It was largely because of these survivors that the world learned of the atrocities that took place behind the gates that infamously read Arbeit Macht Frei, “Work Will Set You Free.” Determined that no one should again endure what they had endured, many survivors dedicated themselves to telling their stories, to show with the numbers on their arms what happens when hate goes unchecked.
The 75th anniversary of the liberation is yet another stark reminder that the youngest survivors are now in their late 70s and 80s, and the window on our access to direct memories is soon closing. It’s a loss that cuts even deeper at a time when anti-Semitism has reemerged in both new and familiar forms.
At major events in Israel and Auschwitz itself, world leaders joined by survivors commemorated the liberation. On Monday, I was privileged to attend and speak at a local event — joined by a standing room-only crowd of over 1,200 people — hosted at Temple Emanu-El, and arranged by the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, and the New York Board of Rabbis, with UJA’s support.
Beautifully fusing somber reflection with musical celebration, the evening began with actor Tovah Feldshuh reading from the memoir of Dr. Edith Eva Eger, a survivor who was sent to Auschwitz as a teen. She recalled how when they arrived, she was huddled in the same line as her mother and sister. Dr. Mengele asked if they were all sisters, and she cried out “mama,” causing him to send her mother to the line for the gas chamber. The terrible guilt for saying that one word, “mama,” still haunts her.
Following this harrowing narrative, Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot recited the Kel Maleh Rachamim, remembering the six million who perished.
But then the program turned from tragedy to triumph, as we were reminded not only that the Jewish people survived, but that Jewish life has flourished. “Mir zaynen do,” Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the head of the New York Board of Rabbis, remarked in Yiddish: “We are (still) here.” The teen choir, HaZamir, who came out next were living proof. So was Itzhak Perlman, the brilliant violinist, performing with both the cast of Fiddler on the Roof and the Klezmer Conservatory Band.
The music of the shtetls filled the cavernous sanctuary, and from the front row to the rafters, all who were able rose to their feet, thunderously clapping and singing along.
We were honored to be joined by survivors as well as Jewish members of the Soviet army — the liberators — now in their 90s and living in New York, who proudly wore their uniforms and war medals. As survivors and liberators were each acknowledged, it was an opportunity to reflect on what they had experienced in the 75 years since Auschwitz: Jewish life in the greatest diasporic community history has ever known. The rebirth of the sovereign state of Israel. The fall of the Iron Curtain. And so much more.
And that’s why an evening that started with tears culminated in laughter, dancing, and a profound sense of appreciation for life itself.
Mir zaynen do — we are (still) here.