76 years ago, on the 27th of January 1945, Soviet troops entered the Auschwitz camp complex, liberating the 7,000 prisoners that they found there.
Today, we remember and honor the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. Those who resisted the Nazis and those who protected or rescued their persecuted fellow human beings.
Just days prior to the 27th of January, nearly 60 000 prisoners were forced to march for days under brutal conditions in freezing temperatures.
They marched through Europe’s cities and villages westward to Buchenwald, to Flossenbürg, to Dachau, to Sachsenhausen and other camps. As many as 15,000 died as a result. Similar forced marches took place all over Nazi Germany. And these would continue right up to the end of the war and Germany’s unconditional surrender. These forced marches, which survivors would call the Death Marches, were being done, in part, because the Nazis did not want prisoners to fall into the hands of Allied forces alive; they did not want them to tell their stories, to testify. That is, they wanted to destroy the evidence.
Today, we know that the evidence could not be destroyed. We know that, against all odds, many did tell their stories. On the occasion of the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we are reminded of the importance of listening to the evidence, to the facts, to this history.
Remembrance plays a critical role in fighting the persistent forces of antisemitism and Holocaust denial and distortion. This is because remembrance ties us fundamentally to the facts, to what took place and the people it affected. When we remember, when we strive to reflect upon this suffering, we understand that as unimaginable as it is, it is just as undeniable. But today, we do so, aware that Holocaust remembrance is at a critical juncture. Fewer and fewer survivors and eyewitnesses are with us to continue to share their testimony. We must listen to them and preserve their stories and their message with great care. And we must look after them in these difficult times.
The pandemic has hit survivors very hard. They are in the most vulnerable age group, they suddenly had to isolate from families, friends, communities. Daily help became hard to find. Worst of all: the sudden climate of all pervasive threat brought back the traumata, the anxieties, the sleepless nights. Many fear that they may lose their homes, their sanctuaries. I was glad that the Jewish Claims Conference and the German government together found ways and means to improve the support for home care and hardship cases.
The pandemic has had another big impact: remembrance has to go digital. While nothing can replace the immediacy of a story told in person, it is wonderful that we have found creative ways of remembering. This will also help us to preserve testimonies of survivors over time.
At the same time, Holocaust denial and distortion are gaining traction, fanning the flames of hate, and allowing antisemitism to inch towards the mainstream. We have just seen unashamed antisemitism and Holocaust Denial amongst the rioting mob in the Capitol - T-shirts incripted “Camp Auschwitz”. These are not just words: as survivor Max Eisen said: “It started with words and it ended in terrible places.”
Allowing distortion invites the erosion of our understanding of the Holocaust and its significance. It helps sustain an environment in which Holocaust denial, antisemitism, conspiracy myths and dangerous forms of nationalism can thrive.
For this reason, the German Presidency of the IHRA has established a Global Task Force against Holocaust Distortion to identify and promote strategies for countering this phenomenon. Earlier this month, the IHRA published recommendations to strengthen awareness of distortion and how to address it. In order to counter Holocaust distortion effectively, action is needed on various levels, involving many different groups, from professionals to policymakers to journalists, and society as a whole.
As we reflect upon this history and its enduring effects, we uphold the terrible truth of the Holocaust against those who deny it. As individuals and as societies, we must carry on with this important work.
Today, we are reminded to strive for a world that listens to the evidence, for a world that remembers the Holocaust, for a world without genocide.