Today International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the most prominent and most notorious Nazi killing center during the Holocaust. Though we think of Auschwitz as a single entity, it was a massive complex of camps, including concentration camps, labor camps, and a killing center. In the summer preceding the liberation of Auschwitz, Soviet forces liberated the Lublin/Majdanek concentration camp, previously evacuated to Western camps including Auschwitz. As the Soviets advanced toward Auschwitz, the SS forced prisoners on “death marches” to evacuate the camps. More than 15,000 evacuated prisoners died during the evacuation.
Finally, on January 27, 1945, Soviet forces descended on Auschwitz to liberate the 7,000 prisoners left behind. The prisoners they found were sick and dying. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Nazis deported 1.3 million people to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945. During those years, at least 1.1 million people died in the camp.
Viktor Frankl, noted psychologist and Holocaust survivor, describes the slow liberation of Auschwitz in his seminal work, Man’s Search for Meaning:
“With tired steps we prisoners dragged ourselves to the camp gates. Timidly we looked around and glanced at each other questioningly. Then we ventured a few steps out of camp. This time no orders were shouted at us, nor was there any need to duck quickly to avoid a blow or kick. Oh no! This time the guards offered us cigarettes! We hardly recognized them at first; they had hurriedly changed into civilian clothes. We walked slowly along the road leading from the camp. Soon our legs hurt and threatened to buckle. But we limped on; we wanted to see the camp’s surroundings for the first time with the eyes of free men. ‘Freedom’—we repeated to ourselves, and yet we could not grasp it. We had said this word so often during all the years we dreamed about it, that it had lost its meaning. Its reality did not penetrate into our consciousness; we could not grasp the fact that freedom was ours.
“We came to meadows full of flowers. We saw and realized that they were there, but we had no feelings about them. The first spark of joy came when we saw a rooster with a tail of multicolored feathers. But it remained only a spark; we did not yet belong to this world.
“In the evening when we all met again in our hut, one said secretly to the other, ‘Tell me, were you pleased today?’
“And the other replied, feeling ashamed as he did not know that we all felt similarly, ‘Truthfully, no!’ We had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly”
Video taken by the Soviet Army during the liberation of Auschwitz. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.
Soviet soldiers experienced a different situation. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, liberators encountered piles of unburied corpses and sick, starved, and traumatized survivors. Though Nazi guards had attempted to destroy much of the evidence of their crimes, liberators discovered warehouses of victims’ personal belongings, clothing, and human hair.
On November 1, 2005, the United Nations General Assembly named January 27 International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This day commemorates the anniversary of the liberations on Auschwitz-Birkenau and provides individuals a chance to reflect and remember the victims of the Holocaust and Nazism. Today we invite you to take a moment to commemorate the lives of the countless victims who perished and suffered during Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror. Together, we will end the scourge of Holocaust denial and injustice through acts of remembrance.
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Commemoration starts with education. A great way to commemorate the day is by reading a Memoir from a Holocaust victim or survivor. Nothing is more powerful than reading about the experiences of individuals who experienced the brutality of the Nazis first-hand. We recommend the following classic memoirs:
The Night Trilogy by Elie Wiesel
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
You can also browse The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Survivor Memoir Collection for more stories or view this media essay featuring memories of camp liberation of actual survivors.
Share your reflections on the Holocaust and the eventual liberation. Do you have a loved one who experienced the Holocaust first-hand that you would like to remember? Does this day call to mind any thoughts about the Holocaust or global genocide? Please share them with us by using the hashtag #HolocaustRemembranceDay and tagging us @cdjhmemorial across all social media channels.
Consider making a memorial donation to the Capital District Jewish Holocaust Memorial. Your donation will help fund the building of our Holocaust memorial in Niskayuna, New York, and various other Holocaust education projects that will ensure the memory of those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis do not go unrecognized in our community.
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