Auschwitz: 50 Years After Liberation

By Olivia Tiernan
Cold Spring Harbor High School, New York

"We had reached a station. Those who were next to the windows told us its name: Auschwitz. No one had ever heard that name."

This excerpt from Elie Wiesel's book, Night, depicts the awe and curiosity he and all others who had embarked on the "journey" with him experienced as they were introduced to a place where their greatest fears came true, a place one encounters in a nightmare and hopes to never encounter in real life, a place that Holocaust deniers would have us forget existed.

Photograph: Auschwitz I Guard Tower
Auschwitz I Guard Tower

January 27, 1995 commemorated the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by Russian troops. In reports from the site, the day was one of tears, prayers, and heavy hearts as many remembered the pain, suffering and tragedy that the survivors and their families endured.

For half a century, Auschwitz has remained mankind's most powerful symbol of inhumanity, an affirmation of the savage potential of unrestrained hate and unchecked power. It is also the most powerful example of the ability of individuals to endure and survive.

Auschwitz: a black spot on the globe where more than 1.5 million men, women and children vanished into clouds of smoke that darkened Polish skies for three years and stained the conscience of the world for all time.

Victims were gathered together and herded to Auschwitz from all over Europe: Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, political dissenters and any one else the German leaders felt were a threat to their master plan. When they entered Auschwitz, people went through a iron gate which promised, Arbeit Macht Frei ("Work Makes You Free"). But once there, victims learned the brutal truth and reality: nothing but death made them free.

When the Soviet troops marched into Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, 7,000 men women and children still had to be liberated. Their images will never be forgotten: hundreds of naked, skeletal corpses stacked like kindling, the starved survivors, shorn and blank-eyed, huddled together by barbed wire fences, their bones protruding from striped prison uniforms, the 43,000 pairs of shoes, the piles of human hair, the room full of suitcases from all the families that thought they were going on a trip, and the wide eyes of children, whose innocence was lost forever.

Auschwitz was a mass murder factory, a place whose fundamental function was killing, a place which branded its victims like cattle, a place which separated mothers from children, brother from sister, husband from wife, loved one from loved one. It claimed 20,000 victims a day, using gas chambers and crematoriums. What began in 1940 as a German concentration camp for some 700 Polish prisoners swiftly grew into a vast slave-labor complex and a killing field. No one was safe. Jews and others were sent there and "selected" for life or death whether they were old or young, rich or poor. The Auschwitz death camp defies understanding.

And yet, we must understand it. We must figure out why, when other nations learned about Auschwitz and what was going on in the camps, they didn't do anything about it; why leaders let the killings go on, and why they didn't allow bombs to destroy the camps when they had the chance. Was the whole world blind?

We must force ourselves to understand the horror that took place there at Auschwitz, no matter how much of a challenge it is. We must do this because from every horrible experience there is a lesson to be learned. And from this 50th year commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz, the lesson the world needs to learn is to embrace tolerance and be ready to take action against such acts of hatred. For if we do not learn from this event and take action, prejudice and hate will continue for all time.

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