By James Wolfe, Deputy Public Affairs Officer at USEU
Today in Oświęcim, Brzezinka, and Kraków, Poland, world leaders have gathered to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps located in the former two towns, internationally known by the infamous name Auschwitz-Birkenau (the German versions of the villages’ names). Throughout the world, people are likewise commemorating the tenth International Holocaust Remembrance Day, remembering the six million victims of the Shoah – and celebrating the survivors.
Many great men and women will be making profound statements on the significance of this anniversary and the lessons to be drawn from it. For myself, I only wish to share some of my memories of a day twenty years ago when, as a young American diplomat working in the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, it was my privilege to be the “control officer” for the official U.S. Delegation to the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Taking place less than five years after the first semi-free parliamentary elections in Poland that started the wave of freedom that peacefully swept Soviet-imposed Communism from Central and Eastern Europe, this was still a period of liberation from propaganda for Poland, where one of the official Party lines held that Poles, Jews, Roma and others suffered in roughly equal numbers in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Hosting the commemoration helped raise awareness of the fact that, of the 1.1 million (or more) people killed in the two camps, about 960,000 were Jews (from around Europe – fewer than one third resided in Poland), while the other 12.7 percent were non-Jewish Poles (up to 75,000), Roma and Sinti (21,000), Soviet POWs (15,000), and others.
The commemoration (seen here in an AP video report) in 1995 was eye-opening for others as well, including me. Like most Americans (and other Westerners) with a university education, and having spent years studying German history and language in particular, I was already familiar with the overall history of World War II, the Holocaust, and the Nazi death camps. I had even visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the original camp in Oświęcim before.
Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau with Holocaust survivors (particularly survivors of the camp itself) was both eye-opening and an incredibly moving experience, like truly seeing the place for the first time. When U.S. delegation member Christine Lerman pointed to the location of the barracks where she had lived with her two sisters (who also both survived the camp and the death march with those the Nazis took with them when they evacuated before the approaching Red Army), the horror of the camp crossed a line from theory to reality that no books or collections of victims’ personal effects had ever done. During the visit Christine reunited for the first time since the War with her Catholic Polish friend, who had lived through Auschwitz-Birkenau with her. Mrs. Lerman was on the delegation with her husband Miles Lerman (then president of the U.S. Holocaust Museum Foundation), who had fought with the anti-Nazi Polish partisans during the war and touted the heroism of many Poles in saving Jews from the Nazis.
Other members of the official delegation were U.S. Ambassador to Poland Nicholas Rey, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Richard Holbrooke, retired Ambassador John Kordek (then serving on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council), Hadassah Freilich Lieberman (wife of Senator Joseph Lieberman), and Jan Nowak-Jezioranski (then director of the Polish American Congress, but most famous as “the Courier from Warsaw” for his role in alerting the U.S. and UK governments to the existence of the Nazi death camps).
This was truly inspirational company to be in, but the most notable was the head of the official U.S. delegation: Nobel laureate, author, and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel. Being in close proximity to him showed me quickly why he has been so long revered for his wisdom and eloquence. His speech at the event is recorded for posterity, but my first opportunity to hear him speak was an impromptu toast at a lunch the delegation had with other American Jewish leaders at the café Ariel in Krakow’s old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. I was in awe of his ability spontaneously to be so profound and moving.
To this day, I count myself lucky to have been present at this historic commemoration in the presence of such people, not to mention the countless world leaders there. I also consider myself fortunate to have had as my political counselor someone who trusted me as a young officer to take responsibility for such a delegation at such an event. He was in attendance as well, and is part of the leadership of our delegation to the seventieth anniversary today along with Secretary of the Treasury Jacob “Jack” Lew. My old boss is the current U.S. Ambassador to Poland, Stephen Mull.