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The horrors of Auschwitz  

The gates of the Nazi camp at Auschwitz,

The gates of the Nazi camp at Auschwitz, Poland, circa 1965. Monday marks the 75th anniversary of the camp's liberation. Credit: Getty Images/Keystone

 When the Soviet army liberated the Auschwitz death camp on Jan. 27, 1945, the troops found only 7,000 remaining prisoners, including dozens of children. They were sick, starving, freezing.

In the weeks before the liberation, as the army approached, Nazi officers attempted to liquidate the camps, to hide what they had done, by sending tens of thousands of prisoners still alive on a death march. 

But they couldn't destroy all of the evidence of the horrors that took place at the network of camps for more than five years. Thousands of dead bodies, in the barracks and in the snow. Piles of coats and shoes and clothes and suitcases and hair and gold teeth, all taken from the victims. Cans of Zyklon B that had been used in Auschwitz's gas chambers.

That's who and what remained in a camp that had taken in about 1.3 million prisoners — mostly Jews — from 1940 to 1945. More than a million were murdered in Auschwitz, whether by gas or bullet or starvation or illness.

This incomprehensible tragedy, staggering in its scope, must not fade from our memories. Now, 75 years later, the lessons of the Holocaust, the systematic genocide conducted by Adolf Hitler and the rest of Nazi Germany to destroy the Jewish people and others who were different, need to be taught anew. 

This history  is very much a part of our present, as there is a new anti-Semitism on the rise. 

A history lesson

Just look at the last few months: Swastikas spray-painted on the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center in Glen Cove. Three people shot and killed in a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey. Five people stabbed during a Hanukkah party in Monsey. Anti-Semitic slurs hurled time and again, captured on video, shared on social media.

The hate has spilled over into our synagogues and our streets. The 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh killed 11 Jews. A year before that, chants of "Jews will not replace us" echoed in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia.

It's a hatred that's always been present, but was often underground and behind closed doors, at just a simmer that didn't turn violent. But it is now out in the open for all to see, and boiling over in ways that are frightening and unsettling. 

It's not the state-sponsored mass murder of Jews that spread through Europe in the 1940s. But don't forget that the Holocaust started smaller. First, there were the yellow stars, pinned to Jews' coats and vests. By November 1938, it was the destruction of Jewish shops and homes, and the torching of synagogues, in an evening known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass.

Not even the Jews of Germany understood what was coming at the time. 

Auschwitz opened just months later.

"It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say," said writer Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz but died in 1987 in an apparent suicide. "It can happen, and it can happen everywhere," wrote prisoner 174517.

Today’s anti-Semitism

The anti-Semitism of 2020 in the United States is a strain of the same vile hatred that pervaded Europe and even the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s. Then, the U.S. was responsible for turning away Jews seeking refuge and safety, most memorably on the ship called the St. Louis, many of whose passengers headed back to Europe to their deaths.

So far, local, state and federal officials have focused on better defining hate crimes, and establishing security around synagogues and schools. Many Long Island synagogues are grappling with adding private armed guards, even as local police make their presence known more, too. All of that is important, but the answer also lies in education, understanding and memory. 

The 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which coincides with International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Monday, is a moment for such recollection. It becomes more and more important as there are fewer and fewer living survivors who can bear witness directly to the horrors of the Holocaust. 

Understanding the roots and symbols of anti-Semitism, where it comes from and how it can fester and explode, is key. Starting early may stop the hate later.  

Come Monday's anniversary, take a moment and remember. Listen to the oral histories available at the United States Holocaust Museum website, or make a visit to the memorials and museums on Long Island and in New York City. Watch the documentaries. Teach your children. Light a candle, and say a memorial prayer, for the six million Jews who were killed — including 1.5 million children — and millions of others, including prisoners of war, the Roma, and homosexuals. 

At the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, one particularly moving video includes a Holocaust survivor who says, "Young people will prevent the evil that was done. They will stand up and be able to say no."

The only way to stop today's rise in anti-Semitism is by understanding what can happen when it's left unchecked.

We all must stand up and say no.

The editorial board


Editor's note: Sunday’s editorial commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camps gave an incorrect year for the 1938 event known as Kristallnacht.