The lessons of Auschwitz, 75 years after its liberation


JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now from talk of peace
in the Middle East to a look back at the legacy of the Holocaust. Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death
camp in Poland marked the 75th anniversary of their liberation today. They gathered at
the rail depot where Jews from across Europe disembarked from cattle trucks and were murdered
in Nazi gas chambers. Poland’s President Andrzej Duda said the world
must never forget. The anniversary comes at a time when anti-Semitic
attacks are increasing in the United States and in Europe. “NewsHour” special correspondent Malcolm Brabant
has our report from Southern Poland. MALCOLM BRABANT: When the Soviet army liberated
Auschwitz-Birkenau, they were greeted by about 200 starving, freezing girls and boys. Somehow,
they had avoided the fate of a quarter-of-a-million children originally transported here. On the far left, a feisty 5.5-year-old Polish
Jewish girl kept alive by a combination of good fortune, her mother’s ingenuity, and
her own iron will. Now approaching her 82nd birthday, Tova Friedman
of Highland Park, New Jersey, was compelled to return for this historic anniversary. TOVA FRIEDMAN, Birkenau Survivor: We are here
to uncover evil. That’s what we are here for, to show evil and what it can do if unchecked. MALCOLM BRABANT: Tova has spent her life campaigning
to keep the memories of the Holocaust alive. TOVA FRIEDMAN: You knew you were going to
die, but you didn’t understand it, really, as a child. But you knew people were disappearing. And every time I think about it, I think of
the children who aren’t here, and I remember when they were taken. MALCOLM BRABANT: Although Tova has returned
here several times before, this monument to mankind’s bestiality still has the power to
overwhelm. When you see that… TOVA FRIEDMAN: Oh. MALCOLM BRABANT: … the barbed wire? TOVA FRIEDMAN: It scares me to death, even
now. It — I remember that so well. I remember that people tried to reach it to kill — to
get killed. It was easier to die than to stay here. MALCOLM BRABANT: On the electric fence? TOVA FRIEDMAN: Yes. But you weren’t allowed
to, because they wanted you to die on their terms, not your terms. So there was a guard
with dogs. And by the time you came a little closer,
you were shot. So, people — all these dead people were lying here because they never
reached, they didn’t reach the electric wires. MALCOLM BRABANT: For untold thousands, this
was their last view of the world, the only preserved gas chamber and crematorium in Auschwitz.
It lacked the capacity to deal with the Nazis’ objective of erasing Jews from the face of
the Earth. Today, their factory-sized slaughterhouses
and ovens in nearby Birkenau are piles of rubble. Before they fled the Soviet advance,
the S.S. tried to erase their fingerprints by immolating the scene of the crime. Tova was once sent to the gas chamber, but
she returned unscathed, because it wasn’t operating on that day. TOVA FRIEDMAN: I — I just can’t do this.
Please, I can’t do this. You got to say prayers. You can’t do anything
else but pray, you know, hoping that there is a God, it’ll stop it, hoping their humanity
somewhere — this was — I think this is too much for me, you know? This is real. MALCOLM BRABANT: The lessons that Auschwitz
offers the world today are exactly the same as they were when the camp was liberated 75
years ago. Auschwitz speaks to the dangers of religious
and ethnic hatred, of the rule of the mob, of dictatorship, of totalitarianism, and also
of turning a blind eye. Most pilgrims to this time capsule emerge
thoroughly chastened. But the American whose fund-raising helped preserve the extermination
camps, so the world would never forget, is deeply concerned by a global resurgence of
anti-Semitism. Ambassador Ronald Lauder is president of the
World Jewish Congress. RONALD LAUDER, Chairman, Auschwitz Birkenau
Memorial Foundation: And, remember, anti-Semitism in the 1920s and 1930s started very small
and built up. We have seen it building over the last six years, amazingly, and it’s going
to keep building unless we do something about it. MALCOLM BRABANT: Despite being exhausted by
the odyssey from Levittown, Pennsylvania, Cantor David Wisnia managed to sing a Hungarian
song taught by a girlfriend who helped him survive Birkenau. Cantor Wisnia, of Polish Jewish heritage,
was dispatched to Birkenau in 1942. At the railhead, when the selection process began,
the teenager pretended to be older than 18 to avoid being sent straight to the gas chambers,
like the souls memorialized by this solitary cattle truck. Wisnia managed to convince the S.S. that he
was fit for work details. At first, he collected the bodies of prisoners who committed suicide.
But then his captors heard about his voice and ordered him to entertain them. CANTOR DAVID WISNIA, Birkenau Survivor: Now,
I only lived because one word, music. And I sang a Yiddish song while in Auschwitz and
Birkenau, because the S.S. Loved it. (SINGING) CANTOR DAVID WISNIA: It wasn’t my favorite
song. MALCOLM BRABANT: 1930s Jewish dance music
serenaded Tova Friedman at her hotel in Krakow. Her story is not just about death and murder.
Liberation meant rebirth, a second chance at life. TOVA FRIEDMAN: It’s my birthday, January 27,
absolutely. I celebrate it. MALCOLM BRABANT: Above all, Tova honors her
mother, Raizel (ph), who saved her life by hiding her next to a corpse in Birkenau as
the Nazis eliminated witnesses before fleeing the Soviet advance. At last, the little girl was able to cry for
the first time in years. TOVA FRIEDMAN: Well, first of all, you are
going to make me cry now, because crying was a crime. If they heard you crying, you died.
You — shoot you, right? So, I learned not to cry. CANTOR DAVID WISNIA: If there is any way to
save this world, it is to eliminate hatred, because hatred kills. Hatred, by itself, it
winds up death, winds up killing. And I have learned that the hard way. So, if you could only live together as human
beings — that is my mission in life. MALCOLM BRABANT: In the twilight of their
lives, the survivors’ legacy couldn’t be any clearer. But how much of the modern world
is listening? For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Malcolm Brabant
in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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