OSWIECIM, Poland — The living came to this place of death like the day’s last golden light. Children and grandchildren walked beside survivors or pushed their wheelchairs into buildings made of brick and hatred, proof that the Nazis couldn’t turn every family, every future, to ash.
“It’s a complete life,” said survivor David Wisnia, 93, of Levittown, Bucks County.
Nearly one million Jews were killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camps during World War II. Books and photographs have laid those facts bare. Stories live on in movies and museums. As nearly 200 survivors, including Wisnia, have converged on southern Poland to commemorate the end of that hell 75 years ago Monday, loved ones know these living moments are bittersweet.
“I feel a great responsibility,” his grandson Avi Wisnia said at a survivor dinner Sunday night in Kraków. “My grandfather’s story is my story. It’s the story of my family. I’m very aware that when he dies, I need to keep the memory alive, and the story alive, and these experiences alive.”
The Soviet Red Army liberated Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945, and the site remains largely the same today, acres of barbed wire and squat buildings. On Monday morning, before the start of the official ceremony, an icy fog hung over the camps.
After the liberation, survivors went back into the world and made their way. Most are in their 90s now, and many couldn’t handle the long flights and layovers. Stacey Saointz, 45, traveled from Chappaqua, N.Y., to Poland without her grandfather Srulek Feldman, who was sent to Auschwitz in 1944 and had the number A17606 tattooed on his arm. He’s 94.
“It’s just too hard for him to travel this far,” Saointz said.
A senior lieutenant in the Soviet army who helped liberate the camps was scheduled to speak at a discussion hosted by the World Jewish Congress on Sunday afternoon. Health reasons prevented him from making the trip.
Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, said one-third of Auschwitz survivors have died in the past five years. The congress believes no Holocaust survivors will remain in 25 years. Lauder doubted enough survivors would be alive in 2025 to replicate Monday’s event, but that its history will never end.
“The families are the witness," Lauder said.
In many families, Saointz said, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have been the biggest witnesses. She grew up peppering her grandfather with questions, and he answered most of them. She said Feldman hosted card games decades ago at his home in Rochester, N.Y., where men sat and talked in Yiddish about the Holocaust.
Feldman rarely shared those memories with her father.
“My father would hear him having nightmares in the middle of the night," Saointz said. “They never wanted to ask him, because they knew.”
The pain was still too fresh. Often, though, the survivors opened up to their grandchildren. (A story The Inquirer plans to publish in coming days on one Philadelphia-area family’s return to Auschwitz will explore that theme.)
The 75th anniversary brought dignitaries, royals, and elected officials from all over the world. It was unclear if President Donald Trump was invited to Poland, but Vice President Mike Pence attended a liberation event in Israel along with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Pence called out Iran in his speech.
On Sunday night, The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation hosted a survivor dinner in a former tram depot in Kraków. More than 100 survivors and their families filled the room. Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine, said, “We must stop evil before it threatens humanity.”
Those threats are real, said Charlotte Knobloch, World Jewish Congress commissioner for Holocaust memory. In her native Germany alone, according to the congress, there were 1,799 “politically motivated crimes with a presumed anti-Semitic motive" in 2018. Of those, 69 were violent.
In light of a deadly shooting at a Jersey City, N.J., kosher market and a Hanukkah machete attack at the home of a Hasidic rabbi, some Jews in the New York area are ramping up self-defense classes.
"Anti-Jewish sentiment and anti-Semitic crimes are again on the rise, both in Europe and in other parts of the world, including, to my horror, the United States,” Knobloch told a crowd gathered at a Kraków hotel Sunday.
Polish President Andrzej Duda did not travel to Israel, because Putin was speaking. Putin did not go to Poland. The two leaders have been at odds over each country’s role in the war, during which both nations suffered great losses. Some say both leaders are distorting the truth.
In total, 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, including 74,000 Poles, 20,000 Roma, and approximately 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war. At a discussion on Sunday in Kraków, survivor Ralph Hackman of Los Angeles said the killings began with bullets and boots to the throat. When the Nazis built the crematoriums and began using gas chambers, he said, they could put 1,200 people to death in 20 minutes.
The Nazis killed six million Jews in total during the Holocaust, including 1.5 million children.
“They would open the door, and bodies would tumble out. It was nothing for them to kill someone,” Hackman said. “Three hundred thousand Jewish people perished right in front of my eyes.”
The official 75th commemoration began just after 3:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m. Philadelphia time) on Monday, with survivors gathered beneath a special tent erected above the Gate of Death of the former Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp. Numerous survivors spoke, including Marian Turski, who noted that Auschwitz “didn’t fall from the sky.”
“The truth about the Holocaust must never die,” Duda urged. "The memory of Auschwitz must last.... Extermination must never happen again. "
Wisnia, a longtime cantor, stood before the crowd, the gates of Auschwitz behind him. Long ago, the Nazi guards took a liking to his voice, and it kept a future alive. He sang a prayer for the dead, then a mourner’s kaddish. Survivors sang along and cried.
Avi stood beside him, a singer like his grandfather.
>> READ MORE: In 1984, while Auschwitz-Birkenau was still under control of Communist Poland, The Inquirer sent reporter David Lee Preston and his father to the camp and to other places of his father’s past.