Marian Turski, speech at the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, 27th January 2020.
Dear friends, I am one of the few still alive of those who remained in this place almost until the very last moment before liberation. My so-called evacuation from Auschwitz began on the 18th of January. Over the next six and a half days it would prove a death march for more than half of my fellow inmates, with whom I marched in a column of six hundred. In all likelihood, I will not make it to the next commemoration. Such are the laws of nature.
Please then forgive me the emotion in what I will now say. This is something I want to say above all to my daughter, my granddaughter, who I thank for being present here, to my grandson: it concerns those who are the peers of my daughter, of my grandchildren; a new generation, particularly the youngest, those who are younger even than they are.
When the Second World War broke out, I was a teenager. My father was a soldier [in the First World War] who had received a serious gunshot wound to the lung. It was a dramatic situation for our family. My mother came from the Polish-Lithuanian-Belarusian border, where armies had swept back and forth, plundering, looting, raping, burning villages so as to leave nothing for those who came after them. You might say I knew first-hand from my father and mother what war is. Yet despite everything, although only 20 or 25 years had passed, it seemed as distant as the Polish uprisings of the 19th century; as distant as the French Revolution.
When I meet young people today, I realize that after 75 years they seem a little weary of this topic: war, the Holocaust, genocide. I understand them. That is why I promise you, young people, that I will not tell you about my suffering. I will not tell you about my experiences, my two death marches, how I ended the war weighing 32kg, exhausted, on the verge of death. I will not talk about the worst of it, that is, the tragedy of parting with loved ones after the selection, when you sensed what awaited them. No, I will not talk about these things. Instead, I would like to talk to you about my daughter’s generation, and my grandchildren’s generation.
I see that Alexander Van der Bellen, the president of Austria, is among us. You will remember, Mr. President, when you hosted me and the leaders of the International Auschwitz Committee and we talked about those times. At one point you used the phrase: “Auschwitz ist nicht vom Himmel gefallen”. Auschwitz did not fall from the sky. This is, to use a phrase of ours, an obvious obviousness. Of course it didn’t fall from the sky. Yet while this may seem a banal enough statement, it contains a profound and extremely important cognitive shortcut.
Let us shift our imagination for a moment to Berlin in the early 1930s. We are almost in the city centre, in a district called Bayerisches Viertel, the Bavarian Quarter. Three stops from Ku’damm; from the zoo. Where the Bayerischer Platz metro is today. And here, one day in the early 1930s, a sign appears on the benches: “Jews may not sit here.” “Okay,” you might think, “this is unpleasant, it’s unfair, it’s not nice, but after all there are so many benches around here, you can sit somewhere else, it’s fine.”
This was a district inhabited by German intelligentsia of Jewish origin. Albert Einstein, Nobel laureate Nelly Sachs, the industrialist, politician and Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau lived here. One day a sign appears at the swimming pool. “Jews are forbidden to enter this swimming pool.” “Okay,” you might think, “this is unpleasant, but Berlin has so many places to swim, so many lakes, canals — it’s practically Venice — so you can go and swim somewhere else.”
Then another sign appears. “Jews are not allowed to belong to German choral associations.” So what? They want to sing and make music? Let them gather together and sing by themselves. Then another sign. “Jewish, non-Aryan children are not allowed to play with German, Aryan children.” So they can play by themselves. And another. “We sell bread and other food products to Jews only after 5pm.” Okay, now this is a real inconvenience because there’s less choice, but in the end you can still shop after 5pm.
And here we start to get used to the idea that you can exclude someone. That you can stigmatize someone. That you can turn someone into an alien. Slowly, gradually, day by day, people begin to get used to it — victims, perpetrators, witnesses, those we call bystanders — all begin to get used to the idea that a minority that gave the world Einstein, Nelly Sachs, Heinrich Heine and the Mendelssohns is different, that these people can be pushed to the edges of society, that they are strangers, that they spread germs and start epidemics. These terrible, dangerous thoughts are the beginning of what happens next.
The regime of the time plays things cleverly, meeting the demands of workers. The first of May wasn’t celebrated in Germany before? Never mind, here you go. On leisure days, they introduce Kraft durch Freude — Strength Through Joy. Organized holidays for the workers. They vanquish unemployment and play on the strings of national dignity. “Germany, rise from the shame of Versailles. Restore your pride.” At the same time, the regime sees that the people are gradually overwhelmed by the anesthesia of indifference. They stop reacting to evil. And so the regime can afford to accelerate the process of evil.
From there, things gather pace. A ban on employing Jews. A ban on emigration. Then the evil spreads to the ghettos: to Riga; to Kaunas; to my ghetto, the Łódź ghetto — Litzmannstadt. Most of those there are sent to Kulmhof — Chełmno — where they will be murdered in gas vans, and the rest are sent to Auschwitz, where they will be murdered with Zyklon B in modern gas chambers. And here we see the truth of what President Van der Bellen said: “Auschwitz didn’t suddenly fall from the sky.” Auschwitz crept up, tiptoed along with small steps, moved closer and closer, until the things that happened here began.
My daughter, my granddaughter, peers of my daughter, peers of my granddaughter — perhaps you do not know the name of Primo Levi. Primo Levi was one of the most well-known prisoners of this camp. He once coined the phrase: “It happened, therefore it can happen again, it can happen everywhere.”
I will share with you one personal memory. In 1965 I was in the United States of America on a scholarship during the fight for human rights, for civil rights, for rights for African Americans. I had the honor of taking part in the march from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King. When my fellow marchers found that I had been in Auschwitz, they asked me, “Do you think that such a thing could only happen in Germany? Or could it happen elsewhere?” I told them: “It could happen to you. If civil rights are violated, if minority rights are not respected and are abolished. If the law is violated, as happened in Selma, then such things could happen.” What to do? “You must do what you can. If you can defend the constitution, defend your rights, defend your democratic order, defend the rights of minorities — then you can overcome this.”
Most of us as Europeans come from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Believers and non-believers alike accept the Ten Commandments as the canon of our civilization. A friend of mine, Roman Kent, the president of the International Auschwitz Committee, who spoke here five years ago during the previous commemoration, could not be here today. He coined the Eleventh Commandment, which stems from the experience of the Shoah, the Holocaust, the terrible epoch of contempt. It runs thus: thou shalt not be indifferent.
And this is what I want to tell my daughter, what I want to tell my grandchildren. My daughter’s peers, my grandchildren’s peers, wherever they might live, in Poland, Israel, America, Western Europe, Eastern Europe. This is very important. Thou shalt not be indifferent in the face of lies about history. Thou shalt not be indifferent when the past is distorted for today’s political needs. Thou shalt not be indifferent when any minority faces discrimination. Majority rule is the essence of democracy, but democracy also means that minority rights must be protected. Thou shalt not be indifferent when any authority violates the existing social contract. Be faithful to this commandment. To the Eleventh Commandment: thou shalt 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 falls from the sky.
(Translated by Ben Stanley.)
Ben Stanley is a lecturer, SWPS University, Warsaw. This article was originally published by Medium.