Jews remember Auschwitz: 'Here it is always night'

January 28, 1995|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

OSWIECIM, Poland -- They stood in the cold and gray upon the ground of the dead at Auschwitz-Birkenau, in a crowd roughly the size of the one found 50 years ago by advancing Soviet soldiers.

The earlier gathering had been ravaged by disease, starvation and exhaustion, having barely outlasted an assembly line of execution that killed more than a million others. The burden of yesterday's crowd was memory.

"Close your eyes and look," implored Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who survived 11 months in the camp, "and you will see what we have seen -- endless nocturnal processions converging here at night. And here it is always night. Close your eyes and listen to the silent screams that terrify mothers. Listen to the prayers of anguished old men. Listen to the tears of children."

The words of Mr. Wiesel and the prayers and speeches of others ended two occasionally difficult days of remembrance and mourning in Poland, marking a half century since the camp was liberated from the German army toward the end of World War II.

The revived memories varied greatly in their impact on the crowd. For Leon Posnik, a 72-year-old Polish Catholic who survived nearly two years as a slave laborer at the camp, yesterday was one of many visits since the war ended.

He spoke of his labors there: He had crushed rock and stone in helping to build the camp roads. He was also forced to help collect the garments shed by those who had walked off to be executed. It was morbid duty but helped save his life. Whoever had the job could find food in the pockets of the dead, and survive another day.

"I come back here every year," Mr. Posnik said, "and now I enter the place as if it was my home."

For Mr. Wiesel, a Jew, there has been no getting used to this camp where 90 percent of those who died were Jews. As he

neared the entrance Thursday, he said, "As I walk to the gate, I have the same fear as I had 50 years ago."

Yesterday's final observances came amid weather seemingly scripted for such occasions. A bitter wind blew snowflakes from a leaden sky, producing the monochromatic dreariness so familiar from grainy photos of skeletal faces staring through barbed wire; and from newsreel footage of tangled bodies, naked and flopping, being shoved into piles by a bulldozer; and of thousands of mothers and children hand in hand, waiting in line for the gas chamber.

Polish authorities added to the grim atmosphere by sounding a wailing camp siren as the ceremony began. Here and there were people wearing replicas of the striped uniforms once worn by the inmates, complete with arm patches that labeled everyone either by religion, ethnicity, nationality, political party or sexual preference.

But even with all the props and vivid speeches, it was impossible to re-create the essence of the camp as it once must have been. One reason is that the gas chambers and crematoriums now lie in ruins. Another is the absence of the menacing force of Nazi Germany, with its zealous SS men and their barking dogs.

In their place yesterday was only a humbled older man, Roman Herzog, the president of present day Germany. He stood mutely, watched closely by the many German television crews present, as he listened to others describing the horrors wrought by his countrymen.

The two days of observance were neither calm nor harmonious. International Jewish organizations had staged their own rival ceremony Thursday after concluding that the Jewish plight at Auschwitz would be under-represented at yesterday's events, which were organized by the Polish government.

Polish President Lech Walesa seemed to justify those fears with his welcoming remarks Thursday evening, when he spoke of the camp's victims and tragedies without once mentioning the word "Jew."

Later, Mr. Wiesel stressed to the Polish president the importance of changing his emphasis, and Mr. Walesa seemed to have had a slight change of mind. In his first speech yesterday outside the Block 11 barracks of the main Auschwitz camp, Mr. Walesa spoke of "the suffering of nations, especially the Jewish nation." The latter phrase was a last-minute addition, and the only departure from a printed text.

Then, in his speech at Birkenau -- the larger of the extermination camps, about a mile away -- President Walesa mentioned that, "Whole nations, the Jews and the Gypsies, were supposed to be exterminated here."

Mr. Wiesel, who has sought to downplay the dispute in favor of bringing groups together, made only a passing reference to the issue in his remarks, saying, "Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims."

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