, many European governments resisted acknowledging what happened to the Roma.
That’s in keeping with the sweeping discrimination still experienced by Roma communities across the continent. “Today, anti-Roma discourse from elected officials and the media continues, and bears many similarities to discourse during the 1930s and 1940s in Europe,” noted a policy memo from the Open Society Institute. “While antisemitism is publicly unacceptable in most parts of Europe, the same is not true of anti-Roma discourse.”
Seventy-five years after Auschwitz was liberated, survivors are fearing for a future they may not live to see. “I know that the world hasn’t learned from our experience,” Renee Salt, 90, said to the Guardian. “It’s forgetting.”