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This prison/extermination/labor camp complex began in 1940 on the order of Heinrich Himmler, the SS leader. Other names associated with Auschwitz are Rudolf Hess, the first commandant of the camp and Dr. Josef Mengele, notorious for his medical experiments on the prisoners. The camp slogan “Work Sets You Free” displayed at the entrance to the camp was a deception. Work at that complex offered no freedom for the living. Instead, most people’s lives ended there by various means including gassing, starvation, exhaustion, disease, beatings, individual or mass executions, or from medical experiments. It was a nightmarish existence from which no one could awaken and few survived.
Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz III on January 27, 1945, freeing 7500 prisoners, including Primo Levi and Eli Weisel. Earlier that month, 58,000 prisoners were sent to other camps because of the advance of the Red Army. Two of the victims in the camps, Maximillian Kolbe, a priest, and Edith Stein, a nun and a Jewish convert to Catholicism, were later granted sainthood by the Church.
Several of the camp personnel were given death sentences for their actions, among them Hess. He was executed by hanging at Auschwitz I in 1947. A few months later, the Polish government authorized a state memorial to be established at Auschwitz to remember what happened at that site. Auschwitz was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. In 2003, a trio of Israeli Air Force jets performed a flyover of Auschwitz II during a ceremony. All three jets were piloted by descendants of Holocaust survivors. In 2015, some 300 survivors of the camp gathered at Auschwitz II with various world leaders to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation.
One could rightly state that what happened at Auschwitz is a black stain on the page of human history, yet is that stain fading? In 2018, a survey of over 1300 American adults showed that 41% of those surveyed (and 66% of Millennial respondents) did not know what happened at Auschwitz. Twenty two percent of those surveyed claimed to not know what the Holocaust was at all. A survey of European adults that same year found similar results.
As a historian and educator, I ponder if, in the very near future, I will have students who will first learn of the Holocaust in my classroom and not at any point earlier in their education. Once the survivors of Auschwitz are dead, will the site be enough to remind the world that what happened there must never happen again? Will the lack of living witnesses reduce the Holocaust to a term in the history textbook, an event preserved on the page, but not in public mind or memory? I have more questions than answers on this topic, but the consequences of the answers are far greater than mere academics. If the people remain either blissfully or willfully ignorant of an evil such as the Holocaust, how will the future recognize an evil of that magnitude if it emerges again?
William E. Plants
URG Chaplaincy Coordinator