Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Seventy Years Ago Today—A Grim Discovery by the Red Army

Soviet troops discovered a few children among those left behind by the Germans.

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  It will be observed—celebrated is certainly the wrong word here—in ways big and small, significant and trivial in many places across the world.  The commemoration comes on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps in Poland by the advancing Red Army on January 27, 1945.  American, British, Canadian, and other Allied Forces liberated other camps, but Auschwitz was the pinnacle of efficiency for the Nazi industrialization of mass murder.
On the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation the United Nations General Assembly held a special commemorative session.  The following November the General Assembly created the commemoration day, which was first observed in 2006.
In November of 1944 as the Red Army advanced from the East and the Allies pressed on the Western Front, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the beginning to the elimination of evidence of death camps in Poland.   Gassing operations were suspended and crematoria at Auschwitz were ordered destroyed or, in one case, converted into a bomb shelter.  As things got worse, Himmler ordered the evacuation of the camps in early January directing that “not a single prisoner from the concentration camps falls alive into the hands of the enemy.”
On January 17, 58,000 Auschwitz detainees were set on death march on west towards Wodzisław Śląski. Approximately 20,000 Auschwitz prisoners made it to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, where they were liberated by the British in April 1945.
But that left over 8,000 of the weakest and sickest abandoned behind with scant supplies.  The Red Army 322nd Rifle Division arrived 10 days later to find 7,500 barely alive and 600 corpses lying where ever they finally collapsed.  They also found much evidence of the greater crimes Himmler had hoped to hide—370,000 men’s suits, 837,000 women’s garments, and 7.7 tons of human hair.

In a women's baracks many survivors were too weak to stand.

Coming in the midst of the Yalta Conference and other war news, the liberation received scant news attention at the time.  And the Soviets, who were at best ambivalent at the highest levels about what to do with the liberated Jews, did little to publicly celebrate their role in the liberation, at least at first.
It was only after survivors reached the West and eventually Israel as refugees, that Auschwitz emerged as a special, horrific symbol of the whole Holocaust.

Camp survivor Mordechai Ronen was overcome with emotion as he arrived to take part in liberation anniversary ceremonies at Auschwitz this week.

Today with anti-Semitism on the rise across Europe 300 camp survivors and world leaders and dignitaries including German President Joachim Gauck, French President Francois Hollande, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, will join host President Bronisław Komorowski of Poland.  Ten years ago 1,600 survivors make the journey, but age has dramatically thinned their ranks.
The European press is abuzz with who is not attending.  Notable for his absence is Russian President Vladimir Putin who was prominent among the dignitaries a decade ago.  In a pointed snub, the Polish government did not send him an official diplomatic invitation to attend despite the role of Soviet forces in the liberation of the vast camp.   The Poles are close allies of the Ukraine, which came close to full scale war with Russia over the breakaway Crimea and broad swaths of its east last year.   The Russian leader will send his chief of staff to head his nation’s delegation. 
The Russians deflect criticism of Putin’s absence by reminding the world of the Ukrainian history of collaboration with the Nazis including volunteer units that served as SS camp guards and on-going anti-Semitism.   The Ukraine’s sizable Neo-Nazi movement has played a role in the ongoing crisis there and fielded militia units battling pro-Russian separatists in the virtual civil war in the east.
Also notable for their absence are both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.  Ten years ago Vice President Dick Cheney represented George W. Bush.   Obama who was scheduled to be abroad on his long-scheduled trip to India had not been officially expected, but many speculated about a “surprise appearance.”  Instead, the President cut his successful Indian trip short to fly to Saudi Arabia to offer his condolences on the death of King Abdullah and shore up relations with this key Middle Eastern ally.
But amid the controversy of surrounding the invitation by House Speaker John Boehner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress without even informing the administration and a general tense relationship with the Likud led government over continued settlement building in Jerusalem and the West Bank, much is being read into Obama and Biden’s no show.  Biden’s schedule is not known to be crammed with high level commitments.  The United States will be represented by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, hardly a house hold name in either this country or Europe.
Meanwhile Israeli President is stuck in New York City where he had been scheduled to address a special United Nations Remembrance Day which has been cancelled due to the epic blizzard paralyzing the city.

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