THEY prayed and they wept. But most of all, the survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp pleaded for people, especially the young, to “never forget” the atrocities that happened in World War II.
Last Monday, along with world leaders, religious figures and royalty, some 200 survivors marked the 75th anniversary of the death camp’s liberation, returning to the place where they lost families and friends.
Honouring the nearly 1.1 million people who died in the mass killings there, they warned about the ominous growth of hatred in the world today – and how hate kills and threatens democracy.
Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, told those at the commemoration in Poland: After the end of the war, when “the world finally saw pictures of gas chambers, nobody in their right mind wanted to be associated with the Nazis.
“But now I see something I never thought I would see in my lifetime, the open and brazen spread of anti-Jewish hatred.”
“Do not be silent! Do not be complacent! Do not let this ever happen again – to any people!” Lauder had implored.
He was echoed by world’s leaders like Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, who also warned of “voices which spread hate”.
“Our duty is to fight anti-Semitism, racism and fascist nostalgia – those sick evils, ” he said.
The survivors and other attendees gathered under an enormous, heated tent straddling the train tracks that had transported people to Birkenau, the part of the vast complex where most of the murdered Jews were killed in gas chambers and then cremated.
As Polish President Andrzej Duda noted, “The magnitude of the crime perpetrated in this place is terrifying, but we must not look away from it and we must never forget it.”
Marian Turski, a 93-year-old Polish Jewish survivor, said he did not expect to make it to the next commemoration and wanted to transmit a message to his grandchildren’s generation: That the destruction of the Jews began with small steps that were tolerated. What began with banning Jews from sitting on benches in Berlin evolved in incremental steps to ghettos and death camps. And that such horrors could happen anywhere.
“Auschwitz did not descend from the sky, ” he said, calling for people to not be indifferent.
“Because if you are indifferent, you will not even notice it when upon your own heads, and upon the heads of your descendants, another Auschwitz descends from the sky.”
True, as we move into the third decade of the 21st century, far-right politics seems to be increasing in Europe, North America and even in Asia – in countries like India. With increasing levels of xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments, one can’t help but to think that fascism is making a comeback.
In Europe, countries like Hungary, Sweden and even Germany are seeing the increase in support for far right movements that are preaching racist and xenophobic sentiments.
American Christopher Carr, 29 who is a student at a local public university in Kuala Lumpur, believes that the xenophobic sentiments are increasing as technology advances.
“People spread their ideology of racism and fear of losing their cultural identity on these platforms, what disheartens me is that even leaders and media broadcast these false biasness“, he said.
However, he personally believes that fascism won’t be returning any time soon.
“As we are living in an era where we have access to technology and people are more connected compared to the 20th century.
“We are sharing ideas and expressing our opinions and becoming more globalised and by working to strive for the common good such as the fight against climate change, I don’t find any reason to fear fascism. However, that does not mean we have to forget the incidents of the past”, he added.
Economics major at the same local public university, Khaiswariya Jeyapalan, 21, fears that fascism may make a comeback and it would even affect Malaysians.
“According to what I studied, far right parties in Europe formed a coalition with the goal of becoming the strongest faction in the European parliament and transforming policies that fit their xenophobic vision. They managed to secure 73 seats out of the 751 contested, ” she said.
These parties have been experiencing a boom in support, as voters are concerned about globalisation, immigration, dilution of national identity and the European Union, she added.
“These parties shows us that the increase in populism and illiberalism, are a reaction to the arrogance and flaws of mainstream politics. Policies introduced by these parties include, anti-immigration policy that barred humanitarian ships from Italian ports, hostility portrayed towards Islam and opposing multiculturalism. Some scholars believe that such policies will birth a new wave of fascism.”
Khaiswariya believes that Malaysians have a role to play in avoiding this from happening.
“The task for all Malaysians is thus, to build a solidarity movement for democracy, fully cognizant of the need for improving the livelihood of the masses and building a society that is progressive, inclusive and truly equal, ” she said.
A student who only wanted to be known as Mira M. agreed that it is up to the people to prevent fascism from rearing its ugly head again.
Although we may not be seeing the same elements that fuelled the rise of Nazism in Europe in the late 1930s, she feels that the fanaticism and populism rampant today in the world is a worry.
“There are many political and religious leaders these days who are endorsing hate, rather than confront it, so the resistance needs to come from the ground, from the people, especially the young, ” she said.
She recommends that young people read the diary of Holocaust victim Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl, as well as the many local books on how the second world war affected our forefathers in then Malaya.
“Other than learning about the atrocities of war, the book is also inspiring as it shows how love and the human spirit will always prevail, ” she said, sharing a quote from the book: “I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”
The survivors of the Holocaust, want future generations to never forget them.
Seventy five years ago, this incident left a stain on mankind.
And to avoid it from happening again, we must remember its significance. – AP with additional reporting by Latasyah Vallimanalan
Latasyah Vallimanalan is a participant in The Star’s BRATs Young Journalist Programme.
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