Remarks to March of the Living participants, April 16 at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
We have all gathered here to remember. From all sides, we are called upon not to forget. But why should we remember at all?
If I had a choice I would prefer not to remember. Not to remember the Czestochowa Ghetto where my family and I, then a child, were imprisoned. Not to remember the killings of my father and mother, of my brother and family members, of my Polish nanny Elka who chose to remain in the ghetto because she loved a Jewish child – me. Not to remember the daily humiliation, the routine of murder, the hunger, the cold, and the numbing knowledge that we are powerless and alone. I would prefer not to have these memories, but I do not have the choice. Why then choose memory if you are not forced to?
I can think of four reasons.
The first is simple solidarity. If you choose my memories, this means that we together are no longer with them alone. Each time we reach out to the legacy of horror, we make a crack in the ghetto wall, a breach in the barbed wire. Not that we can tear them down – it is 70 years too late for that. Walls built with blood and death survive their physical downfall. They need to be pulled down day by day by remembering.
The second is simple decency. The Germans had managed not only to murder the six million: they murdered also the memories of them ever having existed. True, the great majority of those then killed would have passed away by now, even had there been no Shoah. But they would have lived on in the memories of their children and friends, in the record of the achievements and even failures of their lives. The Shoah eliminated all that as well. Your remembrance is their only chance.
The third reason is simple fear. It is an illusion to believe that Auschwitz can be forgotten simply because the right side won the war. Auschwitz remains with us forever always waiting to be realized again. Do not believe the magic incantation of “Never again”: it has happened again. Think of Bosnia, Sudan, Rwanda. In different ways, to different peoples – but it has. The Shoah remains unique in the sense it was unprecedented. But all genocides are tragic in their own ways, and remembering them is the first step to preventing their recurrence. Remembering is, after all, the least we can do.
And so we stand here in solidarity, mourning and fear. Our unity is rooted not only in our Jewish peoplehood, which we share with those whom we remember today. Their Jewishness was not incidental to their fate: it determined it. But our unity today encompasses all, Jews and non-Jews, who remember, grieve and mourn – and participate in our solidarity.
In a world in which once again there are places where it is not safe to be Jewish, today’s meeting assumes an added dimension. For Poland, on whose occupied soil the Germans had placed the abomination of Auschwitz, is today a place where it is safe to be a Jew. Poland now embraces its small but thriving Jewish community. Our history is cherished in the Polin Museum, which has recently opened in Warsaw. And next to the museum we shall build a monument to those Poles who – like my Elka – risked their lives to save Jews from the chimneys of Auschwitz. From the ghetto walls of Czestochowa. From the abyss.
And our gratitude toward them is the fourth reason to remember. God bless you and your memories.
Sigmund Rolat is a native of Czestochowa, Poland, a Holocaust survivor, one of the founders of Polin: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, and an internationally known philanthropist.