Sixty-five years ago this week, the Soviets liberated Auschwitz, while the Americans were approaching Dachau. For a survivor of these two infernos to still be alive and well, with a new family that has resurrected for me the one I had lost, seems almost unreal. When I entered Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele’s gruesome universe at the age of 13, I measured my life expectancy in days, weeks at the most.
In the early winter of 1944, World War II was coming to an end. But we in the camps knew nothing. We wondered: What is happening in the world outside? Where is God? Where is the pope? Does anyone out there know what is happening here to us? Does anyone even care?
Russia was devastated. Britain had its back against the wall. And America? It was so far away, so divided. How could it be expected to save civilization from the seemingly invincible forces of darkness?
It took a long time for the news of the American-led invasion of Normandy to slip into Auschwitz. There were also rumors that the Red Army was advancing quickly on the eastern front. With the ground shrinking under their feet, the Nazis were becoming palpably nervous. The gas chambers spewed fire and smoke as never before.
One gray, frosty morning, our guards ordered those of us still capable of slave labor to line up and marched us out of the camp. We were to be shunted westward, from Poland into Germany. I was beside myself with excitement — and dread. Salvation somehow seemed closer — yet we also knew that we could be killed at any moment. The goal was to hang on a little longer. I was almost 16 now, and I wanted to live.
We marched from camp to camp, day and night, until we and our torturers began to hear distant explosions that sounded like artillery fire. One afternoon we were strafed by a squadron of Allied fighter planes that mistook our column for Wehrmacht troops. As the Germans hit the dirt, their machine guns blazing in all directions, someone near me yelled, “Run for it!” I kicked off my wooden clogs and sprinted into the forest. There I hid, hungry and cold, for weeks, until I was discovered by a group of American soldiers. The boys who brought me life were not much older than I. They fed me, clothed me, made me a mascot of their regiment and gave me my first real taste of freedom.
Today, the last living survivors of the Holocaust are disappearing one by one. Soon, history will speak about Auschwitz with the impersonal voice of researchers and novelists at best, and at worst in the malevolent register of revisionists and falsifiers who call the Nazi Final Solution a myth. This process has already begun.
And it is why those of us who survived have a duty to transmit to humankind the memory of what we endured in body and soul, to tell our children that the fanaticism and violence that nearly destroyed our universe have the power to enflame theirs, too. The fury of the Haitian earthquake, which has taken more than 200,000 lives, teaches us how cruel nature can be to man. The Holocaust, which destroyed a people, teaches us that nature, even in its cruelest moments, is benign in comparison with man when he loses his moral compass and his reason.
After so much death, a groundswell of compassion and solidarity for victims — all victims, whether from natural disasters, racial hatred, religious intolerance or terrorism — occasionally manifests itself, as it has in recent days.
These actions stand in contrast to those moments when we have failed to act; they remind us, on this dark anniversary, of how often we remain divided and confused, how in the face of horror we hesitate, vacillate, like sleepwalkers at the edge of the abyss. Of course, they remind us, too, that we have managed to stave off the irrevocable; that our chances for living in harmony are, thankfully, still intact
Samuel Pisar, a lawyer and the author of Of Blood and Hope.