For Irene Fogel Weiss, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz today was to be her third and final trip to the Nazi concentration camp.
“I won’t be going back to Auschwitz again after this visit,” the 95-year-old survivor of the camp told The Guardian. “So it’s my last chance to make sure this tragedy is not forgotten.”
Ms. Weiss, who attended the anniversary as part of a US presidential delegation, is not alone. For many of her fellow survivors – most of who are in their 90s, with some older than 100 – this marks the last time they’ll return to the camp in southern Poland.
Six of them, including Weiss, shared their stories with the Guardian, which published brief oral histories of their experiences.
“I’m often asked how I have coped,” Weiss told the paper. “Quite simply, I kept it at a distance.”
When I was in Auschwitz I thought: ‘This is not actually on earth.’ It was a system of masters and slaves, gods and subhumans and I thought to myself: ‘No one knows about it. It’s the forest, surrounded by multiple layers of fence, it’s not actually real.’ I never let it penetrate that my parents were killed and I even thought: ‘After this we’re going home and everyone will be there again.’ Those who never managed to keep it distant killed themselves.
Weiss was one of about 300 survivors who stood alongside royalty and heads of state at an anniversary ceremony Tuesday, according to The New York Times. A decade age, at the 60th anniversary, 1,500 survivors attended.
This year's anniversary coincides with a shift in the way the administrators of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum conceive of their mission. From now on, The New York Times reports, “the site will be organized to explain to generations who were not alive during the war what happened rather than to act as a memorial to those who suffered through it.”
“We find this to be a moment of passage,” said Andrzej Kacorzyk, deputy director of the museum. “A passing of the baton. It is younger generations publicly accepting the responsibility that they are ready to carry this history on behalf of the survivors, and to secure the physical survival of the place where they suffered."
As today's 70th anniversary approached, much of the news media focused its attention on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision not to attend the ceremony. Critics pointed out that it was the Soviet Red Army that liberated the camp 70 years ago.
Mr. Putin’s no-show comes during a nadir of relations between the West and Russia, most obviously over Moscow's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the current fighting in eastern Ukraine. Poland is one of the most vocal countries in Europe to condemn Russia's actions in Ukraine, The Associated Press reports. Putin's chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, led the Russian delegation in his place.
The 70th anniversary also comes at a time growing anti-Semitism across Europe, most notably in France, where a gunman killed four people at a kosher supermarket in Paris three weeks ago. In the first seven months of last year, the Jewish Community Protection Service in France reported 527 anti-Semitic acts, nearly double the number for the same period in 2013, The Christian Science Monitor reports.
Amid renewed concerns for Jews in many European countries, Auschwitz “remains a potent symbol,” writes Caroline Wyatt, the BBC’s religious affairs correspondent.
As societies across Europe grapple with immigration, and seek to define themselves and their values anew, asking their religious minorities to prove their loyalty to their country, the words embossed on the monument at Birkenau, "let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity" have a chilling resonance once again.
More than one million Jews, Roma, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, and others were killed at Auschwitz. But the site was just one of more than 850 ghettos, concentration camps, forced-labor camps, and extermination camps that the Nazis established during their reign of horror. CNN published an interactive map that gives a complete overview of the death camp system, one that contributed to the death of six million Jews and millions of others.